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February 27, 2009

Conservative Judaism’s Intermarriage Thing

J.J. Goldberg provides fascinating and insightful analysis of the challenges facing any future Conservative movement leadership (“Conservative Movement’s ‘Vision Thing,’” February 20).

However, I found it equally interesting for what was not mentioned. Nowhere in his piece does the topic of intermarriage appear, even when pointing out that the movement’s slide from the largest denomination began “sometime in the 1980s” — just as the effects of skyrocketing intermarriage rates were first being felt by the entire Jewish community.

If the omission is reflective of the lack of conversation about intermarriage within the Conservative movement itself during the search for new leadership, that will not bode well for the movement’s future. As much as I agree that issues of geographic migration and transdenominationalism are relevant, they’re not the elephant in the room. It’s the inability to effectively welcome significant numbers of intermarried families that is the single most important factor in the Conservative movement’s decline, and it’s one that can be fixed.

Many Jews like me who grew up in the Conservative movement tacitly understand that if we intermarry, we shouldn’t bother coming back to the congregations where we celebrated earlier simchas. This is not about our loyalty to the movement (“transdenominationalism”), it’s about the movement’s loyalty to us. Many of the unwelcoming policies still on the books are cultural rather than religious decisions based on unfounded fear. Hundreds of thousands of intermarried families raising Jewish children over the past two decades prove that intermarriage in and of itself is not the end of Jewish continuity.

Through my work I’ve met many Conservative rabbis and leaders eager to change perceptions and begin proactively welcoming intermarried families. But I have yet to hear bold statements of inclusion from the top leadership positions mentioned in Goldberg’s article, even as the movement has made important strides on gay and lesbian rabbinic ordination and has begun to define Conservative Judaism by what it stands for (like ethical hechsher) rather than against. I hope the search committee for the next executive director of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism is asking candidates, “How will you help our movement better welcome intermarried families?”

Paul Golin
Associate Executive Director
Jewish Outreach Institute
New York, N.Y.

Lessons Learned When Dinner Isn’t Free

Regarding the February 20 article “Staple of Campus Life Now Comes at a Price,” here at Stony Brook University we too have had to reconsider the free Shabbat dinner practice in our Hillel.

While the program is among our most successful, it is also very expensive, and in a year when contributions are down, we viewed this as a teaching moment for our students. The economic crisis must be faced by all of us, and if our college students are to learn how to be Jewish adults, they too must step up and help find a solution.

For this semester we have initiated a program called SOS: Save Our Shabbatons, in which students are asked to voluntarily utilize points on their campus meal card to help pay for Shabbat dinners. Through an arrangement with our campus dining program, which operates our kosher dining venue, we enable students to themselves support this program, often with meal points they would have been left over at the end of the year anyway.

In addition to asking our students to take responsibility for helping to fund their own Shabbat meals, we also want them to recognize that there are Jews off campus who have lost their jobs and are also struggling. For each student who participates in SOS we are making a cash contribution to a charity that provides Shabbat meals to those who cannot afford them.

The economic crisis has forced us to rethink many of our assumptions, but it can also be a valuable lesson in social responsibility if we use it for that purpose. It is our hope that our students learn that everyone has a responsibility, no matter how great or small, to support our communal endeavors and not always depend upon the largesse of others.

Rabbi Joseph Topek
Stony Brook University Hillel Foundation
Stony Brook, N.Y.

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