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Stephen Lachter didn't know what to expect when a friend dragged him to a Men's Club meeting at his Conservative synagogue five years ago.
"My father was in a Men's Club, and to me, it was guys sitting around playing pinochle and volunteer ushering," he admits.
Instead, Lachter was surprised to see "interesting people having serious discussions," and he "fell into a session on kiruv [outreach]," to intermarried families. He found himself deeply involved in the conversation.
"I said to myself, this is something shuls need to be talking about," he said.
Today Lachter is a kiruv consultant, a lay leader trained to reach out to intermarried families in his Washington congregation. He's part of a nationwide program run by the Conservative movement's Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs, aimed at making Conservative synagogues more welcoming to their non-Jewish members.
The initiative comes at a time when the Conservative movement is concerned about declining numbers, and is realizing the need to reach interfaith families. In some instances, the push comes from rabbis, in other cases from lay people.
In the past three years, the Men's Club has held seven training seminars for lay leaders, and now has close to 40 kiruv consultants working in Conservative congregations around the country. The consultants set up kiruv committees at their synagogues and organize discussion groups with intermarried couples, their parents and grandparents.
Lachter says it's "amazing" how eager people are to talk.
In his own congregation, "people have come out of the woodwork, people who have never talked about it before, they want to talk about how the shul treats them," he says. "How do you talk to your child who is interdating? We don't have that language. How do grandparents deal with their grandchildren, teaching them what Judaism is without treading on toes?"
The federation also has organized rabbinic seminars for Conservative rabbis interested in the project, working on the assumption that kiruv consultants have to work closely with their rabbis to be effective. More than 120 rabbis have taken part in such seminars, including about 30 at the most recent gathering, held earlier this month at Berkeley's Congregation Netivot Shalom.
Rabbi Chuck Simon, executive director of the Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs, is passionate about kiruv. In his two decades at the group's helm he has consistently been out in front of the Conservative movement on the issue, prodding the leadership to do more to make congregants' non-Jewish spouses feel welcome.
His work is bearing fruit, he claims. Last December, at its biennial convention, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism announced its own, more proactive kiruv initiative, which advocates a more open attitude toward members' non-Jewish spouses, while still holding out conversion as the preferred goal.
That document, which has been distributed to Conservative congregations around the country, doesn't go as far as the Men's Club kiruv initiative, which Simon started working on six years ago - but he says it's a big step in the right direction.
"Four years ago, we set our goal to put kiruv on the Conservative movement agenda within five years. We did it in three and a half," he states.
In its April 2006 edition, the federation's Kiruv Initiative states its position as "in favor of conversion if possible," while recognizing that many non-Jewish spouses "lead Jewish lives and raise Jewish families" even if they don't convert themselves.
"The FJMC favors meeting these people where they are and assisting them in making Jewish choices," the document concludes.
That's a subtle distinction from the United Synagogue position. Rabbi Jerome Epstein, the United Synagogue's executive vice president, speaks diplomatically about the federation approach.
"Anything one can do to encourage people to identify more clearly as Jews is good," he says. "It's not the approach we're using, but it's hard to be against an attempt to reach out to people."
The 30 rabbis gathered in the Beit Midrash at Berkeley's Congregation Netivot Shalom were all interested in the Men's Clubs approach.
Some of their congregations already are working with kiruv consultants and have implemented some of the steps Simon advocates, such as referring to "milestones" rather than "mazel tovs" in temple bulletins and allowing for announcements of intermarriages and births to intermarried couples.
Others are considering having kiruv consultants, and have come to Berkeley to share ideas with like-minded colleagues.
Some of these rabbis, including Netivot Shalom's Rabbi Stuart Kelman, were part of The Tiferet Project, a four-year effort that culminated with last year's publication of A Place in the Tent, a booklet that urges the Conservative movement to adopt a more welcoming attitude toward intermarried families.
"For me, it's not even a question," Kelman says of the kiruv consultant idea. "One of the reasons there's no bima in my congregation is I'm trying to create a congregation that is accessible. I don't think the rabbis can do it themselves; the best way to create cultural change is to empower lay people."
Many of the rabbis have practical concerns: Their members are intermarrying, and they don't want to lose them.
Rabbi Chai Levy of Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon, Calif., notes that the most recent statistics from Marin County show that 90 percent of children aged 2-to-5 in families that identify as Jewish have a non-Jewish parent.
"The future of my congregation is, obviously, intermarried couples," she says. "I have to think seriously about these people."
Some of the rabbis say they're more forthcoming than factions in their own congregations. One rabbi, who asked not to be named, said his ritual committee was "not as progressive as I am, and I want ammunition to bring them along in the direction I think they should move."
Congregations with kiruv consultants report satisfaction with the project.
Evan Dobkins, immediate past president of Temple Israel in Ridgewood, New Jersey, says "behavior patterns" in his mid-sized Conservative congregation were "turning away non-Jewish spouses," and the congregation was losing members.
Two years ago he sent Howard Schreiber to a Men's Clubs training session. Schreiber, intermarried himself, had a vested interest in making the congregation more welcoming to families like his own, which have committed to raising their children Jewishly.
Schreiber set up a kiruv committee, and has organized discussion groups in people's homes facilitated by professional volunteers.
Dobkins says the congregation is very happy with the results. For his part, Schreiber is careful to stress that he's not trying to impose any particular solution, but merely provoke discussion of an issue every congregation faces, and help his Conservative synagogue strike that delicate balance between openness and commitment to Halacha.
"We've raised awareness in our synagogue," he says. "I wouldn't say our objective is change, but to make everyone in the shul comfortable with reality in a way that does not compromise the integrity of what we stand for."
Simon says the kiruv consultancy program will expand significantly in the coming year. Rabbinic and lay training seminars are planned for Cincinnati and Anaheim, California, this November, with more to follow in the spring. This winter, the federation will begin an online evaluation of cultural change in the congregations taking part in the program.
Both Simon and the rabbis who have signed onto the project say they'll continue to push the Conservative envelope - and they're convinced they'll bring the rest of the movement along.
"All the trends go from West to East," says Rabbi George Schlesinger of Congregation Beth Ami in Santa Rosa, California. "Being here, we're able to be cutting edge. This will sweep across the country."