Over the past year, members of Temple Israel in Ridgewood have been meeting in each other’s homes every few weeks to talk about intermarriage and its effect on their lives.

Temple Israel is one of ‘0 pilot congregations implementing the keruv program created by the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs. The program is part of a broader initiative begun by FJMC some five years ago, when the group decided the issue of intermarriage needed to be addressed head on.

Moved by the National Jewish Population Survey, which showed a 46 percent intermarriage rate, FJMC determined that “we have to reposition our synagogues, not stick our heads in the sand,” according to Charles Simon, executive director of the organization.

In ‘003, FJMC offered training sessions for both rabbis and laypeople interested in conducting keruv programs at their congregations. Both Howard Schreiber, chair of Temple Israel’s Keruv Committee, and synagogue religious leader Rabbi Gil Steinlauf attended.

Judy Beck, Director of the UJA-NNJ’s Synagogue Leadership Initiative, notes that SLI has funded the experimental pilot project at Temple Israel in the hopes that the synagogue will use the experience it gains to help mentor other congregations.

The Temple Israel discussion groups have received a positive response, and Shreiber reports that about ‘5 people attended each of the seven sessions held so far. Meetings were facilitated by Keruv Committee members Abraham Davis, executive director of the Jewish Family & Children’s Service of North Jersey; Dr. Lisa A Mellman, Senior Associate Dean for Student Affairs at Columbia University; and Ridgewood psychiatrist Dr. Sylvia Flescher.

Steinlauf, who was invited only to the final meeting, points out that while he didn’t know what to expect from the group, he found that “they had bonded, just sharing their thoughts and feelings about this issue in their lives.”

The rabbi devoted his sermon on the second day of Rosh HaShanah to the topic of keruv. In that talk, he stated that the idea of keruv, or “drawing near,” is found throughout Jewish history, used generally to denote reaching out to others. In recent years, however, the term has been applied more narrowly to indicate outreach to unaffiliated Jews as well as intermarried Jews and blended families of Jews and non-Jews.

“Group members don’t preach,” says Davis. “They talk about their experiences. They discuss real issues like what to do when non-Jewish in-laws invite you over to decorate their Christmas tree.”

On Nov. ‘0, the synagogue will sponsor a panel discussion entitled “Intermarriage and Its Impact on Jewish Life at Temple Israel.” Three couples, representing different life-cycle stages, will discuss the unique issues that have arisen in their lives as a result of intermarriage.

One couple, a Jewish husband and non-Jewish wife, will discuss issues involved in raising their children as Jews; a second, where the wife has converted, will talk about raising teenagers; a third, Jewish grandparents with intermarried children, will discuss what grandparents can do in this situation.

Steinlauf speaks of a “tight-rope” act, pointing out that “we have to challenge our non-Jewish members…to learn from Judaism” while challenging ourselves “to investigate what kinds of roles non-Jews can play [within] the boundaries and standards of
Conservative Judaism.”

According to Steinlauf, “Keruv represents the beginning of a discussion, the beginning of a process about how we truly integrate our intermarried families into the fabric of Conservative Jewish life.”