Mixed Blessings

Faced with rising rates of intermarriage, Conservative leaders are searching for new ways to keep interfaith families in the fold. The question is, what exactly should they do?

by Michael Schulson

J and P CalcareousAs a child, Jessica Emerson was active in her family’s Conservative synagogue. She attended Camp Ramah, flirted with being a religious studies major in college, and now works for a Solomon Schechter day school in Los Angeles. After her first marriage ended in divorce, Jessica signed up for JDate, the popular online Jewish dating service. When JDate didn’t work out, she switched to OkCupid, a secular dating site. There, she met Patrick McCormick. Patrick grew up Catholic in Oklahoma. He left the church in his teens and eventually decided that he was an atheist. Jessica was concerned about dating someone who wasn’t Jewish, but as she fell in love with Patrick, she felt herself coming to terms with that anxiety. Patrick had concerns, too. “I would have sworn before I met Jessica that I would never raise kids in a church, or any sort of religious institution,” he says. Jessica has two children with her first husband, a secular Israeli. “It really threw me off that she was sending her kids to Hebrew school. It made me nervous. I was really skeptical of the whole thing,” says Patrick.

Before long, though, Patrick and Jessica became regular attendees at IKAR, a progressive, independent shul in Los Angeles led by Conservative-trained rabbis. They started taking classes at the American Jewish University (AJU). And the week after he was interviewed for this article, Patrick went before a Conservative beit din, or rabbinical court, in order to finalize his conversion to Judaism.

Things could have gone differently. In Jessica, Patrick had a partner who placed a clear priority on raising a Jewish family. He found a synagogue where he felt comfortable, and which invited him to play active roles in the community (Patrick and Jessica headed up planning for IKAR’s High Holy Days observance last year). He found people who could speak with him about interfaith relationships in a frank, non-judgmental way. But at the same time, the Conservative rabbis that Patrick encountered were unwilling to perform intermarriages. Living in Los Angeles, Patrick had access to an AJU program designed for people exploring Judaism – a program that could help him if and when he decided to convert.

When it comes to intermarriage among North American Jews, there are two stories. One is a story of numbers, and, for those who believe that Jewish continuity depends on Jews marrying other Jews, the numbers are grim. The recent survey of American Jews by the Pew Research Center quantified the obvious: the intermarriage rate in the United States has risen dramatically in the past few decades. Between 2000 and 2013, more than half of all Jews who got married did so with someone outside the faith. Among intermarried couples with kids, just one in five is raising their children “Jewish by religion,” to use Pew’s phrasing.

The other story, though, is a story about people, and that one is more complicated, in part because intermarriage today reflects some positive changes in attitudes. “You know, long gone are the days when intermarriage was seen as a rejection of one’s Jewish identity,” says Rabbi Steven Wernick, the CEO of United Synagogue. “It’s an expected byproduct of living in the freest society Jews have ever known.” When we talk about intermarriage, we’re not just talking about demographics. We’re talking about thousands of people navigating the slippery territories of love, assimilation, fidelity to tradition, and independence.

What’s clear is that intermarriage is not going away. And the blend of experiences that have helped Patrick and Jessica toward a Jewish marriage isn’t available to every interfaith couple. Undoubtedly, Conservative synagogues have made great strides toward accepting mixed families into their midst. Still, it’s easy to imagine a future in which intermarriage rates continue to rise, and in which intermarried couples still join synagogues at much lower rates than their in-married peers. Simply having congregational policies to welcome intermarried couples probably isn’t sufficient to address this trend. “Maintaining the status quo is just not an option anymore,” says Rabbi Steven Schwartz of Beth El Congregation in Baltimore.

All of which leaves us with a question: what’s next? Rabbis and synagogues across the country are asking that question. Their answers are creative and varied, but they tend to center around two themes: we need to be having frank conversations about marriage. At the same time, when people from outside of our communities fall in love with Jews, we need to make safe, welcoming places for them to fall in love with Judaism, too.

Sixty years ago, if you were a member of a Conservative synagogue and you married outside the faith, you’d lose your membership. In the late 1950s and ’60s, the Conservative movement altered that stance, but it was
still rare for the Jewish spouse to get an aliyah or hold a synagogue office after marrying a non-Jew. Synagogue directories would often show the name of the Jewish spouse only, as if the non-Jewish partner didn’t exist.

Over time, Conservative communities became more open to mixed families. In the 1990s, many synagogues began piloting keruv (outreach) initiatives, intended to actively welcome interfaith families into synagogues.

Under the banner of keruv, many synagogues have found ways to involve non-Jewish family members in life cycle events, and to give them some of the privileges of synagogue membership. While specific policies vary widely, it would be almost impossible today to find a Conservative shul that simply ignores the existence of a non-Jewish spouse or partner.

