Attracting Interfaith Families to the Conservative Movement Day Schools

Cross-posted. This was originally posted on the InterfaithFamily Network Blog.

Last week, the Rabbinical Assembly (the rabbis’ guild for the Conservative movement), sent out a press release. Together with representatives from the Schechter Day School Network (the Jewish day schools affiliated with the Conservative denomination), they met in late-October to talk about “outreach to and inclusion of intermarried families.” Great!

This isn’t the first time we’ve looked at how to attract and include interfaith families in Jewish day schools. We blogged about the AviCHAI foundation’s conversation and I participated in their day of meetings, which brought together teachers, school administrators, other Jewish educators, parents, and community professionals such as myself.

Back to the Rabbinical Assembly’s press release. It didn’t take long for me to realize that the consensus reached in their meetings would likely continue to alienate the families they want to attract and include.

The rabbis expressed their commitment to conversion according to the standards of Conservative Judaism, as the ideal for our keruv (outreach) to these families.

Our studies have shown that having conversion as the focus of the Jewish community’s outreach creates barriers to inclusion and welcome. “Perceived pressure to convert” is ranked as a barrier to expanded connection with Jewish community institutions, such as synagogues and, I’m extrapolating here, day schools. If that pressure is a deterrent from going to Shabbat services, wouldn’t it also be a deterrent from sending kids to day school?

The focus on conversion as the ideal continued, as exemplified by one of the “challenging questions” the group discussed:

What is the optimal timeline for conversion after admitting a child who is not yet Jewish to the school?

Before getting to a timeline, let’s take a step back. A great place to start would be using inclusive language. If a child is going to your school, chances are their parents are raising them as Jews. So clarify what you actually mean, but do it in a way that does not further alienate these families. How about,

What is the optimal timeline for conversion after admitting a child who is a patrilineal Jew?

I would, of course, recommend defining such a term on your forms. Make sure to explain why the Conservative movement does not view patrilineal descent as “Jewish,” unlike the Reform movement. (Conservative Judaism determines who they consider to be a Jew through matrilineal descent — a Jew is someone who is born to a Jewish mother, or who has converted to Judaism in a ceremony that meets their requirements.) For these children of patrilineal descent, the assumption is that their parents would want them to convert, that their families need additional support and Jewish education as well. In some cases, sure; we’ve received plenty of feedback from parents over the years, telling us they’d love to learn along with their kids. But for others, the additional resources might not be wanted. (I wonder if all families at the schools are viewed equally: are resources offered to parents who have in-married but who do not practice Judaism at home? What about intermarried families where the mother is Jewish, thus the Conservative movement considers the children Jewish — are they offered resources too?)

As my colleague, Ari Moffic, wrote in February, 2012, you might also consider creating “A Pledge for All of Our Families” for your schools. Her suggested template offers inclusive language that could be inserted in every school’s handbook and/or posted to the school’s website.

It’s great to see that the follow-up activities will include “drafting recommended language for admission applications to the schools.” Hopefully the resources on our site will help with that process.

And when you start looking for professionals to join your focus groups, you know where to find me.

12 Responses to “Attracting Interfaith Families to the Conservative Movement Day Schools”

  1. My kid’s day school, which accepts patrilineal descent, but they also have a school celebration of the child’s bar or bat mitzvah, including an aliyah- is that OK for the Conservative movement? They should really have a clear policy.


    Rainbow Tallit Baby · November 6th, 2012 at 1:23 pm
  2. I think this is great.

    1/ The more Conservative Judaism (including its schools)resembles Reform Judaism, the more many of its members will simply join Reform Judaism and the more others will join Orthodoxy. In both cases the question will be ‘why be a part of a movement that is so like Reform and not be Reform?’

    2/ The more Gentiles join Schecter Schools, the more Schecter Schools will simply seem like expensive private schools albeit with Hebrew language lessons and those little hats on some students. (Any religion parts will have to be altered not to bother those students with family members with non-Jewish faiths).


    Dave Boxthorn · November 6th, 2012 at 9:04 pm
  3. RTB: Since patrilineal descent doesn’t make a child Jewish, they shouldn’t celebrate their bar or bat mitzvah, since they wouldn’t be, by Jewish law, commanded (one becomes bar or bat mitzvah simply by reaching the correct age where they are obligated to follow all Jewish laws, and their parents are no longer considered to be to blame for the child’s omissions. The stuff that people do – reading torah, leading services- is a demonstration that the person has reached the age where they have an obligation to do so and showing that they have the ability as well. For someone who isn’t Jewish, that would make no sense in a school where they follow halacha). If your school accepts patrilineally descended children, it is probably not Conservative (they might have a policy that the children are required to convert prior to bar or bat mitzvah; some do that).


    krg · November 7th, 2012 at 5:08 pm
  4. I’ve been thinking about this issue since I first saw the press release and I’m still disturbed. The Schechter Day school network is collapsing. It’s losing functioning day schools because those schools don’t see a value added from being in the network. Many of the remaining schools are struggling to attract sufficient students who can pay full tuition or subsidize students who can’t. (Cost and stability are obviously an issue for non Schechter day schools too.) The purpose and value added of the Schechter Network is probably less clear than any point in its history. One of the advantages of such a network is that they have the combined ability to bring great people together to work out pressing issues as a group.

