Conservative Rabbis Set To Debate Opening the Door to Intermarrieds

Proposal Is Part of Larger Movement To Welcome Non-Jews Into Shul Life

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By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published December 02, 2013, issue of December 06, 2013.
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A top Conservative movement official thinks that Conservative rabbis should be allowed to participate in interfaith weddings.

Now explicitly barred by the movement, the proposal — put forward by Rabbi Charles Simon of the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs — is one of a handful of new efforts by Conservative rabbis to loosen restrictions on participation by non-Jews in synagogue life.

Conservative Judaism’s top rabbinical body on matters of Jewish law voted in October to allow non-Jews to open the ark containing the Torah during a prayer service. Meanwhile, the movement’s day school arm is considering changing its policies to allow children with a Jewish father but no Jewish mother to attend its schools. And at the movement’s rabbinical conference last year, participants discussed lifting a ban on rabbis attending intermarriages.

“If a synagogue wants to continue to attract and provide meaningful services to a changing population, all of these points are things they have to think about,” said Simon, whose recommendations will be presented at a December 2 meeting of Conservative rabbis to discuss the intermarriage issue.

The new wave of efforts by Conservative rabbis to accommodate the intermarried comes months after the Pew Research Center’s study of American Jews found identification with the Conservative movement to be dropping fast. While 24% of Jews aged 65 and up identify as Conservative, just 11% of Jews aged 18-29 do the same.

The Reform movement, meanwhile, has higher affiliation rates across age groups. Some analysts have suggested that the high rates of intermarriage among non-Orthodox Jews are driving Conservative Jews to Reform congregations, which offer fewer religious barriers to participation by intermarried families.

Though Conservative doctrine is opposed to intermarriage, intermarriage is rampant in the Conservative pews. Conservative rabbinic leaders hope that if they draw in intermarried families, their children will receive Jewish upbringings.

“It’s not that people aren’t in favor of conversion [of the non-Jewish spouse], but they recognize that conversion is not the ultimate goal — that raising a Jewish family is the ultimate goal,” Simon said. “And conversion is more complicated than it was thought to be 20 years ago.”

The proposal to allow rabbis to participate in intermarriages is one of 14 recommendations that Simon has co-written with Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, a Reform rabbi who heads the Jewish Outreach Institute, to advance acceptance of intermarried families in Jewish congregational life. The proposals by Simon and Olitzky run from the seemingly anodyne, like urging teachers to be respectful of children with intermarried parents, to the potentially controversial, like allowing children with Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers to have bar and bat mitzvahs without undergoing a formal conversion ceremony.


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