interfaith couples

Conservative movement works to be more inclusive to interfaith couples.

Not much has changed locally since United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism (USCJ) in March 2017 passed a ruling allowing non-Jewish spouses to become members of its congregations. This is mainly because a large enough demographic of interfaith families joining the area’s Conservative synagogues simply does not exist.

The ruling was the result of a year-long commission exploring ways to engage intermarried couples. It stated that USCJ, the network of Conservative synagogues across North America, supports every affiliated kehillah (congregation) in developing its own criteria for membership.

“USCJ, as a valued and trusted partner, is committed to assisting welcoming, vibrant, and caring Jewish communities to fully engage the spiritual gifts of all community members. We celebrate the diversity among and within our kehillot and encourage the engagement of all those who seek a spiritual and communal home in an authentic and dynamic Jewish setting. We call on all of our kehillot to open their doors wide to all who want to enter.”

The Conservative movement at the same time also reaffirmed its prohibition on its rabbis from marrying interfaith couples.

According to rabbis here — as well as a 2005 Detroit Jewish population study updated in 2010 confirming the rate of intermarriage as small and holding steady — the interfaith families affiliated with the Conservative movement in Detroit for years are welcomed and have been treated no differently than the rest of their congregants outside of a few ritual prohibitions, such as being counted in a minyan and saying prayers on the bimah.

The study found 76 percent of married couples are in-married; 8 percent are conversionary in-married; and 16 percent are intermarried. About 50 percent of children age 0-17 in intermarried households are being raised Jewish.

In comparison with dozens of other Jewish communities, Detroit ranked the fourth lowest percentage of married couples who are intermarried (16 percent) and contains the lowest percentage of married couples in households age 35-49 who are intermarried (18 percent) and had the highest conversion rate (33 percent) and the lowest percentage of Jewish children age 0-17 being raised in intermarried households (6 percent). There were no statistics focusing on how intermarriage played out amongst Conservative Jews.

Rabbi Steven Rubenstein
Rabbi Steven Rubenstein

Rabbi Steven Rubenstein at Beth Ahm of West Bloomfield said there are only a handful of interfaith families at his congregation and, while some may come to usher at services, none are seeking out leadership positions.

“This is simply not a major issue for us,” Rubenstein said. “We know this is playing out all over the country; but, as a whole, Detroit has a lower percentage of interfaith families, and of the families who do fit this demographic, they know they are welcome to all our services and programming, from men’s club to sisterhood to book club to other educational opportunities.”

When it comes to the issue of conversion, Rubenstein points to the views of Conservative Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, who believes the Conservative movement needs to rethink its approach to potential Jews by Choice while staying in the parameters of Jewish law.

“Conversion is a legitimate process,” Rubenstein said. “We have to actively help those who are interested feel connected to Jewish life and find their way to Jewish tradition in a language that is different than the kind used in the past.”

What is at stake for Conservative synagogues here and elsewhere is balancing the need to maintain and grow membership while not diverting from the movement’s commitment to tradition. While most interfaith couples and families have found a comfort level at Reform temples or choosing post-affiliation connections such as The Well to stay connected to the Jewish community in Detroit, couples like Randy and Leah Gawel of Novi think that it is a “myth” that Conservative synagogues are not welcoming to interfaith couples and families.

Randy and Leah Gawel
Randy and Leah Gawel

Married for 21 years and raising two teen-aged children, the Gawels have been members of Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield and now belong to B’nai Israel Synagogue of West Bloomfield. Randy, who converted to Judaism five years ago, said the recent USCJ ruling makes sense and is a decision that shows the movement is trying to keep up with the times.

When the family belonged to CSZ, Gawel said he always felt welcomed. Like other dedicated parents of school-aged children, he spent years volunteering at synagogue programming, at religious school, Shabbat dinners and High Holiday services. After years of living within a Jewish congregation and raising Jewish children, converting to Judaism for him seemed like the next logical and natural step, and he is grateful to Rabbi Aaron Starr for guiding him through the process.

“For me, converting was smooth and manageable, and it can be this way for those wishing to be part of the Jewish faith,” Gawel said. “What is at issue now is how the Conservative Jewish movement can be inclusive to families to be part of their congregations instead of finding a home in the Reform movement or choosing to not affiliate at all.”

“There is a disconnect between Jewish institutional leaders and the populations they are trying to engage and bring into their buildings.”
— Interfaith Family CEO Jodi Bromberg

Jodi Bromberg
Jodi Bromberg

To reach out to intermarried families elsewhere, USCJ last year partnered with Interfaith Families, a Boston-based organization, to pilot a program with 10 Conservative kehilot around the country. These congregations created formal programming and policies, such as special ceremonies celebrating decisions for interfaith couples to raise their children Jewish and changing language on synagogue websites, literature and even in their bylaws to include partners from other faith backgrounds as full members of their congregation.

The only congregation in Michigan working in the initiative is Congregation Ahavas Israel of Grand Rapids.

Interfaith Families CEO Jodi Bromberg said, “There is a disconnect between Jewish institutional leaders and the populations they are trying to engage and bring into their buildings.

Rabbi Robert Gamer
Rabbi Robert Gamer

“Synagogues as a whole are fighting a national trend where millennials are questioning joining any religious institution,” Bromberg said. “They need to make the case why a formal membership with their institution is relevant to their lives. Our organization’s goal is to encourage as many interfaith couples as possible to explore pursuing a Jewish life and find a meaningful place to accomplish this.”

At Beth Shalom in Oak Park, Rabbi Robert Gamer said the only time there is an issue or a difference in working with interfaith families is during life-cycle events when an aliyah to the bimah is involved.

“Parents of a b’nai mitzvah are both invited onto the bimah, but only the Jewish member says the brachah for the aliyah,” Gamer said. “Both are welcome to address their child from the bimah. It has been like that since before I got here eight years ago.”

Rabbi Aaron Bergman
Rabbi Aaron Bergman

Rabbi Aaron Bergman of Adat Shalom of Farmington Hills — which dropped its affiliation with USCJ about a decade ago — said the interfaith couples and families in their membership are treated no differently than other members in the congregation.

At a ritual level, the congregation includes the non-Jewish parent as much as possible at life-cycle events, such as b’nai mitzvot, within reason.

“If a non-Jewish parent has agreed and supported that their child be raised as a Jew and gives them a Jewish education, who are we to say they cannot stand on the bimah beside their child as he or she becomes a Jewish adult,” Bergman said. “However, it is not appropriate for the non-Jewish parent to recite the blessings for an aliyah — which basically declares Jews thanking God for God’s gift of choosing us as God’s people and for giving us the gift of Torah — if that parent is not Jewish.”

As far as taking leadership roles, Bergman said few, if any, non-Jewish spouses have offered to serve on a committee or run for a board position.

“It would be unfair and a disservice to ask them to be involved in a committee, to work their way into a leadership role, only to be told they cannot be elected onto our executive board or serve as president,” Bergman said.