Since 1999, the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs has been particularly active in promoting those initiatives, providing support and training for lay leaders and rabbis in hundreds of communities. As Rabbi Charles Simon, the executive director of FJMC, points out, the benefits of keruv go beyond intermarried couples. “It’s like looking in the mirror. The way you treat intermarriage is the way you treat your congregants,” he argues.

“I think the way in which we’ve approached welcoming non-Jews into our community and carving out opportunities for them to participate in the life of the congregation is light-years from where it was a decade ago, and certainly from 50 years ago,” says Wernick. Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, agrees that keruv now occupies an important place in Conservative Judaism. “The unconditional welcome we extend to people who enter our lives because of their love of Jewish partners is heartfelt and enthusiastic wherever they are on their journey,” Schonfeld says. “To the full extent that we can without sacrificing our religious values, we strive to ensure that non-Jews experiencing our way of life always do so at a pace and in an environment where they feel comfortable.”

Today, around 25 percent of married Conservative Jews have a non-Jewish spouse. This compares to about 50 percent of Reform Jews and 69 percent among Jews who don’t identify with any denomination. While most Conservative synagogues will welcome interfaith couples, Conservative rabbis can neither perform nor attend intermarriages.

Over and over, the rabbis interviewed talked about the challenges of being committed to endogamy – in other words, Jews marrying Jews – while wanting to welcome those who have intermarried and help them raise Jewish families. “That’s a contradictory message, and every one of our Conservative rabbis lives that contradictory message,” says Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in Los Angeles. Adds Schonfeld: “How do we
explain the integrity of Jewish values, such as endogamy, that are hard to reconcile with the values of an open society that have been so positive for the Jewish community? We know that Jews fall in love and intermarry and we don’t stop loving them, but we don’t abandon our unswerving dedication to our tradition, either.”

By excluding interfaith couples, Orthodox Jewish communities have largely dodged these questions. By allowing its rabbis to perform intermarriages, and by recognizing patrilineal descent, the Reform movement has defused some of the practical concerns raised by intermarriages. Those Reform policies, though, cannot address the broader question of how to encourage families of all kinds to engage in Jewish life. The Pew Report showed that, on issues ranging from synagogue membership to participation in Jewish youth programs, Reform Jews are much less engaged than their Conservative and Orthodox counterparts. Pew also found that just 60 percent of Reform parents were raising their kids “Jewish by religion,” as compared to 88 percent of Conservative parents. “Part of the story,” says Wernick, “is that people who find themselves in Conservative kehillot do so because there is a substantial difference in the commitment of the members to raise Jewish children, and to be surrounded by other people who are raising Jewish children.”

Still, by dint of the movement’s commitment to halakhah – Jewish law – Conservative communities have to face questions about intermarriage head-on. That’s not easy. Many rabbis told some version of the following story: they help raise a kid; they love that child and his or her parents. But when that young person grows up and comes to them with a non-Jew he loves and cherishes, they cannot attend, let alone perform, the wedding. The experience can be wrenching for everyone.

There is a practical issue here, too, which is that the rabbi who weds a couple has an opportunity to develop a relationship with them and bring them into his or her synagogue. At a major moment in a person’s life, and a major moment when Jews choose a synagogue, Conservative rabbis have to turn many young couples away.

It’s here, perhaps, that we arrive at the limitations of keruv, for the simple reason that welcoming alone cannot lower the rate of intermarriage, nor explain to rabbis how to remain involved in the lives of the interfaith couples that they know and love (or whose parents they know and love). Nor can it help those couples navigate all of the challenges of living an actively Jewish life.

Recently, a number of Jewish leaders have been proposing other methods to address intermarriage. One approach, championed by Jack Wertheimer, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, entails developing more programs to encourage Jews to marry other Jews. “Nobody imagines that it’s possible to eradicate intermarriage in an open society,” Wertheimer says. “The question is whether more Jews can be helped, encouraged and educated to decide that they will marry a Jew.” Wertheimer worries that a policy of welcoming has led Conservative communities to neglect their support for endogamy. He suggests everything from singles events
to free subscriptions to JDate.

For others, including Wertheimer, a renewed emphasis on conversion might be another option. Today, a number of Conservative leaders are considering ways to make that process more welcoming.

In theory, an embrace of keruv, a renewed emphasis on conversion, and the development of programs to help make Jewish matches are not mutually exclusive. In practice, though, they can be difficult to balance. Advocate too vigorously for endogamy, and you can drive away interfaith couples. Push conversion, and you might scare someone away from living Jewishly. Focus on keruv, and you may not assert the values of Jewish marriage. And, of course, every individual couple is unique. What brings one person to a Jewish life might alienate someone else.

Keruv, conversion, JDate, a commitment to endogamy, and a commitment to welcoming the newcomers in our communities: how do we negotiate that balance? The best people to ask, perhaps, are the interfaith couples themselves.

