Is a new era dawning in the way American Judaism’s religious movements deal with interfaith families?
In his speech last week at the Union for Reform Judaism’s biennial convention, Rabbi Eric Yoffie called for more emphasis on conversion: an almost radical move for the leader of the movement considered most accepting of interfaith couples.
And next week the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism will hold its own biennial convention, in Boston, where Rabbi Jerome Epstein, the group’s executive vice president, will issue a call to go beyond being welcoming to non-Jewish spouses. He’ll kick off what is being touted as a wide-ranging new initiative to be more proactive in involving them in synagogue life and in the raising of Jewish children.
The Conservative movement is facing a shrinking and aging membership but has long maintained a policy of focusing on conversion of non-Jewish spouses: a position seen by some as discouraging the membership of interfaith couples. "Unless we face the reality today, if we don’t do an effective campaign to inspire the children," of interfaith couples to want to be Jewish, "we’ll lose an entire generation," Rabbi Epstein told The Jewish Week. In recent years, his thinking on the subject has changed. "Though in 1986 I talked about only doing kiruv [outreach] or promoting inmarriage, about doing one or the other, I have since found that we can do both," he said. "We just haven’t had the will to do both. It is now incumbent upon us to do so because if we ignore the challenge and opportunity presented to us by the intermarriage rate, then we’re blind."
Even now, said Rabbi Charles Simon, executive director of the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, whose group has taken the lead on the outreach issue in the Conservative movement, it isn’t clear whether the United Synagogue initiative is proactive enough. Nonetheless, "I’m delighted that United Synagogue has reversed [its] position and decided to take this on," he said. "Within the Conservative movement three years ago kiruv was not on the agenda. Now everybody’s talking about it."
Even a leading Modern Orthodox rabbi has entered the mounting conversion conversation. In his new book "Choosing to be Jewish: The Orthodox Road to Conversion" (Ktav), Rabbi Marc Angel of the Upper West Side’s Shearith Israel/Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue, decries the current attitude among Orthodox rabbis discouraging potential converts.
"The attitude in the Orthodox community has been to raise the bar to conversion as high as possible," he says, by requiring people to live for a year or more as fully observant Orthodox Jews before they actually become Jewish. "If people are looking for a way into Judaism, we should be on the front lines of welcoming them" even as there is no compromise on requiring that the conversion be according to Jewish law.