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PAGE 18A HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, JULY 17, 2009 i i Conservatives end push to convert intermarrieds By Stewart Ain New York Jewish Week NEWYORK--At the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism's biennial convention in 2005, its top professional drew a line in the sand: He told delegates that the movement could no longer be passive on the issue of conversions. "We must," Rabbi Jerome Epstein said, "begin aggressively to encourage conversions" of non-Jewish spouses. Meanwhile, the move- ment's Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs, which two years earlier created a Keruv (outreach) Initiative, was en- couraging a cultural change in synagogues to make them more inviting to potential members of diverse back- grounds. The message? No conversions necessary. Some suggested that United Syna- gogue's push for conversion was a reaction the Keruv Initiative. Although not as divisive an issue as the ordination of openly gay students, the changing role of women in Jewish ritual and the ques- tion of whether the Con- servative movement even follows halacha [Jewish law], the longstanding conversion controversy has quietly fes- tered as yet another rift in the movement. Without throw- ing daggers at one another, the United Synagogue and the Men's Club have gone their separate ways regarding con- versions and outreach, and for the most part held their fire about the other. But there were exceptions. The Men's Club's Web site, for instance, notedwithout naming names that its Keruv program faced "resistance from both clergy and lay leaders who fear that promotion of keruv either sanctions intermarriage or compromises halachic (Jew- ish legal) standards." These different approaches to the intermarried caused such concern among the other arms of the Conserva- tive movement that a com- mittee was established in an attempt to find common ground. The result is a pam- phlet that will be distributed in the coming days in which all arms of the Conservative movement speak with one voice--decidedly softer in tone on conversions--in spelling out their principles on outreach: All are welcome. There is a commitment to fostering Jewish marriage and family life. Interfaith couples are welcome. There is "nurturing and support for the spiritual journey of non-Jewish part- ners who join us, to deepen their connections to the synagogue, the Jewish com- munity and to the Jewish people, and to inspire them to consider conversion." In discussing the pam- phlet, Rabbi Joel Meyers, who was executive vice president of the movement's Rabbinical Assembly when it was written, said: "The movement is still very much in favor of Jewish family life, and so the question was how does one approach American Jewish communal life today without changing religious standards." Asked about the noticeable shift in the United Syna- gogue's position away from an aggressive push for con- versions, Rabbi Meyers said simply: "It's dealing with the reality of contemporary life." Itwas also a compromise that all arms could live with; an initial draft didn't even con- tain the word "conversion." Rabbi Charles Simon, executive director of the Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs, said that while the leaders of the movement were hammering out the wording of this pamphlet, the editors of the movement's magazine were not briefed on the policy shift. Perhaps as a result, the summer issue published last month focused exclusively on conversion, with a draw- ing on the cover of a woman entering a mikveh or ritual bath as part of the conver- sion process. No mention was made of interfaith families. "We were not making any statement about interfaith families," said Joanne Palmer, co-editor of the magazine, "Voices of Conservative/ Masorti Judaism." "You can't possibly include everything in the magazine," you unconditionally, how can you then say we want you to convert?" "As the movement is grap- pling with these issues, the world is moving very quickly and people are voting with their feet," Rabbi Olitzky added. "Outreach is running to where people are, not wait- ing for them to run to you. It is not halacha that is holding them [United Synagogue] back, it is synagogue culture and xenophobia." Rabbi Simon, whose Men's "Outdoor Wedding" by Vicky Rabinowicz/Images.corn Palmer said. "I would not be surprised if we take up inter- faith families in a later issue." This is certain to remain a hot-button issue. The United Synagogue's biennial conven- tion in December will devote six hours to it, and for the first time Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, has been invited to address the delegates. The institute is an independent organiza- tion dedicated to bringing Judaism to interfaith families and the unaffiliated. Rabbi Olitzky said he was aware of the movement's evolving stance on the intermarried andwould have preferred that its new pamphlet on outreach omitted the word "conver- sion." "While I believe whole- heartedly in conversion, I do not believe that conversion is an outreach strategy," he