That, in part, is the idea behind the Two Faiths/One Family initiative, being piloted by Rabbi Adam Greenwald, the director of the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at AJU. Greenwald taught Patrick and Jessica’s introduction to Judaism class. The Two Faiths/One Family program doesn’t have a particular agenda. The idea, as Greenwald explains it, is to bring interfaith couples together in a relaxed, non-judgmental place where they can talk about “the blessings and challenges of their relationships.” Before the first meeting, Greenwald was nervous. He wasn’t sure if anyone would come. He was hoping for a dozen people.

More than 30 showed up.

Traditionally, the focus of interfaith efforts has been on synagogue policies and attitudes – both important topics, of course. There have been few efforts to engage young Jews in conversations about relationships, both before and after they find a partner. “We talk about intermarriage a lot,” Greenwald notes. The conversation, though, is often in the abstract, without focusing on the individual experiences of an issue that is, at its core, deeply personal. “That kind of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ ends up being toxic for the community,” Greenwald says.

Certainly, the desire to ask and tell seems to be strong. “I think that the number one thing that congregations can do is invite people to talk about this openly and without judging,” says Jessica. Patrick agrees. “If a shul has an interfaith group, or even, like Jessica said, has a non-threatening public discussion without an agenda, just welcoming the presence and the voice of interfaith couples or Jews by choice, it makes a huge difference as far as welcoming.” Phil and Karen Platcow, a couple in Brookline, Massachusetts, say that early in their relationship, an interfaith discussion and support group was an important part of what helped them build a Jewish home. Tellingly, perhaps, the group was run by a Reform synagogue.

One Conservative synagogue that does have a group for its interfaith couples (among other participants) is Tifereth Israel in Columbus, Ohio. Eric Woodward, the assistant rabbi, launched the group last year. Woodward
is himself the child of intermarriage and his wife is a Jew by choice.

The group at Tifereth Israel is called Eitzat Yitro – in English, “advice of Jethro,” a reference to Moses’ probably-not- Jewish father-in-law. The program has already drawn considerable interest. Not all the attendees are in interfaith relationships, and the goal, more broadly, is to talk about Jewish identity. “We’re trying to engage people in serious conversations about what it means to them to be Jewish,” Woodward explains. “One of the ideas of the group is that it’s a non-judgmental space. I think that’s really important, and I think that sometimes rabbis can be judgmental even when they don’t think they are.” Woodward affirms the Conservative stance
on not performing intermarriages, but his focus, above all, is on engagement. Regardless of a couple’s background, he asks, “How can we take love between people and try to transform that to love of Torah?”

For young, unmarried Jews today, the conversation about intermarriage can sound overwhelmingly negative. A focus on the demographic dangers of intermarriage downplays the intrinsic value of a Jewish marriage. It also evokes old tensions. “I know people who have been told by their parents that they shouldn’t date non- Jews, and when asked why, they’re told certain things, like, ‘Non-Jews won’t treat you as well,’” says Rabbi David Booth of Congregation Kol Emeth, in Palo Alto, California. “That’s bigotry. The answer to the question is, because it’s so wonderful and critical to build a spiritual life together, and religion is something that brings couples together, and if it’s bringing them apart, that’s very destructive to the relationship.” The degree to which the Conservative movement successfully addresses intermarriage will, perhaps, be the degree to which it articulates the values of a Jewish family and a Jewish marriage, even as it welcomes couples of all kinds.

For non-Jews entering our communities, that kind of explanation can actually be helpful to hear – better, certainly, than an unexplained policy of semi-welcome. Before he had considered conversion, Patrick McCormick remembers feeling hurt and confused when he learned that his rabbis would not be able to officiate at his wedding. Greenwald sat down with him and explained that a Jewish marriage was a legal proceeding, and that Conservative rabbis are unwilling to make a contract between two people when one of them has not formally bound himself to its laws. “I think that made a lot of sense to Patrick,” says Jessica.

United Synagogue’s Wernick describes intermarriage as a “historic” challenge. Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom, who has begun a listening tour in order to gauge his congregation’s feelings on intermarriage, agrees. “The bigger context of this is that we’re at a moment of tremendous change for the Jewish people,” Feinstein says. Through intermarriage, we encounter larger questions about the boundaries of our communities and the future of Jewish identity. We also encounter larger questions about marriage. “There’s a 50 percent divorce rate,” says Feinstein. “The question is, what aren’t we doing to prepare people to get married?”

Wernick, for one, is excited for the conversation ahead. “This is one of the most important challenges that the entire Jewish world faces,” he says. “The issue is not going away. So let’s ask the tough questions. We can put our heads in the sand and ignore it, or we can say, we’re going to grapple with this head-on. And that willingness to struggle with tough topics, I think, is a very Jewish thing to do.”