What’s in a name – or a word?
As it turns out, quite a lot. Take the word “refrain,” for example.
At its annual international convention in Atlanta this week, some 750 members of United Synagogue Youth voted to change some of the wording in the organization’s standards for international and regional leaders.
Most of the changes are clear, easily understood, and warmly welcomed. For example, the group added provisions relating to bullying and lashon hara – gossiping. Leaders should have “zero tolerance” for such behavior, the standards say.
But one of the changes is not clear, and the head of USY’s parent organization – Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism – acknowledges that.
The confusion in question regards the issue of interdating. The original USY leadership standard read, “It is expected that leaders of the organization will refrain from relationships which can be construed as interdating.” In its place, the Atlanta convention adopted this new wording: “The Officers will strive to model healthy Jewish dating choices. These include recognizing the importance of dating within the Jewish community and treating each person with the recognition that they were created Betzelem Elohim” – in the image of God.
The change affects the 100 or so teen officers who serve on USY’s national board and 17 regional boards. The thousands of teens who participate in USY programs have not been subject to any such bans.
How people read the change may depend on their intent, Rabbi Wernick suggested. “I anticipate that some would misinterpret this as a lessening of the standard,” he said. “Some prefer the word ‘no’ to the word ‘yes.'”
He cited the headlines of news articles about the change, including the one published by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency – “USY drops ban on interdating” – and said that such language was a “mischaracterization, coming from not knowing all the facts.” Some headlines, he suggested, were “malicious.”
“People have a responsibility to know all the facts before they jump off the ledge,” he said. “USY worked for over a year. They modeled a process most adult communities are not able to manage in dealing with the most contentious issues of our lives.” Not only did they expand their commitments to matters of ethical behavior, “but they reaffirmed the importance of dating Jews.
“If they can’t understand that, it’s too bad,” he said.
But even people with a deep connection to the movement, such as Rabbi Joel Pitkowsky of Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck, admit to some confusion.
“My understanding of what happened at convention is that the journalists got it right,” Rabbi Pitkowsky said. “The standard used to be, if you were running for USY office, for the international or regional board, you could not be dating someone not Jewish [before the elections] or while in office.
“My understanding [now], having read everything I can, is that the wording seems to say that we need to recognize the importance of dating within the faith, but it does not say that it would be barred.”
Rabbi Pitkowsky said that his shul is now working to build up its USY chapter. Andrew Markowitz, the synagogue’s recently named director of youth engagement, spoke with teens there about the interdating language issue. “It is abundantly clear that the entire conversation regarding USY leadership standards is not one that they understand or have an opinion on,” he said about those discussions.
“Our teens are great, but it seems as if this decision has little to no impact on the ways in which they intend to go through the world,” Mr. Markowitz said. “There was a sentiment that the idea of respecting others is to be valued – but only one of my teens had even heard of the decision.”
Ronald Roth, the rabbi of the Fair Lawn Jewish Center, pointed out that his chapter, which he described as “relatively new and not that active nationally,” comprises not only his synagogue but Temple Israel in Ridgewood, Temple Beth Sholom in Fair Lawn, and B’nai Israel in Emerson.
Rabbi Roth agrees with Mr. Markowitz that the change in standards “won’t make a tremendous impact” on the teens in this group. Although synagogue programs certainly teach about the subject of interdating, “we generally speak to them, not with them,” Rabbi Roth said. “It should only happen that teens should talk with their rabbis about this.
“They know that we’re all concerned about the Jewish future and that interdating seriously concerns us, but they don’t consult with me about their interdating patterns.”
While praising certain changes to the USY standards – most notably the provisions concerning lashon hara and bullying, which Rabbi Roth said should be practiced by adults as well – he said that he thinks the new wording on interdating “is clearly a relaxing of standards.
“I don’t see how you can read it otherwise. Is this a reaction to reality? It may very well be. But I’m not sure that they couldn’t have maintained [the original] language in positive language. They could have, but they didn’t.”
The “reality” to which Rabbi Roth referred is reflected in the findings of the 2013 Pew Research Center survey of U.S. Jewry, which noted that some four in 10 Conservative Jews who have married since 2000 have wed non-Jews.
Arthur Weiner, rabbi of the Paramus Jewish Center – whose USY chapter recently hosted the regional Hagalil fall kinus ““pointed out that the current flap over the changed amendment concerns not only the Conservative movement but, “in a sense, the larger Jewish community, as well.”
Rabbi Weiner said that while he, like his colleagues, is somewhat confused by the new wording, “I don’t know if I’m completely sold on the idea that the original policy forbade interdating. Therefore, there may be some truth to the idea that they took a more negative framing of the standard and made it more positive.”
Still, Rabbi Weiner said, he believes that despite their best intentions, it should not have been left to teenagers to make a decision that has “larger ramifications for how people perceive the movement.
“Teenagers may not understand that or be concerned about that,” Rabbi Weiner said. “We have to be concerned about how this looks to the segment of Jewry we’re trying to reach.”
Rabbi Weiner, who said he “came up through USY,” noted that a goodly percentage of Conservative leaders have done so as well. “Thus,” he said, “I’m concerned about the implications of the standards the board members have set for themselves, and how this will be moving forward.”
Rabbi Weiner pointed out that because the standards apply only to USYers running for or holding office, the wording change “won’t affect the average USYer, many of whom are quite committed, and others less committed.” But, he added, “in Judaism, as with many systems, more can and should be expected from leaders than from the larger lay community. That’s why it makes sense, especially in the Conservative movement, that most rabbis hold to personal observance more than their lay community.”