said. "If you say on the one hand that we are welcoming Club organization has mem- bers in 275 of the movement's nearly 700 synagogues-- down from 760 synagogues in 2005 said he hopes that the "culture of United Synagogue will be changed" now that it has a new top professional. Rabbi Steven Wernick suc- ceeded Rabbi Jerome Epstein as executive vice president two weeks ago. Rabbi Moshe Edelman, director of the United Syn- agogue's Committee on Congregational Standards, pointed out that in 1995 the entire Conservative move- ment adopted a policy that "called exclusively for con- version." He said it was the movement's answer to a 1990 Jewish population survey that found half of all Jews were marrying out of the faith. When the results of a 2000 Jewish population survey found little change in the intermarriage rate, Rabbi Edelman said the United Synagogue published a docu- ment on interfaith marriage, "Al HaDerech" [On the Path], that said the non-Jewish spouse should be encouraged to "study and participate in Jewish life with the eventual goal of halachic conversion." He said he wrote the paper in consultation with syna- gogue leaders from the dif- ferent arms of the movement. In the meantime, Rabbi Edelman said, "the Men's Club went off in its own direction. But it was made clear that the Rabbinical Assembly was in support of the "A1 HaDerech" approach ... It preferred the end result of a one-faith fam- ily. But given that this does not always happen, the next 15 pages [of the paper] is about how we can engage." He suggested that the new pamphlet is designed "not to bridge the gap" but to bring the Men's Club back into the fold with the rest of the Con- servative movement because it had been "in a distinct minority." Rabbi Edelman added that the new pamphlet is consistent with the United Synagogue's approach even though its wording on con- version is "a little wimpy." "United Synagogue's posi- tion is that for the survival of Judaism you need Jewish families and Jewish children and that conversion and one- faith families are really very important," he stressed. "And when there is no conversion [of the non-Jewish wife], the paper speaks about conver- sion of their children. Page after page deals with the kids because we are worried about the next generation... It seems they [the Men's Club] have given up on the notion of conversion." Rabbi Simon said that although "there is nothing wrongwith saying conversion is important to us, we should be honest about it. There is not a realistic expectation A divorce in the birthright family in today's life to set a goal of conversion. Couples set their own goals; that is not where I would start the game." But Rabbi Edelman in- sisted that while "couples set their own goals, it is up to a rabbi to stand up and speak of kashrut and of lighting candles because we set the bar and ask people to reach up to the bar. We could have a siddur [prayer book] completely in English, or we could say learn how to read Hebrew." Rabbi Simon said he found"AI HaDerech" "fun- damentatly flawed" because it "talks about what people can and cannot do." "It does not talk about people but about activities and actions," he said, noting that it specifically excludes a non-Jewish spouse from being a voting member of a synagogue or chairing a com- mittee or project. "Non-Jews don't want religious equality but social acceptance--to be part of the community," Rabbi Simon said. "The first state- ment of the document says the goal is conversion; the goal of keruv is Jewish living." He added that when the document was published, he spent "several days" doing damage control, trying to calm down"people who called to say they no longer had a place in their synagogue, and from rabbis who were also upset." Rabbi Simon said that his organization's Keruv Initia- tive has, since 1999, trained more than 80 lay leaders and more than 200 rabbis in ways to reach out to intermarried couples in the community. "If we needed to implement change, we realized the rabbis couldn't do it themselves but needed a strategic partnerwho was a member of their congre- gation," he said. "We wanted the rabbis to be the behind- the-scenes quarterback." Reprinted with permission from the New York Jewish Week, www.jewishweek.com. By Sharon Udasin New York Jewish Week NEW YORK--"Momo" Lifshitz is a legendary figure among Birthright Israel par- ticipants, a larger-than-life symbol of the free 10-day trip that more than 200,000 Diaspora Jews have used to jumpstart their Jewish identities. In the decade since the Birthright trips began, nearly 50,000 teens and 20-somethings have wandered through the gates of Ben-Gurion International Airport--and into the open arms of this balding, middle- aged teddy bear of a man. The president and founder of Oranim Educational Initia- tives, the largest Birthright trip provider, Shlomo Lifshitz ("Momo," as he is commonly called) prides himself on greeting each of his Oranim Birthright trip participants with a personal "Shalom and Welcome Home." But Lifshitz's "message'-- alumni say he routinely pushes aliyah, pressures par- ticipants to date only Jews