Clarion call to Conservative rabbis

Clarion call to Conservative rabbis

Leaders extend welcome mat to interfaith couples, maintain closed door on wedding officiation

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Melissa Renny and Chris Schrader at their wedding in 2008. Photo Courtesy EZ Memories 
Melissa Renny and Chris Schrader at their wedding in 2008. Photo Courtesy EZ Memories 

Melissa Renny of Maplewood was a poster child for the Conservative movement when she entered Princeton University. She was the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, spent a decade attending and working at Camp Ramah in the Poconos, and served as president of her USY chapter. She was sure she would marry someone Jewish. 

And then she met blond-haired, blue-eyed, Irish-Catholic Chris, her bashert.

“I was embarrassed to introduce him to my former Ramah campers and my rabbi because he wasn’t Jewish and I felt like dating someone non-Jewish was somehow a failure.” They broke up but fate intervened and they married in 2008. She never thought she’d have a home in the Conservative movement, in that it has always forbidden intermarriage.

While that position remains unchanged, a recent statement issued by Conservative movement leadersconfirms that they are open to welcoming non-Jewish partners into their communities.

In a letter released last week, the leaders affirmed the “traditional practice of reserving rabbinic officiation to two Jews.” However, the letter also said that in order to “deepen Jewish identity, community, and covenant, as well as to maximize the joy, meaning, and purpose that Judaism can offer,” the movement must extend themselves to couples “through teaching, pastoral care, publications both scholarly and popular, preaching and speaking, and crafting communities resonant with rich covenantal life for those born Jewish, those seeking to become Jewish, and those who want their lives illumined by Jewish wisdom without converting.”

The statement comes after a summer of dissent, notably from the prominent Conservative Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie, who announced he would officiate at interfaith marriages and resigned from The Rabbinical Assembly (RA), the international association of Conservative rabbis. 

Although the letter does not reflect any official changes to the movement’s prohibition on interfaith ceremonies, it appears to draw a line in the denominational sand. 

“The Conservative movement, with this letter, makes clear that rabbinic refusal to perform intermarriages will remain the boundary-defining difference between Conservative and Reform rabbis,” Dr. Jonathan Sarna told NJJN. Sarna is the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University. 

Local Conservative rabbis reacted to the letter with a mix of welcoming and condemnation.  

Rabbi Jesse Olitzky of Congregation Beth El in South Orange was unimpressed and unclear about the movement’s intention. “This seems quite hurtful to the members of our congregation and movement, who grew up at our Ramah camps and Schechter schools, and were leaders in USY, who fell in love with someone of another faith and remain committed to raising their child in a home and community rich with Jewish ritual, custom, learning, and joy.” 

At the same time, he said, it “dismisses the important role that members of our communities of other faiths play in committing to raising their children as Jewish.” 

He said the statement could impair synagogue efforts to create inclusive and welcoming communities to which he is committed. “There is not a single definition of what a Jewish family structure looks like, and we celebrate every family that walks through our doors,” he said. 

Although in the opinion of Rabbi Ira Rothstein of Temple Beth Shalom in Manalapan the pastoral letter is “beautifully written,” it does little to resolve the challenge of interfaith marriages. “Either the movement decides it is going to say, ‘Yes, we can officiate,’ or ‘No.’ Otherwise it doesn’t matter how beautifully crafted a letter is. The dilemma remains.” 

He calls this issue “the question of our time for the Conservative movement,” adding, “How can we say we are welcoming of intermarried couples and yet at the same time not be able to officiate at intermarriages?”

Rabbi Howard Tilman of Congregation Beth Israel in Scotch Plains called the letter “a strong statement that this important conversation is taking place.” He said that while the letter affirms the existing position, it “emphasizes the real tensions that exist,” and is “taking all sides of this issue seriously, seeking to maintain both our commitment to tradition and continuity.”

And Rabbi Robert Wolkoff of Congregation B’nai Tikvah in North Brunswick was equally supportive, focusing on the issue of mutual respect between the rabbi and congregants. “I as a rabbi have to respect the integrity of the loving choices that are made by members of my congregation, in particular, the question of who they marry, but at the same time they have to respect the integrity of the tradition of which I am a representative. Integrity is not a one-way street.”

Drafted as a pastoral letter to Conservative leaders, the statement was written by Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies; Dr. Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary; Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinic Assembly; and Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ).

Its authors insist it was not meant as a final statement on the issue; rather, they said their intention is to stimulate discussion among movement leaders and reframe the conversation.

According to Wernick, who lives in Caldwell, the letter was designed to get behind the usual headlines, which he said read as “‘No, no, no, no, no,’ [you cannot intermarry.] What’s missing from the dialogue is why…we feel such an affinity for brit, halacha, and endogamy for the Jewish people as a way to ensure Judaism into the future. We are trying to frame a conversation about why we feel so strongly about inmarriage, but we take a realistic perspective.” 

For interfaith families like Renny’s, the letter is too little, too late. “The current policy feels like turning couples away just at a time when they are choosing to turn toward Judaism,” she said.  

“The Conservative movement has an opportunity to increase the number of Jews in its ranks,” Renny said. “There are so many interfaith couples who, if embraced, would choose Judaism. But because they are held at arms-length, they never feel welcomed and never are able to envision a Jewish life together.”

Renny considers herself lucky: Although her husband has no plans to convert, he is committed to raising a Jewish family. She initially joined a Reform synagogue, because she did not think the Conservative movement would welcome her husband. Then after moving to Maplewood she met Olitzky. 

“From the beginning, he reached out, set up coffee, and wanted to meet both of us. He wanted to include both of us in the synagogue and in the activities.” 

Still, she realizes her rabbi is an outlier, and hopes that Olitzky’s actions will become more commonplace as young rabbis assume pulpits. “I wish the movement would stop burying its head in the sand. Intermarriage is a part of assimilated Jewish life, and it is here to stay.”

Speaking with NJJN, Wernick acknowledged that, at least in hindsight, the letter could have included more of the pain that intermarried couples feel. Nonetheless, he said he was “satisfied” that the letter accomplished its goal of stimulating conversation among movement leaders.

In addition to Lau-Lavie, a handful of rabbis in the Conservative movement have taken steps to embrace interfaith families, including Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom, retired spiritual leader of Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Pennsylvania, who wrote about his choice to do so and was kicked out of the RA, and Rabbi Adina Lewittes, founder of Sha’ar Communities in Fort Lee and former assistant dean of the JTS Rabbinical School, who resigned from the RA when she made the decision to officiate at interfaith weddings.

Sarna pointed out that “Intermarriage is not the same today as it was when some parents sat shiva.” At that time, marrying out represented “an act of conscious betrayal,” whereas today it’s just “two people falling in love.”  

“Basically, this battle pits pragmatism (‘We are losing members’) against idealism (‘We have to hold the line on this defining issue.’)”  

Conservative rabbis find themselves stuck between the more permissive Reform and more forbidding Orthodox movements. 

“Some Conservative rabbis wish that they might hold on to such members by changing the movement’s policy on intermarriage,” said Sarna. “They worry that, absent some change, the Conservative movement will disappear, and they believe that the policy puts the Conservative movement at odds with contemporary society.” 

In fact, he said, they are supported by a finding from the 2013 Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews, indicating that many Conservative Jews who intermarry move to the Reform movement. And he believes that shift will continue. 

As to how Jews who intermarry will respond to the current statement, he said, “they are likely to vote with their feet.”

Debra Rubin contributed reporting. 

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