The Conservative movement fought back this week against perceptions that leaders of its youth movement, in altering language about dating non-Jews, had somehow undermined the centrist movement’s commitment to Jewish identity.
The scrutiny — and to many Conservative leaders, the distortions — centered on a vote taken by the teen leadership of United Synagogue Youth at their international convention, held Dec. 21-25 in Atlanta.
The Dec. 22 vote amended a rule that board members “refrain from relationships which can be construed as interdating,” and replaced it with one emphasizing that board members should “model healthy Jewish dating choices.”
It goes on to say: “These include recognizing the importance of dating within the Jewish community and treating each person with the recognition that they were created Betzelem Elohim (in the image of God).”
For supporters of the amendment, it turns the negative language of “thou shalt not” into a positive affirmation of Jewish-Jewish relationships.
For critics of the amendment, however, “thou shalt not” is exactly the message the youth group should be sending, and the new language represents a dilution of movement standards.
Caldwell resident Rabbi Steven Wernick, the chief executive officer of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, was among those defending the USY leaders in the wake of the vote.
“The outcome [of the voting] was widely characterized wrongly and important pieces were lost. People aren’t seeing the forest for the trees. No one supports ongoing engagement with Yiddishkeit and a love of Judaism as well as USY does,” Wernick told NJJN.
In a statement issued soon after the vote, Wernick said the policy change does not reflect a change in USY’s values.
“It continues to recognize what we know to be true: encouraging Jews to marry other Jews is the most successful path toward creating committed Jewish homes,” Wernick said in the statement. “At the same time, we can’t put our heads in the sand about the fact that we live in an incredibly free society, where even committed Jews will marry outside the faith. If they do, we must welcome them wholeheartedly and encourage them to embrace Judaism.”
Wernick’s daughter Hannah, 16, is president of the local USY chapter at Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell. She has accompanied her father to many other conventions, but this was her first as a participant. She said the atmosphere was wonderful, and she welcomed the much-debated vote on dating.
“I think it’s a good change and it reflects a positive outlook,” she said. “It not only says that USY supports Jewish relationships, it also shows that USY believes that people have the freedom to choose what they do.”
The Wernicks and others also noted that the teen leaders upheld a requirement that board members be Sabbath and holiday observant, refraining from travel, public functions, and taking school exams on those days.
Rabbi Dan Dorsch, the assistant rabbi at Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston and a former USY office holder himself, highlighted the Shabbat discussion and vote in a blog post that appeared in The Forward and Ha’aretz.
He wrote: “One author described the Jewish world’s reaction to the constitutional changes as a collective ‘oy gevalt’ groan, with some commentators going as far as to predict the imminent demise of the Conservative movement.
“That would only be true if you thought that USY’s choice to no longer be as exclusive was somehow connected to a desire among officers to be less religiously observant.
“However, the Shabbat vote indicates that our kids do not see this connection. Instead, they see an opportunity to allow broader access to leadership and opportunity to grow from observance.”
Wernick said that those who focused on the dating vote overlooked “that at the same convention, three times a day a thousand teenagers were getting together to pray, that they were studying Torah, and learning about social justice and civil rights.”
Rather than lowering their standards of observance, he told NJJN, the teen leaders reaffirmed their own commitment to serve as standard-holders, while affirming the right of other Jews to make their own choices. “They reaffirmed the importance of Shabbat observance, and Jewish study, and added a bullying clause, and one against lashon hara,” or negative gossip, he said.
The new language on “interdating” reflects a reality within the Conservative movement, with the 2013 Pew Research Center survey of U.S. Jewry showing four in 10 Conservative Jews marrying non-Jews since 2000.
Local teen leaders and their adult supervisors noted that some qualified teen leaders, especially those attending public schools in regions with few Jews, were being told either to refrain from dating during their leadership tenures or lie about their relationships.
“In this case, the necessary change was ensuring that even those teens who date outside the faith and, more importantly, those who happen to come from interfaith families, will feel that USY is a welcoming and inclusive space for them to engage through Judaism in meaningful ways,” Rabbi Michael Knopf, religious leader of Temple Beth-El in Richmond, Va., wrote in Ha’aretz. “In other words, the teens acknowledged a dramatically changing reality and tried to craft an authentically Jewish response to it that welcomes people into relationship with God, Torah, and community rather than shutting doors in their face.”
But a former president of the Detroit chapter of USY, now a freshman at the University of Michigan, said the vote on interdating compromises the movement’s “commitment to the preservation of Jewish nationhood in the name of inclusivity.”
“No one ever said it was supposed to be all fun. Judaism is a faith that connotes certain principles and morals,” wrote Jesse Arm in The Times of Israel. “At the core of those values is the preservation of the nation itself through committed relationships to one another as well as to those principles which unite us all. Once the Conservative movement abandoned adherence to that belief, it abandoned me as well.”
The constitution that sets standards for USY was written several years ago by the 15- to 18-year-olds who lead the movement, and it always has been their prerogative to change them, according to Rabbi David Levy, the professional director of USY and director of teen learning at USCJ.
“While we maintain the value that dating within the faith is key to a sustainable Jewish future, we want to be positive and welcoming to USYers, many of whom are from interfaith families,” he said.
Additional material from JTA