Adam Ferziger on non-Jews in Conservative synagogues

Dr. Adam S. Ferziger is senior lecturer, Gwendolyn and Joseph Straus Fellow, and vice chairman of the Graduate Program in Contemporary Jewry at Bar-Ilan University bio here). He had published many interesting articles, but I wanted to ask him questions about one in particular – an article that was published by the Journal of Jewish Studies, Between Catholic Israel and the ‘K’rov Yisrael’: Non-Jews in Conservative Synagogues (1982–2009).
“Throughout much of the twentieth century, non-Jewish family members of intermarried Jews were completely excluded from membership and active ritual life in American Conservative congregations”, Ferziger wrote. “The unprecedented rise of intermarriage rates during the last decades of the twentieth century caused many within the movement to reconsider such policies”. Thus, his article “focuses on American Conservative Judaism since the early 1980s and the original approaches that it has adopted toward non-Jewish spouses of Jewish individuals as well as other non-Jewish family members”.
Here’s the interview:
1. Please explain: What''s the meaning of Krov Israel and what are the main points in your article?
The article is entitled, "Between Catholic Israel and the ''Krov Yisrael'': Non-Jews in Conservative Synagogues (1982-2009), and appeared in the Journal of Jewish Studies published by Oxford University.  It addresses the issue of intermarriage within American Judaism, focusing on the evolution of the Conservative movement''s approach toward non-Jewish spouses and children.
The steep rise in intermarriage since the last decades of the twentieth century has had a profound effect on the internal workings of American Jewish religious life.  Initially the official policy of Conservative Judaism was that Jews who married non-Jews could not gain synagogue membership.  Even after this statute was eliminated, non-Jews within the family were completely excluded from normative synagogue life.   From the 1980s a new direction began to take shape known as keruv (bringing closer) that sought to find ways to make non-Jewish family members feel comfortable within the Conservative synagogue.  The assumption was that an inclusive attitude would inspire them to convert to Judaism.
The last few years, however, have seen an even more striking turn. Prominent Conservative leaders and numerous synagogues have begun to promote the idea that non-Jewish spouses and children should be welcomed and fully accepted as they are (without conversion).  The most dramatic evidence of this trend is the formulation of a new classification to describe such individuals, K''rov Yisrael.  The guidebook which first coined this term, offers the definition "relative or friend of Israel, close to the Jews."  Essentially, a hybrid category is emerging of people who are not Jewish according to any standard of the Jewish law, but – due to their family relationships with Jews and their involvement in congregational life – are distinguished from other gentiles and included within a broad Jewish collective.
2. Is the "tactic of including individuals who lack certain religious qualifications within synagogue life" something we want to do - or is it something we must do? Is it a situation we should be happy to deal with, or one we''re not happy with but have to deal with?
The issue here is not one of what is desirable or makes us happy but of what challenges face the Jewish people and whether the responses will enrich Judaism and strengthen the Jewish people or alternatively dilute the core such that the resemblance to key and long enduring elements becomes hazy at best.  
I just returned from a major conference on Jewish studies in Boston at which some sociologists argued that the massive attention paid to the decrease in numbers and weakened Jewish engagement of most American Jews is a fruitless obsession.  One school even sees increased intermarriage as a positive development since it testifies to the successful integration of Jews into American society and adds fresh blood – with Chelsea Clinton''s wedding serving as a major milestone. Other scholars would not accept this position, but they emphasize indicators of a small core of young activists who have developed new creative models of Jewish engagement that appeal to contemporary sensibilities.  This is certainly a positive development, yet the overwhelming position adopted by Jewish communities throughout history has been – simultaneous with nurturing intellectual, cultural, and spiritual ideals – to act boldly to prevent seepage of Jews on the periphery out of the Jewish collective.
