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Southern Hospitality

Southern Hospitality

Still basking in the warmth from my weekend in Kentucky.

The weather was perfect, with blossoms at their peak of loveliness and wildflowers everywhere. And the folks at Keneseth Israel outdid themselves with their Southern hospitality — lavishing attention upon me, putting me up in a luxurious bed and breakfast, serving a home-cooked Shabbat dinner and Kiddush lunch, taking me out on Saturday night and giving me a full tour of Louisville on Sunday. One congregant even bought me a lottery ticket (I’ll find out if I win on Wednesday)!

All in all, the speeches and Q&A’s went well: Friday night I spoke about why I started “In the Mix,” Saturday morning was “Intermarriage Is Not A Disease” and Saturday afternoon on changes in the Conservative movement’s approach to intermarriage. Many people, particularly those who are intermarried or have intermarried children, told me they were thrilled to hear me articulate what they had been thinking privately. And those who disagreed with me were mostly quite respectful and friendly.

Bless their hearts (I’ve learned this is the appropriate Louisville preface when you’re about to say something negative), not everyone seemed to absorb my message: in the parking lot after my Shabbat morning speech, one member told a non-Jewish mom whose children had Conservative conversions that only an Orthodox conversion “counts”! And in the Q&A, after I’d repeatedly emphasized that intermarriage and assimilation are not the same thing and that, rather than promoting in-marriage, we should promote Judaism itself, an older congregant asked: “But what can we do to get our children to marry Jews? Otherwise, within a few generations we’ll all disappear!”

On the other hand, given my aversion to forced conversion, I can’t expect everyone to convert to my own (unfailingly correct, ha ha!) outlook. The 250-household congregation, which was Orthodox until the mid-1950s, is very diverse, representing the full spectrum from near-Orthodox to near-Reform. And the whole community is grappling with intermarriage: from what I could see, almost everyone there has a personal connection with intermarriage, whether they themselves are intermarried, their children or grandchildren are intermarried, or their children seriously dated non-Jews. Many of those with intermarried children are struggling with feelings of failure, while others (bless their hearts) whose children married Jewish seem happy to take credit for their own “success.”

Keneseth Israel is at a crossroads of sorts and is facing some critical demographic challenges. Like many small and mid-sized cities, Louisville is losing Jews; it’s only day school closed a few years ago, and at Keneseth Israel only a small number of families (at least two of them interfaith) have young children.

After almost merging with the city’s other Conservative synagogue two years ago, the shul hired Rabbi Joel Wasser, who is very dynamic, very welcoming of interfaith families and quite eager to spark intra-shul discussion and new thinking on the topic.

I’ll be interested to see how things develop there.

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