Welcoming the intermarried
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Welcoming the intermarried

As the Jewish community continues to grapple with the well-documented swell in intermarriage, there is more talk of keruv, outreach, than of rejection.

On January ‘4, about ‘0 people came to Shomrei Torah in Wayne to listen to just such a discussion, featuring Rabbi Charles Simon, executive director of the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, Rabbi Randall Mark, the congregation’s religious leader, and Judy Beck, director of the UJA of Northern New Jersey’s Synagogue Leadership Initiative.

"The Pros and Cons of Drawing in Diversity" was the first program sponsored by the Conservative shul’s keruv committee, established to "look at all of the issues and to make recommendations to our board of trustees," said Mark in an e-mail before the event. "[The hope] is to attract both members and non-members from the community to see that Shomrei Torah is open to exploring new paths to create a welcoming atmosphere for interfaith families."

Across North America, rabbis and congregations are "doing all kinds of things" to adjust to today’s realities, Simon told The Jewish Standard in an interview. "We have to reach out and meet people where they are."

He noted that Temple Israel in Ridgewood is in its second year with the FJMC program, which recognizes "that conversion is not necessarily an option, nor should it be."

Shomrei Torah "is pretty much of a mainstream" Conservative congregation, Simon said, not doing anything particularly radical regarding the intermarried. Part of his role is, he added, is to help "position" Rabbi Mark to the congregation, showing them that he is a "sensitive, outgoing, caring person" who is approachable on intermarriage issues. If a couple comes to a rabbi and is treated "with dignity and respect," the couple is more likely to become involved with the synagogue, even when limitations are explained to them.

"The current position of the Conservative Movement towards interfaith families is to be welcoming, so that they know that they have a place in our movement, while at the same time recognizing that there are some limitations for the non-Jewish spouse, since they are not Jewish," Mark said.-Less than 10 percent of his congregation’s families are interfaith.

"Most interfaith families in Wayne still believe that they cannot join our synagogue, that if they have made the decision to intermarry, then they have to join elsewhere," said Mark.-"While I believe that we have a fairly progressive position on welcoming interfaith families to our congregation, I do recognize that there are simply fewer barriers in the Reform or Reconstructionist movements than can be found within the halachic framework of Conservative Judaism.-However, Shomrei Torah is a viable option for someone who grew up in the Conservative movement and then intermarried."

The 1990 National Jewish Population Survey indicated that 45 percent of marriages in the American Jewish community were intermarriages, said Alan Sweifach, UJA-NNJ director of strategic planning and allocation, in an e-mail to The Jewish Standard. But the rates weren’t uniform across the country. In the ‘001 demographic study of the service area of UJA of Bergen County, there was a relatively low intermarriage rate of 17 percent, although the rate for couples under 50 was ‘5 percent.

The 1990 NJPS statistics created an uproar in the community, said Beck in an e-mail before the Wayne event, and two opposing camps emerged.

"Many Jewish family education initiatives were funded and many outreach programs implemented under the Jewish continuity umbrella, targeted to the unaffiliated and the intermarried," she said. "At the same time, various pundits were traveling about the country speaking against these programs. Their orientation was, given limited community dollars, let us circle the wagons and only spend money on the folks in the door of the Jewish community."

The influence of those holding the latter view, that Jews who intermarry or choose not to affiliate "are talking with their feet," said Beck, "had a lot to do with various successful programs losing their funding [and] as in many other areas, the Jewish community moved on to other concerns."

Meanwhile, a successful outreach program Beck ran in MetroWest before coming to the UJA-NNJ reached a number of conclusions about the intermarried. For example, she said, it found that "it is much easier to connect to interfaith families where the wife is Jewish than where the husband is Jewish; some non-Jewish spouses will convert to Judaism if the community engages them [though] this conversion does not necessarily happen in the first years of marriage [but] can take place [many] years after the marriage; Jewish grandparents, grandparenting Jewishly, make a huge difference in what happens with the children of intermarriage; and we need to do a lot of work with Jewish men."

"We as a community do ourselves a disservice by circling the wagons," Beck said. "We are missing wonderful families. We want to widen the tent."

Sweifach said the NJPS survey showed that levels of religious practice and other involvement in Jewish activity were particularly low in intermarried households. On the other hand, "there does not seem to be much difference between intermarried households and those that consider themselves ‘just Jewish,’ of which some may be intermarried themselves," said Sweifach. "The other interesting thing I noted was that the percentage of conversionary households that are both current and lifetime members of synagogues is higher than the percentage for families with two born Jews."

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