Throughout the modern period the increasing secularization of Jews led authorities to grapple with an appropriate approach toward those who deviated from communal norms.  In my book, Exclusion and Hierarchy: Orthodoxy, Nonobservance, and the Emergence of Modern Jewish Identity, I argued that within Orthodoxy some adopted an exclusionist stance, but most frameworks included all Jews, although the observant maintained a privileged position.
Conservative Judaism emerged at the turn of the twentieth century.  It distinguished itself from the outset through its focus on the need to create a religious trend that recognized the authority of Jewish law but did so in a way that would allow for the involvement of a wide spectrum of Jews.
The current inclusive approach toward non-Jews, nonetheless, is a sharp departure from core Conservative principles.  As a movement that has experienced a significant decrease in membership, with the Reform – who have adopted more lenient guidelines regarding intermarriage and intermarried – gaining in parallel, the new policy may have appeal.  Yet it comes at a time when voices from within and without have suggested that in light of Reform''s newfound appreciation for tradition there is little that still divides the two denominations.  The new openness of Conservative congregations toward non-Jews further undermines the position of those who claim that significant distinctions still remain.
That said, the vast numbers of American Jews who have married non-Jews but want to maintain a strong connection to Judaism cannot and should not be ignored.  Notably, frameworks such as Chabad houses, community kollels and other outreach organizations have succeeded in addressing this population without legitimizing intermarriage nor seeking to redefine the status of non-Jewish spouses and children.  I do not identify personally with Conservative Judaism, but my study of American Jewish life has led me to comprehend the ways in which in the past its "liberalized traditionalism" facilitated and inspired the ongoing connection of many Jews with the historic tenets and constants of our religion.  This was achieved by striking a balance between fidelity to religious ideals and openness to personal diversity among Jews.  No doubt contemporary Conservative rabbis and leaders face a difficult conundrum with so many of those who grew up in their communities choosing to marry non-Jews.  Yet the more recent trend toward legitimization of the normative status of non-Jews within the Conservative synagogue would appear to be a defining moment.  If it gains full acceptance it would mark the movement''s most conspicuous digression from its historic path.
3. "The formerly crystal clear divide between Jews and gentiles that was once unequivocally re-enforced within Conservative synagogues has also undergone a thorough reorientation" - how?
I addressed this in part above, but here I would add that my article analyses in great detail the practical means by which Conservative synagogues have moved toward inclusion of non-Jews, blurring the formerly held boundaries while not completely erasing them.  Even in the many congregations that have not (yet) adopted the "k''rov Yisrael" terminology, intermarriage outreach committees have been established to formulate guidelines for how non-Jewish family members can be welcomed and integrated into communal life.  The Rabbinical Assembly that governs the Conservative rabbinate maintains its ban on members performing intermarriages.  Notwithstanding, many rabbis encourage such engaged couples to meet them for pre-nuptial counseling at which time they offer names of Reform colleagues that will officiate.  The couple will be invited to join the synagogue and an announcement of the marriage will appear in the weekly bulletin.  In some congregations the Jewish spouse is encouraged to celebrate an aufruf (celebration on the Sabbath before the wedding) in the sanctuary and including being called up for the traditional aliyah to the Torah.
4. Does acceptance of Krovei Israel make conversion more likely - or maybe less so? 
I have no data to offer an authoritative answer.  It would certainly appear that if one is accepted into congregational life without conversion there is far less incentive to pursue the more arduous path of official religious status change.  Moreover, some of those who encourage the adoption of "krov yisrael" (or similar types of normative designations for non-Jewish family members) are adamant that any indication that the congregation hopes this new standing will ultimately lead to full conversion is offensive to the family and counter-productive.  These activists do not discourage those who independently want to become "Jews by choice", but by no means do they want conversion to be considered a central goal in Conservative policy toward mixed families.  
