The community hall at West Suburban Temple Har Zion is directly behind the sanctuary and shares its high ceiling and brick walls. Tall stained glass windows depict scenes from the Torah: the birds and fish of creation, a rainbow and a dove, fat and skinny cows. The room is usually set with round tables for the luncheon following Saturday morning services, where congregants share news and catch up over plates of bagels, tuna, and egg salad. In this congregation of 230 families, it is easy to spot newcomers, and community members greet them cheerfully, introducing themselves and asking how their guests chanced upon this small Jewish community outside Chicago.
Laura Brookes and her husband, Josh, chose this synagogue because of its warmth. She is not Jewish and he is, and when they first looked for a community, Har Zion seemed especially welcoming.
But on an April evening earlier this year, instead of the usual round tables in the community hall, neat rows of chairs faced a microphone. The board had organized a congregants’ meeting to discuss the possibility of amending the Conservative synagogue’s bylaws to allow membership for spouses who are not Jewish. Results from a recent survey indicated that most of the community was in favor of allowing other-faith spouses to serve on various synagogue committees, but some people were still opposed. This meeting would be an opportunity for community members to share the thoughts behind their votes.
When it was Laura Brookes’ turn, she took her place behind the microphone and looked out at 100 members of her community seated before her. Usually nervous to speak in public, for once, she felt calm. She had chosen her words carefully.
A few years ago, she told them, she was reading the synagogue newsletter and came across an article about camp and making summer plans. One reason to send children to Jewish summer camp, it said, is that kids who attend are more likely to marry other Jews.
She considered what that might mean, she told the group. She wondered if people in the community didn’t approve of her mixed-faith marriage. She worried about the message her sons were getting about their family after all she had done to nourish their Jewish identities and create a Jewish home. And she worried her kids might question their status as Jews, even though they had been through conversion as infants and even though she took them to and from Hebrew school every single week, just like all the other parents.
As Brookes spoke, she heard gasps. Afterward, members of the community came up to express their dismay. No one had imagined what it might be like for a non-Jewish mom raising Jewish kids to read a blurb about that particular feature of Jewish summer camp.
It was the exact reaction Brookes was hoping to hear. She had shared her experience to help her community address their blind spots around mixed-faith families. And a month later, over 85 percent of Har Zion members voted to offer membership for spouses of other faiths.
The tension stemming from explicitly defining the boundaries of the congregation is not unique to their synagogue. In 2017, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism established that Conservative synagogues may choose to extend membership to spouses who are not Jewish. One year later, questions of who belongs and in what capacity can still be fraught.
The privileges of membership vary between synagogues. Benefits often comprise voting rights at the annual meeting and support for lifecycle events. In some cases, membership has taken on an outsize significance, symbolizing who is in and who is out.
The issue serves as a barometer of Conservative congregations’ prediction of whether intermarriage is here to stay and their willingness to normalize it. While some believe it is a reality of modern American Judaism and synagogue policy should reflect that, others are still fighting intermarriage in principle and in policy.
The Brookes’ rabbi at Har Zion, Rabbi Adir Glick, believes that today’s decisions on intermarriage policy will define the movement and American Jewry for years to come.
“This change in the number of Jews who are marrying outside the faith is a paradigm shift for American Judaism,” he said. “This is one of the most important Jewish questions of our time.”
The Conservative movement had codified opposition to interfaith marriage by the middle of the 20th century. Rabbi Joel Roth, a former member of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards at the Rabbinical Assembly, which is the international association of Conservative rabbis, wrote in 1984 that the movement should be absolutely committed to opposing interfaith marriage, concurring with a similar 1963 ruling. “Allowing an intermarried Jew to hold office in the synagogue must be understood to imply that his/her illegal and unacceptable marriage is irrelevant to us. And that, in turn, suffuses it with an aura of legitimacy that is counterproductive to the greater needs of the Jewish community,” he wrote.
Roth’s sentiments still resonate in some American Conservative congregations. North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park, Illinois, where Rabbi Vernon Kurtz, former president of the Rabbinical Assembly, has led the congregation for over 30 years, does not offer membership to other-faith spouses, and a change to the policy is not on the table.
Kurtz said he believes the challenge is to be welcoming but not accepting. While the number of Conservative-affiliated Jews has fallen over the last few decades, he said relaxing Conservative Judaism’s stance on intermarriage is not the right approach to drawing Jews back in.
His perspective is in line with traditional Jewish thought. Rabbis have interpreted multiple sources of Jewish law as prohibiting intermarriage, and the law is the cornerstone of Conservative Judaism. But beyond the law, Kurtz opposes interfaith marriage on principle. “I don’t believe that it leads to a continuation of Jewish life,” he said.
Kurtz acknowledged that Conservative Judaism inhabits a tricky middle ground, demanding a willingness to struggle with the tension between American society and Jewish values. “We want you to take advantage of the best of American culture: education, music, arts, culture, etc., etc., and then when you get to the most important decision you have in your lifetime, to marry a mate, put on blinders and only look at Jews,” he said. “Is it a mixed message? Absolutely.”
