Reform Jews Hope to Unmix Mixed Marriages

LARCHMONT, N.Y. – In this age of potpourri spirituality, Anique Olivier-Mason, 25, classifies herself generally as a Christian: she grew up Catholic and often attends a Presbyterian church near her home. But on a recent Friday night, she was attending Sabbath services at Larchmont Temple.

Mrs. Olivier-Mason’s husband, Joshua, is Jewish, and the couple became members of the synagogue, in Westchester County, last summer, committing to immersing themselves in the 800-family congregation. On this night, she stood by gamely as her husband, 25, bobbed, swayed and sang in enthusiastic Hebrew with others in the temple.

With intermarriage so common, Reform synagogues like Larchmont Temple embrace
interfaith couples. For the most part, concerted efforts to encourage non-Jewish spouses to convert have been frowned upon. Now, however, in what would be a major shift of outlook for Reform Judaism – the largest and most liberal of the three major streams of American Judaism, with some 1.5 million members – that may be changing.

Concerned about what intermarriage is doing to American Judaism, Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the organization of the country’s Reform Jewish congregations, recently called for Reform synagogues to increase their efforts to convert non-Jewish spouses. By welcoming and accepting gentile spouses, Reform congregations have “perhaps sent the message that we do not care if they convert,” Rabbi Yoffie said at the union’s most recent conference, in November.

“But that is not our message,” he said.

“The time has come to reverse direction by returning to public conversions and doing all the other things that encourage conversion in our synagogues,” he said.

Now, Reform congregations across the country are wrestling with how to respond. The push, which is accompanied by materials and initiatives on “inviting and supporting conversion,” treads on emotionally fraught territory for thousands of interfaith families.

It also clashes with a longstanding aversion among many Jews to anything resembling proselytizing. “I have the inherent Jewish struggle,” said Rabbi Jeffrey J. Sirkman, leader of the Larchmont congregation. “It’s that inner struggle of knowing that we want to reach out there as much as we can. At the same time, we don’t want to appear to be the Lubavitch,” referring to the Orthodox sect of Hasidic Jews known for its aggressive outreach programs, especially focusing on nonobservant Jews.

“I’m not going to be standing at the corner,” he added, “asking people if they are Jewish.”

Larchmont Temple, which was enthusiastically recommended to the Olivier-Masons by other interfaith couples, is a particularly good place to glimpse the delicacy of this issue for many families. Non-Jews make up perhaps 15 to 20 percent of the congregation, and many are heavily involved.

Rabbi Sirkman already supervises several conversions a year and has taken steps to make the option of conversion more visible. His desire, he said, is to move conversion “from the back burner to the front burner” for the people of his synagogue.

“It’s always been in the pot that’s simmering,” he said. “Maybe now this gives us a little bit of the O.K. – in Hebrew, hechsher, which means the validation or the stamp of approval – to elevate for discussion, or at least put it out there in a way that says this shouldn’t be something we are afraid to do or talk about in a public setting.”

Rabbinic tradition dictates that when converts come forward, they should be rejected three times, said Rabbi Yoffie, in an interview. But he said it also says that if they persist and are truly interested, then they should be welcomed. In April, the Union for Reform Judaism’s Greater New York Council plans to hold a seminar for its approximately 90 congregations in the region on how to raise the topic of conversion “in a way that’s loving, not threatening,” said Rabbi Eric B. Stark, the council’s president.

Other rabbis who were interviewed said they were considering steps like elevating the prominence of recent converts in their congregations and making conversions more visible as an option for non-Jewish spouses.

Rabbi Matthew D. Gewirtz, at Rodeph Sholom on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, said he would like to increase the frequency at his synagogue of special Sabbath dinners in which converts share their stories, and he would like to be more bold in asking non-Jewish spouses how they are doing spiritually. At the same time, he stressed the importance of caution and sensitivity.

“I don’t get a notch on my belt every time I get one,” Rabbi Gewirtz said.

At Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, N.J., leaders are starting a conversion committee to serve as a resource for those who may be considering conversion and to hold events that will educate people about the process.

“With conversion, you don’t want to be too aggressive,” said Rochelle Sandler, the temple’s vice president for membership. “That’s a personal decision that I would never push on anyone. We’re trying to find less in-your-face ways to make people aware that it’s an option.”

Reform Jews are not alone in their efforts. A month after Rabbi Yoffie’s comments, Rabbi Jerome M. Epstein, the leader of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, made a similar call, urging Conservative Jews as well to be more aggressive in seeking converts among non-Jewish spouses. Together, Reform and Conservative Jews make up a majority of Jews in the United States.

In some ways, because the Olivier-Masons do not yet have children, they are prime candidates for the kind of encouragement that Jewish leaders are pitching. Yet they also embody many of the challenges. The couple’s current plan is to raise their children steeped in both religions, a practice most Jewish leaders oppose.

“We intend to instill in our children a feeling of spirituality in the sense that they can feel comfortable both in a Christian church and in a Jewish synagogue,” Mrs. Olivier-Mason said.

Her outlook suggests that thinking more aggressively about converting non-Jewish spouses is only the first step for Reform congregations. Then there’s the actual matter of converting them. Although she is more active in Jewish life than even many of her Jewish friends, Mrs. Olivier-Mason said she would not convert.

“When I go to a Jewish service, I feel like, ‘This is really great; this is a very entertaining and spiritual experience,’ ” she said. “But do I feel comfortable enough to call it my own? I don’t.”

Weighing heavily on many Jewish leaders is the continued high rate of intermarriage in Judaism. According to the 2000-1 National Jewish Population Survey, the intermarriage rate for Jews who have married since 1996 is 47 percent. Just as important to Jewish leaders is what happens to the children of those marriages.

“The truth is, not more than about a third of the products of mixed marriage identify Jewishly,” said Jonathan D. Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. “There is a great fear that if a small Jewish community simply acquiesces to a situation of high intermarriage, that pretty soon, do the math, that a small community, which is really an endangered religious species, will simply disappear.”

At Larchmont, the growing interfaith community is anchored by the temple’s outreach committee, which caters to mixed-marriage families with discussion groups, educational events and get-togethers.

Encouraging conversion is not part of the committee’s mandate, nor should it be, said Anne Gittelman, co-chairwoman of the group, who converted to Judaism several years ago. She decided to convert, she said, only after her son, whom she and her husband had decided to raise as a Jew, started attending public schools and was suddenly exposed heavily to Christmas.

The family had been spending Christmases with Mrs. Gittelman’s mother and Easters with Mrs. Gittelman’s sister. One day after school, her son, at age 5, blurted out, “I want to be like Mommy’s family.”

The outburst proved decisive. Intent on eliminating future confusion, Mrs. Gittelman approached Rabbi Sirkman, and the pair spent more than a year together studying and discussing conversion.

Despite her personal decision, Mrs. Gittelman said she had mixed feelings about the push.

“Where I would be uncomfortable is that we encourage the thought of conversion,” she said. “I’m wary of that, because I don’t think I would have appreciated that except from my 5-year-old son.”

To Mrs. Olivier-Mason, whose husband often goes with her to the Presbyterian church, the worries about Judaism’s future make sense. She is comfortable at Larchmont, but if leaders were noticeably to increase the pressure on her to convert, she said, “There might be a time when I feel like I don’t want to go.”

On this Friday night, a Sabbath dinner followed service. Led by Rabbi Sirkman, the congregants said the blessing over the candles and sang in Hebrew over the challah bread. This time, Mrs. Olivier-Mason knew enough to sing along, having been to Sabbath dinner many times with her husband’s family.

At the end, the congregation closed with a lyrical, “Aaaa-meeennn.” She looked to her husband: “Done, right?”

“Done,” he said.


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