Schechter schools study conversion issue

Schechter schools study conversion issue

At their biennial convention in Boca Raton, Fla., this week, members of the Solomon Schechter Day School Association began a spirited conversation about conversion of students with non-Jewish mothers. The policy is that such children must be converted within a year of admission. The association, which operates 76 schools in North America under the auspices of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, is considering extending that deadline to give families more time to complete the process.

After years of resisting more inclusive outreach policies, some movement leaders seem to have taken the reins of a movement in flux and are steering it in the direction of greater openness. In December ‘005, Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, announced a movement-wide kiruv, or "ingathering," initiative, to make intermarried families more welcome in Conservative institutional life.

Several months later, in March, Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, who in June retired as chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, urged the movement’s Ramah camps to admit the children of non-Jewish mothers. That change has not yet been instituted, said Rabbi Paul Resnick, director of Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, based in Englewood.

Speaking to SSDSA conference delegates Monday, Epstein made an impassioned plea to Schechter school directors and rabbis to be more welcoming to children of non-Jewish mothers, suggesting that the system "make a special effort to enroll the children of intermarried Jews even if they are not halachically Jewish," and then engage in concerted outreach efforts to encourage the children and their non-Jewish mother to convert "as part of their Jewish journey." Dr. Arnold Eisen, JTS’s chancellor-elect, also addressed the group via telecast.

Stressing that there has been no policy change in Schechter admissions at this time, nor was acceptance of patrilineal descent — a longstanding practice of the Reform movement — under discussion, Dr. Elaine Cohen, director of the SSDSA and assistant director of education at United Synagogue, said, "Clearly there is an understanding that the child would be halachically Jewish before bar or bat mitzvah."

"We want to change the perception among interfaith families that ‘Solomon Schechter can’t be for us,’ said Cohen, a Teaneck resident. "We want more of those kids in our schools and want to encourage a greater Jewish commitment by these parents to embrace Judaism and we encourage their own Jewish learning."

Cohen pointed out that at the gathering — attended by delegates from 85 percent of Schechter schools —no official position paper was offered, nor was a vote taken on the issue. "The intent was to raise questions that could later be debated by individual schools, between professional leadership and boards of directors. Different schools are going to figure out the best approach in their communities."

Dr. Joyce Raynor, the head of school at Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union in West
Orange, which attracts many Bergen County students, told the Standard that the school will wait for an official policy statement from SSDSA before considering any changes to its practice.

"It’s just a discussion paper until the association comes up with a signed, sealed document," she said. "It’s a work in progress." The focus of the discussion, according to Raynor, was whether extending the timetable is indeed a major change, since conversion will still be required. "There was not one consistent feeling expressed at the meeting," she reported, noting the proposal that conversion would ideally occur by the time a child was 9 or 10 years old, with bar/bat mitzvah age the limit, regardless of when the child was admitted.

Practically speaking, Raynor does not envision a problem convincing families of children in that category to convert them in a timely manner. "Most are already in the conversion process when they come to us. They may not be converted by September [when the school term begins], but are already working with a rabbi. That’s a typical case."

Raynor said she needs more time to think about whether giving official sanction to letting families take more time before completing their children’s conversions "is a great idea or not."

Enrollment in the Lower School, the division that would be affected, has been stable, she said, and Raynor does not anticipate an increase in applications should a change in conversion policy be adopted.

Rabbi Stuart Saposh, who has led the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford for 16 years, said that he has yet to encounter a case of a non-Jewish child seeking admission to the school. "It’s only happened to me twice in a ‘5-year career with Schechter schools," he said.

In "those very few instances," Saposh said, "I’ve worked with the individual families, encouraging them not to wait years. We’ve welcomed them with open arms and immediately got them working with a rabbi to set a quick timetable for conversion." He also makes a point, he said, to "lovingly but strongly encourage conversion [by the non-Jewish parent]," believing "the family will have a much more meaningful experience with the school if the [entire] nuclear family is Jewish."

While Saposh was not present at the meeting at the biennial where the conversion discussion took place, he has been aware, he said, of the internal debate. Still, he does not foresee any alteration in SSDS-Bergen’s enrollment/recruitment strategy. "Our enrollment/recruitment efforts will continue to be directed to Jewish families not taking advantage of a day school environment. Those families dwarf [in number] the interfaith families [in Bergen County]," he contended.

The head of school at the Gerrard Berman Day School, Solomon Schechter of North Jersey in Oakland, Rabbi Ellen Bernhardt, said her school is "researching the possibility of how to be more welcoming to intermarried families. We hope to have some study and discuss its implications with rabbis in the community." The school accepts children of mothers who are Jewish or children who have been converted according to Jewish law. The school, which serves 1’5 students in pre-school through eighth grade, has yet to be approached by an applicant who is not halachically Jewish, she said.

Some Schechter schools have already taken action on this issue. In St. Louis, the city’s 1′ Conservative rabbis have been working since September to create a unified policy for their Schechter school, said Rabbi Carnie Rose of B’nai Amoona. The policy, sent to the school board this week, specifies that the school will accept a child of a non-Jewish mother up to the age of bar or bat mitzvah. The school also would admit children of non-Jewish mothers after bar mitzvah age, with the stipulation that they must convert within a year.

Arnold Zar-Kessler, head of the Schechter day school in Newton, Mass., noted last month’s study of the Boston Jewish community, which showed that 60 percent of children of intermarried families were being raised as Jews. "It may be that we have to reflect a different reality as time goes on,"’ he said.

Sue Fishkoff of JTA contributed to this report.

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