    And what do they use this ability for?! They decide to discuss something that has been hashed out dozens of times already within the Conservative movement and there doesn’t seem to be anything this round of discussions has changed (Except the conversion-of-spouse focus of interfaith outreach is now being presented as a formal position of the entire movement when it was previously only a position of USCJ). Am I missing any actual changes from this meeting? This wasted effort is yet another example why what could be an important group in the Conservative movement is struggling to survive.

    On this specific issue, I’ll go beyond TheWanderingJew’s links on the interfaith site. For pre b’nai mitzvot children (i.e. most people in Schechter schools) why does it matter whether or not they’re Jewish by any definition? I don’t think Schecter schools have standards of home observance like some Orthodox schools so that’s not relevant. Is there anything in pre-b’nai mitzvot classrooms that a non-Jew would be halachically forbidden from doing?

    For pre-b’nai mitzvot grades, the solution seems obvious. Set clear standards for what they expect children to learn and do in classrooms. If a family understands what the school does and wants their children to seriously engage Jewish texts and prayers, the school should welcome their children regardless of Jewish status. There are a few issues, like leading davening after b’nai mitzvot, but frankly, if a school has clear standards and a student isn’t Jewish by Conservative standards they’re welcome in the school, but cannot do those few things. If they decide to convert fine. If they’re not ready to convert, understand this, and still remain in the school and participate in davening, text study, etc, what exactly is the problem?


    Dan Ab · November 8th, 2012 at 1:21 pm
  5. “I think this is great.

    The more Conservative Judaism (including its schools)resembles Reform Judaism, the more many of its members will simply join Reform Judaism and the more others will join Orthodoxy.”

    Oh, of course. Absolutely. Conservative Judaism is surely about to disappear any day — any MINUTE now — just as ritually prophesied hour after hour, day after day, by the multitude of Orthodox converts and their handlers. Just as, for example, the country of Bulgaria will soon cease to exist as a result of its .5% negative population growth. Moreover, not only has Orthodox Judaism has seen some rather imposing growth since its transformation into a predatory missionary cult some years ago, but surely the pool of potential future converts will be powerless to resist the allure of a sect whose most salient enticement is its rigorous vigilance against the infiltration of those with anything less than pure Jew blood.

    Of course, the relentless march toward victory of Orthodox Judaism might appear just a tad less inevitable if we move the timeline back a little farther. As so many Orthodox converts will delightedly inform you — relentlessly, until your ears bleed — Orthodox Judaism was the continuous, exclusive, unmodified embodiment of all Jewish religious practice for thousands of years, until Reform and Conservative Jews made up a new and fraudulent religion of their own some 150 years ago or so. Accordingly, prior to its recent resurgence, Orthodoxy had experienced a rather precipitous decline of its own, from its embrace — according to this fairy tale — by oh, say, 100% of worldwide Jewry in the early 19th Century to something on the order of 10%? or so at its nadir less than 100 years later. Funny; from that perspective, I guess one would have to regard Orthodox Judaism as among the most spectacular and unmitigated failures in the history of human civilization.


    willie · November 11th, 2012 at 3:04 am
  6. Patrilineal descent doesn’t automatically make a person Jewish according to the Reform movement.

    It would be helpful if the author and postesr were familiar with the actual Reform position on who is a Jew. Stating the position incorrectly doesn’t help make your case.


    ML · November 12th, 2012 at 2:03 pm
  7. @Willie

    Just move that timeline to about 1960 when a certain Pill was invented. Before that Ortho and non-Ortho women had approx the same number of kids. Since then, a bit of divergence. Now we have Sandra Fluke’s Jewish boyfriend’s little guys swimming aimlessly, while their Ortho counterparts are meeting up with some hefty eggs.


    Dave Boxthorn · November 12th, 2012 at 7:20 pm
  8. @ML
    You are correct as far as the literature of the Reform movement goes. For that matter in that same teshuvah, if I am reading it correctly, a person born to a Jewish mother is not automatically Jewish either!
    Regardless, the standard that the Reform movement has for itself is clearly not the predominant practice throughout the movement. The status quo is: one Jewish parent=Jewish child. It’s just the reality on the ground.


    Uri Allen · November 12th, 2012 at 11:34 pm
  9. DB-

    Very good post, I concur wholeheartedly.