5. Does it make the battle against interfaith marriages more likely to succeed?
It can be argued that the battle against intermarriage was lost some time in the last third of the twentieth century when American non-Jews no longer stigmatized marrying a Jew.  On the contrary, today books are published that offer advice for non-Jewish women interested in dating Jewish men. Indeed, for most contemporary American Jews of marrying age intermarriage is accepted or at the least the religious identity of a potential spouse is only one among many considerations that are factored into such decisions.  
This reality is at the foundation of those within the Conservative movement advancing the inclusivist approach.  They argue that if the non-Jewish spouse is welcomed into the synagogue there is a far greater chance that they will want to rear their children as Jews.  Since Conservative Judaism (as opposed to Reform) does not recognize patrilineal descent (Jewishness based on having a Jewish father), this would insure that full Jewish identification of the offspring of a Jewish mother would be cultivated.  If the mother is not Jewish the children still have "Jewish blood", moreover participation of all family members in congregational life will engender the maintenance of a "Jewish household."
The alternative outlook is that such unprecedented levels of inclusion on the part of Jewish spiritual institutions divests Judaism of it core historic ideal that synthesizes peoplehood with attachment to religious beliefs and positive acts of commitment (mitzvot).  Non-Jews must be fully respected and addressed with dignity and appreciation for their moral virtues and willingness to sacrifice for the sake of the attachments of their spouse''s to their heritage.  Nonetheless, obscuring the boundaries that differentiate between being a Jew and being related to one would uproot the fundamental definition of Jewishness as it has been understood by the majority of its adherents for thousands of years.   
6. Do you see any lesson Israel can learn from this article and from this reality when it grapples with the issue of conversion?
As is well-known only Orthodox procedures performed abroad by approved rabbis are recognized today by the chief rabbinate.  Therefore, there is certainly no reason to assume that internal designations such as K''rov Yisrael within liberal movements will influence the way authorities deal with such individuals.  Those who view positively encouraging non-Jews living in Israel who are married to Jews to convert and making the process as user-friendly as possible, will continue to do so.  Those who perceive a conversion whose motivation originates in a spousal connection to be negative, will be no more inclined to view a k''rov yisrael positively.
Unlike in the Diaspora, Israel''s concern with intermarriage is not due to fear of assimilation into a majority non-Jewish society.  Rather, it is primarily an issue of societal unity.  The emergence of a significant minority of what my colleague Professor Asher Cohen refers to as "Non-Jewish Jews" within Israel,  may lead – if it has not already done so – to increased hesitation among Religious-Zionists regarding participation of their children in activities (such as army and university education) that engender social interaction with secular Jews whose lineage is less clear.  Such fears could place a wedge between the observant and nonobservant populations that would destabilize the delicate balance that has to date prevailed.  It is for this reason that those most proactive in searching for solutions that will facilitate more accessible conversions for those who have settled in Israel stem predominantly from the Religious Zionist camp.  All the same, the leadership of this sector, like most of its Modern Orthodox counterparts abroad, is adamant in its unwillingness to recognize conversions performed by liberal movements.
It should be pointed out, however, that certain parallels can be drawn between the new intermediary Krov Yisrael designation in America and the distinctions that have been established as a result of the Law of Return in Israel.  In both cases individuals are invited into the broader Jewish collective but certain limitations are left in place – primarily related to performance of specific rituals or qualification to participate in certain life-cycle activities. Clearly some of those who have argued for reexamining the criteria for Israeli citizenship are similarly concerned with the ways in which the existence of "Non-Jewish Jews" subverts normative Jewish identity.  On the other hand, the recent internal haredi conflict regarding MK Rabbi Haim Amsalem was fueled in part by his statements supporting a lenient approach to conversion of those non-Jews who descended from Jews.  In his writings he refers to this group, following the precedent of previous Israeli chief rabbis, as "Zera Yisrael" (from the seed of Israel).  That said, unlike a synagogue, the State of Israel is a secular framework and its guidelines regarding citizenship do not necessarily imply changes in the constitution of long-held religious standards.
Interview by Shmuel Rosner.