Conservatives to unveil new outreach plan

How should Conservative Judaism cope with dwindling membership, growing intermarriage rates and society’s increasing religious and political polarity while remaining true to its base in halachah?

Those are some of the vexing questions the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism will tackle when it convenes Sunday, Dec. 4, in Boston for its four-day biennial.

It’s no accident that the opening plenary talk by Rabbi Harold Kushner is called “What Does It Mean To Be A Conservative Jew?” That question will be on everyone’s mind at the conference, says Rabbi Joel Meyers, head of the Rabbinical Assembly, the Conservative movement’s rabbinic arm.

“What the movement is struggling to do is set a public position for the 21st century,” he says.

The challenge comes as Conservative Judaism, which once set the agenda for American Jewry, has lost its numeric edge, dropping from 43 percent of affiliated Jews in 1990 to 33 percent in 2000, according to the two latest National Jewish Population Surveys.

Meyers insists the Conservative movement is “strong” and says enrollment in day schools and camps is up, even as the movement’s outreach to young adults is languishing.

In an effort to stem the hemorrhaging of membership in Conservative synagogues and soften the movement’s image of being cold and unwelcoming to the intermarried, Rabbi Jerome Epstein, the USCJ’s executive vice president, will unveil a far-reaching initiative on outreach, directed primarily at interfaith families in Conservative congregations.

In the works for the past year, the initiative, described by Conservative leaders as much more forthcoming than the movement’s current approach, is being kept under tight wraps — though every movement leader, half a dozen congregations and selected outsiders already have seen it.

Epstein, the driving force behind the initiative, headed the faction in 1986 that pushed for promoting in-marriage rather than actively welcoming the intermarried. Now he’s spearheading an outreach approach that Charles Simon, head of the Conservative movement’s Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, calls “a major reversal” of the movement’s current attitude.

Insisting it’s “an evolution, not a reversal,” Epstein says he didn’t believe two decades ago that the Conservative movement had the resources to both promote in-marriage and outreach. But with intermarriage a reality, he says he has come to the conclusion that “whether we can or can’t do both, we must.”

The initiative calls upon congregations to actively encourage conversion, particularly of non-Jews already in Conservative families.

“The process we’ve traditionally had, which makes it difficult to convert, was probably valuable at a particular time,” Epstein says. “While I’m not looking to recruit people off the street, for those who have already chosen to be part of a relationship with a Jew, we ought to be passionate and compassionate toward them.”

Epstein expects that the new openness will impact the movement’s Camp Ramah and Solomon Schechter day schools, both of which place restrictions on children of non-Jewish mothers. The day schools, for example, require such students to convert within a year of admission.