Conservative Jews question notions on dating, marrying only Jews

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A scene from a Jewish wedding. Photo by Jorge Lemus, courtesy of Union for Reform Judaism

A scene from a Jewish wedding. Photo by Jorge Lemus, courtesy of Union for Reform Judaism

(RNS) Whether Jews should only date and marry other Jews is not a new question, but it’s one that has come into stark relief in recent weeks.

In two separate instances in December, groups within Conservative Judaism — the second-largest movement of American Jews — appeared to challenge some of their own rules that discourage interfaith dating and matrimony:

  • A prominent Conservative rabbi asked his Massachusetts congregation to consider allowing him to preside at weddings between Jews and non-Jews, as long as the couples committed to raising Jewish children.
  • The Conservative movement’s youth group adopted a policy that seemed to relax a ban prohibiting its leaders from dating non-Jews.

Unlike rabbis in Reform Judaism, the largest American stream of Judaism, Conservative rabbis may not preside at interfaith marriages. Conservative Judaism has stood fast on this, even as it has embraced female rabbis and same-sex weddings and welcomed the non-Jewish spouses of congregants into its synagogues.

But Rabbi Wesley Gardenswartz of Temple Emanuel in Newton, Mass., said he floated the proposal because he wanted to keep families connected to his synagogue.

"Jewish Denominational Affiliation" graphic courtesy Pew Research Center.

“Jewish Denominational Affiliation” graphic courtesy Pew Research Center.

“This is about our children and our grandchildren, and making sure that in this glorious open society, that when our children fall in love — with whomever they fall in love — they know they can always come back to their spiritual home,” he said.

In a religion whose adherents number fewer than 15 million worldwide, which lost 6 million souls during the Holocaust, and whose children feel increasingly free to choose whether or not they will produce a next generation of committed Jews, any changes regarding dating and marriage can be fraught with anxiety and emotion.

So is the door open to change on intermarriage in the Conservative movement?

“No,” said Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the movement’s Rabbinical Assembly.

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld is executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the rabbinical arm of the Conservative Jewish movement. Photo courtesy of Rabbinical Assembly

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld is executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the rabbinical arm of the Conservative Jewish movement. Photo courtesy of Rabbinical Assembly

“Jewish tradition says Jewish marriage occurs between Jewish people,” she said. “As rabbis, our role is to teach, inspire and promulgate that tradition.”

She and other leaders of the movement reject the idea that the recent events undermined this tenet of Conservative Judaism, which stands between the more progressive Reform and more traditional Orthodox movements in its interpretation of Jewish law.

Schonfeld notes that Gardenswartz and members of his congregation quickly deemed his intermarriage proposal unworkable. And she says that while the teen leaders of United Synagogue Youth changed the language they use to describe “healthy Jewish dating,” they did not alter their policy.

Ben Shapiro, 16, vice president for communications of USY’s Far West region, said the firestorm of criticism after the teens’ vote shocked him when some interpreted the move as “signaling the end of Conservative Judaism as we know it.”

He said he can see why people might think USY’s stance on dating outside the fold had softened. The original phrasing  calls on USY leaders to “refrain” from dating non-Jews; the new wording speaks of “recognizing the importance of dating within the Jewish community.”

The intention, though, Shapiro said, was to make the language more inclusive out of respect to USY leaders who have a non-Jewish parent — not to make it more acceptable for USY leaders to date non-Jews.

But not everyone is so convinced that the teens’ vote and the demise of Gardenswartz’s proposal simply reinforce the status quo. In various corners of the Conservative community, it appears as if some are mulling — for better or worse — a loosening of the rules that govern dating and marriage.

David Benkof, former international USY president , warned in The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday (Jan. 6) that the Conservative teens were taking their cues from their elders: “On issues relating to endogamy (marrying within the community,) the adult leaders of Conservative Judaism don’t always seem to know what they want — and when they do, what they want is not always ‘good for the Jews.'”

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the new president of the Union for Reform Judaism. RNS photo courtesy Ben Fink Shapiro

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the Union for Reform Judaism. Photo courtesy of Ben Fink Shapiro

To Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the Union for Reform Judaism, the Conservative movement stands at the same crossroads where the Reform stood about a generation ago. As he put it, an increasing number of Jews are recognizing that “intermarriage is a fact of life, as gravity is.”

In the 1970s, when large numbers of American Jews began choosing non-Jewish partners, the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis maintained its official opposition to intermarriage but decided to allow its rabbis to choose for themselves whether to preside at such weddings. That change did not sit well with many, even within Reform Judaism.

“Then it became just who we are,” Jacobs continued. “Our emphasis has always to be on opening those doors, not wagging our fingers but opening our arms.”

Not only in moral terms, but in practical terms, the Reform movement reasons that non-Jewish spouses must be embraced because they can be valued members of the community and partners with their spouses in raising Jewish children.

But there is an opposite line of reasoning: Make it easy for people to intermarry, and they will.

According to the Pew Research Center’s 2013 study of American Jews, the more traditional the movement, the more likely its members to marry other Jews. Half of Reform Jews marry Jews, compared with nearly three-quarters of Conservative Jews and 98 percent of Orthodox Jews.