and stresses that they should "make Jewish babies" -- has drawn criticism over the years. And last week, citing new restrictions forced on him by Birthright officials, Lifshitz, 53, a secular, na- tionalist former Israeli army officer whose office is based in Kfar Saba, cut his ties with the popular trips, formally withdrawing from the winter '09-'10 trip season. In an e-mail sent to thou- sands of Oranim alumni last Monday, Lifshitz cited an ideo- logical reason for his move. "Due to new rules and regulationswithin the project, I have been instructed that there were certain things I was simply not allowed to talk about," Lifshitz wrote. He noted that Birthright had prohibited him from using the phrase "raise your chil- dren Jewish" or encouraging aliyah to Israel. And he said he could no longer promise his free Israel honeymoon gift to brides and grooms who had met during their Oranim Birthright trips. "I cannot continue to allow my messages to be muted," Lifshitz continued in the letter. A Birthright spokesman said regulations sent to pro- riders have not changed significantly in recent years. "Trip organizers come and go--it won't affect the pro- gram at all," said an official spokesman for Taglit Birth- right Israel, who confirmed that Oranim was the largest trip provider. "There are two dozen providers and they pro- vide a wide variety of options. The other trip organizers will happily pick up the slack," the spokesman added. Another official close to Birthright described Lifshitz as "a very good marketer" and mid-level educatorwho is "very charismatic" and whose agenda at times seemed at odds with that of Birthright. "We want to educate people. make them proud Jews," the official said, acknowledging that there were complaints about Lifshitz from partici- pants who had intermarried parents and from others who said they were made to feel like second-class Jews if they didn't marry Jews or move to Israel. The official also suggested that Lifshitz had become dif- ficult to workwith--confron- tational and self-important. While some Oranim alumni said Lifshitz's style could be heavy-handed, others said they had the time of their lives with Oranim and that his departure is a blow to Birthright. "Oranim's 'honeymoon package' and emphasis on 'making Jewish babies' com- mit a cultural faux pas that carries the potential to dam- age Birthright's image in the U.S.," said Ruth Stein, who attended an Oranim trip in June 2007. "Such 'religious' choices are regarded as pri- vate matters that are none of anybody's business. "Momo's lectures on the unsurpassed beauty of Jew- ish women, among other topics," continued Stein, "are especially risky given the trip's reputation as a secular option for non-religious Jews." Some alumni shrugged off Lifshitz's approach as simply part of the "price" participants must pay for a free trip to Israel. Others said the discomfort resulting from his speeches led to necessary debate regarding crucial Jew- ish issues. "You have to expect that, while going on a free trip to Israel, you're going to be en- couraged to embrace Judaism, Israel and Jewish life," said Evan Goldin, who went to Israel with Oranim in 2007. "It's like going to one of those free breakfasts where people try to sell you a timeshare, and then raising a stink because someone's talking about timeshares while you eat their food for free." Apart from what some see as Lifshitz's hard sell on dat- ing Jewish, some participants were put off by what they saw as his hard line on Israeli politics. "The right-wing perspec- tives presented were rather unsettling, and the indoctri- nation was unappealing," said a 23-year-old 2005 Oranim trip participant, who request- ed to remain anonymous due to his work at an American Jewish organization."[Momo] spoke to our group, saying, 'Some people say the Iraq war was good for Israel. Wrong. The Iraq war was great for Israel,' representing a rather astonishingly narrow view- point." Lifshitz established Ora- nim Educational Initiatives 23 years ago, and in addi- tion to Birthright program- ruing--which began only in the last decade the orga- nization provides long-term trip internships, volunteer programs and educational opportunities. As far as Birthright pro- gramming, however, Oranim officials say they have been responsible for nearly 50,000 of the total 215,000 Birthright participants since the free Israel trip's inception in 2000. This summer alone, Lifshitz wrote, Oranim accounted for 70 percent of Birthright registrants, but only received seat allotments for 14 percent of his 12,000 applicants. Birthright officials had determined this year that no one provider could bring more than 15 percent of the total participants, so as to provide more balance. This decision appeared to convince Lifshitz to pull out. "I'm not leaving Birthrightwith happiness," he told The Jewish Week by phone from Israel last Monday. He said he loved the project but was very upset over having to tell 10,000 registrants "that I could not take them" because of the new limits imposed on Oranim by Birthright. Divorce on page 23A it I Ill ............. I -- - IIF II l