    Willie-
    “Oh, of course. Absolutely. Conservative Judaism is surely about to disappear any day — any MINUTE now”
    Less than 40 years actually.
    “Orthodox Judaism has seen some rather imposing growth since its transformation into a predatory missionary cult some years ago, ”
    I have no idea what this nonsense means. The Halacha is clear though.
    “Orthodox Judaism was the continuous, exclusive, unmodified embodiment of all Jewish religious practice for thousands of years, until Reform and Conservative Jews made up a new and fraudulent religion of their own some 150 years ago or so.”
    You are exaggerating the time span O Judaism has existed by a substantial amount, but has been going for several centuries. Reform made a substantial decisive break in the 19th century. BTW, how many Reform Jews do you know who can trace their “Reformism” back to the 19th century?
    “Funny; from that perspective, I guess one would have to regard Orthodox Judaism as among the most spectacular and unmitigated failures in the history of human civilization.”
    Orthodox Judaism will survive indefinitely while C Judaism will be gone by the middle of the 21st century. Facts are stubborn things.


    Aharon · November 13th, 2012 at 11:00 pm
  10. Aharon writes:
    BTW, how many Reform Jews do you know who can trace their “Reformism” back to the 19th century?

    Yo.


    BZ · November 14th, 2012 at 12:08 am
  11. “I have no idea what this nonsense means.”

    It couldn’t be more simple. Jews don’t proselytize. Never did (at least not within the most recent millenium). But the Kiruv hustlers recognized the writing on the wall with respect to Orthodoxy, saw what was going on with the Mormons, Baptists, Hari Krishnas, and other evangelical movements, and decided there was just too much goddamn money on the table to refrain from getting in on the action any longer. So they didn’t.

    “The Halacha is clear though.”

    Crystal clear, for the credulous and dull-witted. It’s difficult to imagine the suspension of critical reasoning necessary to believe that there are clear, simple answers regarding the application of traditional Halachic standards to industrialization, technology, mass migrations, and all the other fundamental political and social dislocations to which the Reform and Conservative movements — not to mention Orthodoxy itself — are the direct and immediate responses. But of course, the very essence of contemporary Orthodoxy is the willful renunciation of such critical faculties in favor of an obscurantist obsession with mindless ritual, and unqualified deference to the judgment of God’s infallible intermediary here on Earth, His Holiness the Pope . . . er, pardon me, the Rebbe.

    “BTW, how many Reform Jews do you know who can trace their “Reformism” back to the 19th century?”

    Oh, I don’t know, but probably about the same as the number of Orthodox who can trace their “Orthodoxy” back before a time when the Rabbis “discovered” that the Halachic exemption from the proscription against carrying on Shabbos applied not only in the vicinity of one’s home, but in an entire county surrounded by kite string, or when Halacha no longer pertained to actually using such devices as lights, ovens and elevators, but merely to pushing the magic fire button that makes them start and stop.

    “Orthodox Judaism will survive indefinitely while C Judaism will be gone by the middle of the 21st century.”

    Quite possible. Whether that’s a remotely laudable circumstance is a different proposition entirely, of course, but it’s likelihood is certainly enhanced by a movement that measures the value of its female members based principally on their productivity as breeding stock, and the converts to which, immediately upon absorption into the collective, focus not on attending to their spiritual growth, or becoming literate in Torah and Jewish history, or any number of other commendable and useful pursuits, but on sticking their noses into the propriety of others’ religious practices, and piously prophesying the imminent demise of their enemies pursuant to their inexorable march toward final victory.

    “Facts are stubborn things.”

    Indeed. Though that has never been an obstacle to authoritarian fanatics who believe they’re in possession of an absolute and immutable Truth that transcends the subordinate and unreliable facts of science, math, logic, and various other elements of empirical reality. You know, like those who weren’t merely incredulous, but positively outraged, at the notion that the presidential election could be predicted on the basis of statistics and probabilities, rather than the feelings they had way, way deep in their tummies. Or, say, someone who baldly issues, without an ounce of hesitation or self-awareness, the ludicrous and wholly unsupported assertion that Conservative Judaism will simply disappear in 40 years. (Oh, excuse me; in LESS than 40 years.)


    willie · November 14th, 2012 at 7:51 am
  12. BZ-

    Well I can’t disprove that, now can I?

    Willie-
    It is hard to know where to begin with your tirade. You clearly have a strong disdain for [Orthodox] Judaism. The idea that the Orthodox Rabbinate is only in it for the money is pure nonsense. I have been helped my many Orthodox Jews, and rarely have I been asked for money.
    “measures the value of its female members based principally on their productivity as breeding stock,”
    I do no such thing.
    I would not be simple minded enough to say that everything in O Judaism goes back centuries, but the framework certainly does. I do not b However, I think Dave Boxthorn gave a good summary of why Conservative Judaism will be gone before 2051. If it isn’t gone nobody, and I mean NOBDODY is going to know the difference b/w it and Reform. BTW, I am a Democrat.


    Aharon · November 14th, 2012 at 10:52 pm

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