And here’s the weightiest of Pew’s statistics for those wary of intermarriage: While 96 percent of Jews married to Jews are raising their children in the Jewish faith, just 20 percent of Jews married to non-Jews are.

Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, an umbrella group of traditional Orthodox Jews, said that beyond the prohibition against intermarriage in Jewish law, almost all Jews understand that the children of Jews and non-Jews are often not raised to have Jewish identities.

“It’s unfortunate — no, tragic — that in an attempt to remain relevant, various non-Orthodox Jewish groups have opted to either accept or even encourage intermarriage,” Shafran said.

“It is a capitulation to unfortunate social realities, a demonstration not of leadership but, sadly, of followership.”

For his part, Gardenswartz said he is glad he asked his congregants about presiding at intermarriages. And while they decided they didn’t want to flout the Conservative movement, Temple Emanuel has changed its approach to interfaith couples connected to the synagogue, treating them like Jewish-Jewish couples in every respect except the marriage ceremony.

“I’m asking all of our sons and daughters and whomever they have chosen as their life partners: ‘Please come back home,'” Gardenswartz said.

“We are in a completely different place than where we had been.”


  • God clearly commanded that marriage among Jews should be to others of Jewish faith. That what commanded in the law, or the Old Covenant. Today, those who receive Yeshua/Jesus as Messiah/Christ and Savior are considered spiritual Jews, or part of the Israel of God. Romans 10-11 This is truly the most important part of being Jewish that is identifying with the Promised Messiah-Yeshua, that is Jesus Christ, whether one is Jewish or Gentile. Shalom

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  • Garson Abuita

    Much of this comes from the realization that the past 40-50 years has shown that shunning does not work. Even now, Conservative rabbis are prohibited even from attending an interfaith wedding, much less presiding over it. Why? To preserve some kind of red line? It makes no sense and just makes us seem unwelcoming to those families — and we have to be welcoming to them.
    Right now, presiding over an interfaith marriage for Conservative rabbis is literally impossible. The traditional Jewish ceremony involves both parties being subject to Jewish law, i.e., “by this ring I consecrate you to me according to the laws of Moses and Israel.” It also involves the man purchasing the woman in some sense, which is why the Conservative movement had to create a new ceremony for same-sex couples.
    USY got knocked around on the PR end on this. What they didn’t get out there is that kids today don’t always “date”, they go out in groups and sometimes they hook up. Also, the explosion of social media among young people meant that gossip (lashon hara) and even bullying were increasing. And the adult staff was left to make decisions on whether someone was really “interdating” or was doing something short of that. All of it ignored the point behind the rule: that Jewish teenagers should be cultivating a culture of loving Jewish life and therefore preparing themselves to in the future marry another Jew.

  • “Not only in moral terms, but in practical terms, the Reform movement reasons that non-Jewish spouses must be embraced because they can be valued members of the community and partners with their spouses in raising Jewish children.”

    As a Catholic woman married forty-four years to a Jewish man, I find the above quote offensive. Why is there an automatic assumption that the non-Jewish spouse will want to raise Jewish children? Generally, we non-Jews are as committed to our faiths as Jews are to theirs.

    Imagine the uproar in the Jewish community if the Catholic Church had a stated goal that Jews would “partner with their spouses in raising Catholic children”!

    I resent being “embraced” not for myself, but to serve some agenda. My husband and I began attending weekly Jewish services and Mass when we became engaged in 1968, to learn about each other’s religions. We stopped going to shul on Friday nights when it became clear that I was not welcome. I sense that I would not be welcome now, either, except as a way to get to my children.

  • Jack

    As a Christian who wants to see the Jewish people remain a thriving people and not become extinct, I find it appalling that you lack basic understanding of the desire of the Jews to survive as a people. You think it’s all about you but it isn’t.

  • 1) I think part of the reason that shunning doesn’t work is that so many Jews tend to live and work in urban/integrated areas and are native english speakers. It works better for the Amish for whom shunning is more burdensome.
    2) The catholic church as I understand has long had a rule that to marry a non-catholic the parties had to agree to raise the children catholic.
    3) I’m inclined to believe that marriage probably requires religious and possibly even political compatibility. People should think about that at least as much as their partner’s income and height.
    4) That said Jews are in a difficult position because the response won’t be to marry a Jew instead but to either join a reform congregation or become unaffiliated.
    5) There are no right or easy answers.
    6) Remember though the importance of Jews being moral and intellectual leaders. If you become not Jewish to fit in, you lose that. If you keep that, you will always be burdened with otherness.
    7) G_d bless however you choose.

  • Cris

    I can understand why so many Reform Jews marry non-Jews. Non-Jews often seem better able to appreciate and respect Reform Judaism than Jews who grew up in a more traditional Jewish movement. I am someone in the process of converting to Reform Judaism, and the guys I have dated who grew up in the Conservative or Orthodox movement don’t really understand the fundamentals of Reform Judaism, they just see it as an “easier” form of Judaism and “less Jewish.” I find this very uninsightful and presumpuous of them. When I bring my non-Jewish friends to synagogue, they can actually appreciate the sermons and liturgy for what it is; they aren’t so busy judging the congregation by things like how many men are wearing yarmukles and how many are not, like how traditional Jews like to judge Reform. I’m very open to dating or marrying a non-Jew, for one of many reasons being that he may be better able to appreciate Judaism as I experience it with me.

