Don’t blame the USY’ers – blame the adults

I’m proud of the times when USY’ers have led the way in publicly modeling Jewish observance – despite frequent poor choices by adult Conservative Jews.

Dating in the 21st century (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Dating in the 21st century
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Last month, the international board of United Synagogue Youth (USY) voted to junk the Conservative teen group’s requirement that its top leaders date only Jews. Instead, the leaders are supposed to “strive” to “model healthy Jewish dating choices” (whatever that means). A number of online reactions have lamented the move as evidence that the Conservative Movement is furthering the decline of American Judaism in the direction of anything-goes. But don’t blame the USY’ers.
It’s true that USY leadership has full control over its own leadership requirements. In fact, the rule about interdating was instigated in the 1990s by USY’s leadership on its own. But teenagers don’t make decisions in a vacuum. On issues relating to endogamy, the adult leaders of Conservative Judaism don’t always seem to know what they want – and when they do, what they want is not always “good for the Jews.”
For example, earlier this month, leading Conservative rabbi Wesley Gardenswartz put forth, and then withdrew, a proposal to allow Conservative rabbis to perform interfaith marriages in which the couple agrees to raise the children as Jews (ironic, given that even by Conservative rules, half the children of such unions are not Jews).
Conservative Jews supposedly consider some rabbinic actions – accepting patrilineal descent, converting uncircumcised men – to be so unacceptable that violating those “standards” can result in a rabbi’s expulsion from the movement. One such standard is performing and even attending only in-marriages. But it’s an open secret that some Conservative rabbis do go to interfaith ceremonies. Two of my friends who were ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary have told me they attended intermarriages by friends and family members.
The actions of lay Conservative leaders can be even worse.
Though it received virtually no criticism or even attention, a recent international president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Judy Yudof, boasted of her past presidency in an extremely inappropriate forum: the wedding announcement her family submitted to The New York Times three weeks ago regarding the intermarriage of her daughter in a ceremony performed by a minister.
I’m a past international president of USY. I remember murmurs and grumblings among some of the regional and international teen leadership in the 1980s about how we were expected to observe Shabbat and keep kosher when some of the most prominent adult leaders were flouting Jewish law in public on a regular basis. But the requirement to observe Jewish law as a prerequisite for holding respected leadership roles prompted a spiritual transformation in my life. Even if my initial observance of Shabbat, for example, was mostly driven by ambition for success in USY elections, mitzvot have their own power, and the benefits of USY’s leadership rules are still with me more than 25 years later.
I’m proud of the times when USY’ers have led the way in publicly modeling Jewish observance – despite frequent poor choices by adult Conservative Jews. But for how long can they be expected to do so?
The author constructs the Jerusalem Post Crossword Puzzle, which appears every Friday in the Metro and In Jerusalem sections. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter (@DavidBenkof); or email him at David- [email protected]