The first time Laura Brookes met her husband’s family was at her first Passover seder. The first Jewish wedding she ever experienced was her own. And the first Jewish ritual circumcision she ever attended was her son’s.
Before Laura and Josh married, they set out the rules of their household. They would have a Jewish home, which meant Jewish holidays and education for their future children. It also meant that Laura would leave behind the holiday traditions that were part of her childhood. No more Christmas tree, no Easter eggs.
“I felt really vulnerable, knowing that I didn’t know what I didn’t know,” she said of those first years.
Now, they have two young sons, and Laura participates fully in her family’s Jewish life. She prepares holiday meals and coordinates educational and social commitments related to their Conservative synagogue, where they sent their sons to preschool. She learned the complicated rules of keeping kosher and how to make a good chicken soup. Yiddish words roll off her tongue like she’s been saying them her whole life.
She hasn’t converted to Judaism because making things simpler for her family doesn’t strike her as a good enough reason to do so. “Whether or not I convert is between me and God,” she said. “I wouldn’t dream of undertaking it lightly.”
A couple years ago, Laura and Josh were surprised to learn that after years of paying family dues and expending immeasurable time and energy toward the synagogue, Laura was not eligible to become a formal, voting member because she is not Jewish.
“How could our shul purport to welcome us and welcome our family, when it literally and specifically did not welcome me?” she wondered. The concerns she brought to the board started the process that ultimately led them to amend their bylaws this spring to offer membership for spouses of other faiths.
The Brookes’ experience represents a major evolution of attitude at Conservative synagogues. Jane Herling remembers the cold reception she met 25 years ago when she first brought her son to Hebrew school at Har Zion Temple near Philadelphia. Herling was not Jewish, and the school made it clear accepting her children was an accommodation they would make specifically for her husband’s sake, not for hers. “I was determined,” she said. “I think today, if we treated people that way, people would turn and go the other direction.”
Herling’s commitment to raising her kids Jewish came from her devotion to her father-in-law, who survived the Holocaust. He loved her and she adored him, and she promised him that his grandchildren would be Jewish.
Today, Herling’s son Brandon, 31, has no doubts about his identity. “I think of myself as Jewish before I think man, before I think American,” he said.
Herling had other champions along the way. During their early years at the synagogue, it always struck her as odd that the Har Zion mail she and her husband received arrived in hand-addressed envelopes. She couldn’t believe there was no label-maker. Much later, she learned that the head of the Hebrew school used to intercept the letters which were addressed only to her husband and repackage them into envelopes addressed to her as well so she would feel included.
Now, that kindness is no longer the exception at Har Zion, but the standard. About six years ago, the synagogue spearheaded an initiative to cultivate public dialogue around interfaith issues. They intentionally started with low-stakes discussions for community members to express their thoughts and feelings, according to Herling.
When they finally cast a vote on changing bylaws to allow membership for non-Jewish spouses in 2015, the motion passed unanimously.
“For some reason, bylaws sort of take on this really high level of emotion and importance,” said Herling. “We actually took the time to test whether we thought we could change our culture, and through that dialogue, I think our culture did change.”
Last year, the Rabbinical Assembly reaffirmed its 48-year-old policy that Conservative rabbis cannot officiate an intermarriage between a Jewish person and a person of another faith, nor can they attend such ceremonies.
Conservative rabbis don’t all share that perspective. At an annual convention for Conservative rabbis this past April, there was an entire off-the-record keynote session on intermarriage. The rabbis’ opinions on their own willingness to officiate weddings between mixed-faith couples diverged widely, according to one rabbi in attendance. For now though, the Rabbinical Assembly’s policy still stands firm.
The United Synagogue’s membership decision, separate from the movement’s policy on officiating at weddings, creates a strange dynamic for mixed-faith couples. A Conservative rabbi cannot marry them, so many couples go outside the movement to find a rabbi who will perform the wedding ceremony. Then the mixed-faith families will come back to Conservative synagogues, many of which will warmly welcome them.
Rabbi Joshua Rabin, director of innovation at USCJ, acknowledged that this presents a challenge.
“I think that what’s important to remember is that helping interfaith families is not a zero-sum game,” he said, adding that there are nonritual changes that can send welcoming messages. Many synagogues will give non-Jewish family members honors like opening the ark and allow them to stand with their children on the bimah.
When he works with synagogues that are reflecting on the best way to serve interfaith families, Rabin emphasizes that they must balance the tensions inherent in Jewish tradition with the needs of the actual synagogue community.
He helped organize a USCJ conference last April on interfaith families in Conservative synagogues, where Laura Brookes was invited to share her story. “One of the first things that came to my mind was the importance of looking at everything we do from the perspective of the people that we’re trying to serve,” he said of Brookes’ account.
He went on to quote the wisdom of a former teacher: “The end of the Jewish people is not if Jews stop marrying other Jews,” he said. “It’s if Jews stop raising Jewish children.”
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Ilana Marcus is a data reporting fellow at the Washington Post.