For example, he said, “congregants are all over the place as regards [kashrut and Shabbat], but all of our rabbis are absolutely committed. I’m concerned that the adult leadership [of the Conservative movement] should have allowed a situation where we’re not expecting higher standards from the leaders [of USY].
“These are young people with the best of intentions, who believe in their hearts that they are adopting reasonable policies. But look what a public relations disaster this has become. No group of teens, no matter how well-intentioned, should have been in a position to subject the Conservative movement to this kind of situation where everyone is confused and no one fully understands the true import or meaning of these new policies.”
There are more commandments telling us Jews what not to do than what to do, he said. “We love the parts of Judaism that say ‘do this’ or ‘do that,’ but sometimes religious convictions and commitment to Torah is manifest in what we refrain from doing.”
Rabbi Weiner, who said he already is receiving concerned emails from synagogue members, noted that if longtime rabbis are confused, “how much more so our lay leaders and lay community?”
Both Rabbi Wernick and USY’s outgoing president, 18-year-old Aaron Pluemer, a freshman at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said that the revised language, like all the other changes, was meant to be more “inclusive and welcoming.”
Mr. Pluemer said he is proud of the steps USY has taken this year. “USY officer standards are made by USYers for USYers,” he said. “The values of the organization from Day 1 have been to promote a welcoming environment fostering Jewish growth and the Jewish identity of teens.
“What’s really significant is that the standards added clauses on bullying and another on lashon hara and treating people with respect. This is central to who we are, and it’s vital to understanding the change. We accept people regardless of their background and try to be sensitive to our members’ backgrounds.”
The organization, he said, wanted to use language expressing the fact that whether a teen has one or two Jewish parents, “they are welcome here.
“It’s all about the fact that we’re a community,” Mr. Pluemer said. “Our values haven’t changed. We want to perpetuate the Jewish future. That’s what it continues to be about.”
Members had ample opportunity to discuss the proposed language, and clearly had differing views, he added. But he’s pleased by the “positive reception” the changed wording has received.
Rabbi Wernick, who was asked by the USYers to get the input of other rabbis during the year preceding the vote, said he polled 10 rabbis, asking them about “the entire amendment process.
“The original amendment proposed to turn all of the language in the current standards from language thought to be harsh, to positive, affirmative statements,” he said. The change in the interdating language, he added, is basically a change from “Thou shalt not interdate” to “Thou shalt date Jews.”
“Readers can determine for themselves whether that’s a revision or a restatement,” Rabbi Wernick said.
As for the standards themselves, Rabbi Wernick said, “it’s important to understand that standards have never been a ban.”
Before they run for office, potential leaders are told what commitments they will have to make, Rabbi Wernick said. If they are not willing to do so, they may decide not to run. “I can only count on one hand persons who have been in office who have been removed for anything,” he said. “Our goal is not to punish but to help elevate them.”
Jordan Dinkin, 17, a USY member from Reisterstown, Md., said she considered running for her region’s board when she was finishing up her junior year of high school. But then she learned that USY rules precluded board members from dating non-Jews. Jordan’s boyfriend is not Jewish.
“It disappointed me a lot that I had to give up that opportunity because of my secular life,” she told JTA. “Obviously people who are active in USY are people who are passionate about their Judaism. I believe that as a progressive youth movement, if we choose in our secular life to date someone who is not of the Jewish religion, I don’t see why there should be limitations within USY.”
Sarah Van Horn, 19 of Cherry Hill – whose grandmother, Susan Amsterdam, lives in Ridgewood – was an executive vice president in USY’s Hagesher region. (That’s metropolitan Philadelphia and South Jersey.)
“I was very active and had to follow the leadership standards my senior year of high school,” Sarah said. “I feel that the new wording no longer prohibits interdating – but does continue to encourage intra-dating.”
“I prefer the new version of the standard over the old one,” she continued. “As the child of a convert, I was always slightly put off by the severe restriction of the old standard. It felt less welcoming that an organization that means so much to me does not approve of my parents’ dating choices.
“My parents have raised me with a strong Jewish background, despite my father’s conversion. Therefore, I am glad that my leadership position encouraged me to follow other Jewish laws, such as kashrut and keeping shomer Shabbat. Those standards had much more of an effect on my values when it comes to who I date and how I would like to raise my children.”
Sarah said she thinks the new wording was adopted “to include teens who are from interfaith families, while still creating Jewish role models in their leaders. I look to model my life after the new standard, because it recognizes that a healthy Jewish relationship can be within members of the Jewish community or with a member of another religion. It does not only recognize the leader’s choices, but it also respects the choices of others.”
The USY vote came weeks after Wesley Gardenswartz, the rabbi at one of the nation’s largest Conservative synagogues, Temple Emanuel in Newton, Mass., floated a plan to his congregation that would allow him to officiate at interfaith weddings in cases where the couple committed to raising Jewish children. He later dropped that controversial element of the proposal.
The Conservative movement officially frowns on intermarriage, forbidding its rabbis from officiating or even attending interfaith weddings. In practice, however, synagogues generally welcome interfaith couples. Some grant membership to non-Jews, and some Conservative rabbis have gone to interfaith weddings.
We “can’t put our heads in the sand about the fact that we live in an incredibly free society, where even committed Jews will marry outside the faith,” Rabbi Wernick said. If they do intermarry, “we must welcome them wholeheartedly, and encourage them to embrace Judaism.”