    And yes I agree with Bette, you should be appreciated for who you are in your participation with the Jewish community. Find a Reform shul, they are often kicked to the curb by fellow Jews but they are wonderful people and so insightful in their approach to Judaism.

  • David

    Having grown up and been Bar Mitzvahed in a Conservative congregation, and spending my adult life being a member of Reform congregations, I always found it both interesting and confusing to see and hear the religious recommendations about dating and marrying only a Jew. Yet, over and again, in reading the Torah we find that the men we learn most about married outside of the Hebrew/Israelite tribes. To me, this seems to be a double standard. Moses can lead the Israelites to the Promised Land, and Joseph can save the children, grandchildren and the future generations of Jacob’s family, and have a wife that was not a natural born Hebrew, but it is wrong for we modern day Jews to marry outside of our tribes. Judaism is a religion based on conversion and inter-marriage. Even Abraham was not a Jew, at least until he “converted”. With 35% of surveyed Jews listing Reform and 30% listing themselves as non-denominational, or unaffiliated, it seems to me that Conservative Judaism is the third largest faction of Judaism, and that we need to start a dialogue with the unaffiliated Jews to discover what they are
    seeking. As a committed Reform Jew, with a Christian wife, my Judaism is as important to me as her Christianity is to her… and most important to both of us is the belief, commitment and faith in GOD.
    Shalom uv’rachah

  • Alissa Ralston

    Intermarriage is natural consequence of living in a culture that embraces all religions.

    Both of my sons married this summer. The elder married a Christian woman with a son of her own and her family warmly embraced my son. The younger, a PhD who graduated with honors in both of his majors from Yale,( a fact most of my friends don’t enough know), initially caused my now daughter-in-law to be rejected by her mother when their intention to marry was announced. He is now fully embraced by her family and they understand that he respects her Hinduism as she respects his beliefs. We all get along very well.

    I married a non Jew who later converted.

    While there is certainly a part of me that would like to see my children carrying on Judaism, I am grateful that they have found such wonderful, loving women to share their lives. Their relationships have enriched our family so much and, if additional grandchildren bless all our lives, they will have our unconditional love however their parents choose to raise them and they will know these grandparents embrace Judaism.

  • Barbara baruch

    Schonfeld says “Jewish tradition says Jewish marriage occurs between Jewish people,” she said. “As rabbis, our role is to teach, inspire and promulgate that tradition.”. Traditionally, she would not be a rabbi. God is not dead, a living God -a living religion changes.

  • Mark Schneider

    If Jesus is your savior, then you are Christian by definition.

  • Eric Edling

    The Conservative Jews discussed here are definitely ethnocentric, but there are both positive and negative sides to it. On the one hand, if their numbers are dwindling maybe we can’t blame Conservative Jews who are against interfaith/cross-cultural dating. Wanting to preserve a way of life that has its own beauty, and its own deep roots is an entirely understandable goal. However, this can also cause tribalism, and can cause people to think that there are not other people in other faiths and cultures with similar values. This can make it hard for people outside “your tribe” to see any one on the outside as anything more than “the other”. In the end, I think it says much more about the lengths that some groups will go to to isolate, instead of saying anything about other cultures.

  • MaryAnn

    As a Catholic, I was married for 40 years to a wonderful Jewish man. Our marriage only legally ended when he passed away last year after battling cancer. Our wedding was terrible due to his mother who refused to attend the wedding or have anything to do with me. Once we proceeded without her she still wouldn’t accept me or our baby daughter when she arrived two years later. This woman was Jewish only on Yom Kippur, on Hannukah or when threatened with a non-Jew such as myself. It was fine for her sons to date non-Jews, but when it came to marriage, that was off-limits. She ultimately disowned my husband. The loss was hers which I hope she rued. My husband was the gentlest, kindest, most charitable person I ever met. Our daughter was brought up according to the golden rule which we agreed upon early on and is wonderful. Formal religion has nothing to do with being a “godly” person. Your actions in daily life do. I only wish my husband were still here. He was the best thing in my life.

  • Howard

    Well what a shocking study!! Either the Jews feel inferior to Gentiles so they crave assimilation or they feel ” chosen” so they run to assimilation so they’ll be loved by the world!
    Either way, they’re undeserved Hellenistic ways will keep them oblivious to a feeling of “pride” in their culture and religion. ( is it any wonder why the great ,late Meir Kahane proclaimed,” the average Jew wouldn’t know Judaism if it struck him on the head”.
    Nor does the Jew care! The parents and grandparents have no pride so why should they?? When I read that survey I often think we should stop telling so many Polish jokes a the time; better earmark them for jews! No other people are so suicidally bent as the Jews. And it never ends! It’s been going on from time immemorial… At least we can say that our history which contrary to many other religions, is documented with tragedies historically; most of which the g-d and our sages know are mostly self inflicted. the survey here shows us why!