A few dozen Jewish teens compelled North American Jewry to collectively groan “Oy gevalt” in a chattering digital chorus this week.
After a passionate debate until 2:30 am at the annual international United Synagogue Youth convention in Atlanta Monday, in the culmination of a year’s research and study, some 42 USY leaders voted to amend its standards of leadership, adding clauses dealing with bullying and lashon hara (gossip).
But the subject that has the Jewish world abuzz is the amended language for the clause dealing with interdating.
After Jewish media began publishing conference coverage with variations of the inflammatory JTA headline, “USY drops ban on interdating,” Facebook discussions lamented, “Another nail in the coffin of Conservative Judaism,” and “This year it’s a language shift, next year (or 5 years from now) that language disappears completely.”
Others decried Conservative Judaism, with one saying, “United Synagogue has always moved policy and theology closer to its participants’ choices, rather than move participants closer to its policies and theology,” and another noting, “The movement is in the midst of a major identity crisis.”
‘The movement is in the midst of a major identity crisis’
When a change of wording to a set of standards that affects a mere 100 teens is cause for a social media storm, all signs point to sensitive territory. But what is the background to this troublesome amendment, and does it really herald the end of time for Conservative Judaism?
The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the movement’s umbrella organization, turned 100 last year, but USY, the North American arm of its global youth movement (NOAM), was established in 1951.
The leadership standards, a set of behavior guidelines that grew organically alongside the youth group, are obligatory only for USY’s six international executive officers, the six officers from each of its 17 regions, and another 25 odd leaders on various executive committees.
They are not considered binding for the youth movement’s other 10,000-odd members, but do represent the movements’ highest ideals — covering observance of Shabbat and kashrut, and participation in regular Jewish study and synagogue services. The standards allow the leaders to be visible models for the movement’s missions.
There are also two prohibitive clauses to the standards: abstinence from illegal drugs and alcohol, and wording taken to forbid interdating, which read, “It is expected that leaders of the organization will refrain from relationships which can be construed as interdating.”
It is the interdating clause that sparked the revision of USY’s standards of leadership, a project that, according to 2014 international USY president Aaron Pluemer, began over a year ago at the urging of his constituents. He explained to The Times of Israel on Wednesday that the standards are “by USYers for USYers, and can only be changed by USYers.”
The new, amended clause on interdating reads, “The Officers will strive to model healthy Jewish dating choices. These include recognizing the importance of dating within the Jewish community and treating each person with the recognition that they were created Betzelem Elohim (in the image of God).”
Pluemer said the impetus behind the language change is hardly to encourage interdating, but is rather to explicitly welcome children of mixed marriages who may have been uncomfortable with the original wording.
‘We have members of so many different backgrounds and want to accommodate them, to reach out to people everywhere’
“We have members of so many different backgrounds and want to accommodate them, to reach out to people everywhere. We wanted to be sensitive to where members come from and reflect a welcoming environment in that language,” said Pluemer.
USY is encountering children of mixed marriages, both those who include spouses who converted to Judaism, and, increasingly, those who don’t. According to the 2013 Pew survey, A Portrait of Jewish Americans, 27% of all Conservative marriages are with non-Jews.
A ‘scandalous’ situation
But intermarriage wasn’t always an accepted phenomenon, and indeed, the original clause against interdating came some 25 years ago as a result of a “scandalous” situation in which a teenage girl from small town Pennsylvania, the only Jew in her school, had a non-Jewish boyfriend and wanted to run for president of USY. She lost, and the next summer the board passed the interdating amendment, former USYer Michael Jay Schatz told The Times of Israel.
A doctor in Jewish education, Schatz’s dissertation, “The Impact of Teen Leadership in the Jewish Religious Youth Organization on Adult Jewish Observance and Identity,” tracked former members of the youth movement from 1960-2005.
‘Inderdating was just inconceivable, something that wouldn’t happen’
Prior to the rural Pennsylvania’s failed candidacy, said Schatz, USY hadn’t had to deal with the issue of leaders interdating.
“It was just inconceivable, something that wouldn’t happen. It doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, just wasn’t so widespread in the Sixties and Seventies,” Schatz said. By the 1980s, however, Jewish institutions had woken up again to the importance of in-marriage.
In the course of his research, Schatz interviewed some 100 former USY leaders, who told him that for some leaders it has always been a game to see if they could get away with breaking the prohibitions, for example sneaking out on Shabbat to sporting events, or eating non-kosher food in public.
But somehow, relaxing the prohibition on interdating is more troubling.
“It’s almost like saying the organization no longer feels it’s a value,” he said, quickly adding, “or at least it can be perceived that way.”
The solution? Make souls sing
For some rabbis, the increasing numbers of inter-married families is a challenge that must be addressed through better and more inspirational religious leadership, not a problem to accept.
Charismatic Berkeley Rabbi Menachem Creditor, also a former member of the youth movement, took time away from celebrating his sister’s Christmas eve wedding in Israel to respond to the USY vote. The outspokenly feminist rabbi of Congregation Netivot Shalom is a well-known activist for gay rights and serves on a variety of liberal Jewish organizations’ boards.
“The philosophy that I have as rabbi of a Conservative synagogue is that we practice a radical kind of inclusion that everyone is welcome to come and do it our way,” Creditor said.
“Is there any limit to what Judaism can sanctify?” he asked rhetorically. Conservative institutions are due for a radical mindset shift. The movement, he said, has “held unrealized potential for a long time while institutions and leaders craft their responses out of fear.”
He said the mere need for the inter-dating clause “demonstrates the inadequacy of the national movements. The official branches have yet to inspire growing national communities that don’t require such statements.”
‘Conservative Judaism demands the courage to be bound by a system you help influence’
His community is wholeheartedly welcoming, but he doesn’t believe in a Judaism that accommodates. “That is the language of capitulation,” he said, of a reactive leadership that ratifies facts on the ground, not an inspirational proactive leadership.
“The proactive sets souls on fire such that the statement would be self-evident and doesn’t need to be articulated,” he said. “My responsibility is to demonstrate with ferocious passion the beauty of the religious vision I hold.”
“Conservative Judaism demands the courage to be bound by a system you help influence,” Creditor added.
But for USY president Pluemer, that is exactly what he and the youth movement’s leadership are doing in passing the new amendments.
Owning and shaping their own Jewish identity
An exasperated Rabbi Steven Wernick, the chief executive officer of umbrella body USCJ, told The Times of Israel that “intermarriage is a fact of life and we should be more welcoming when it happens.” However, the mere existence of the youth movement, whose purpose is to allow Jewish teens to meet other Jewish teens, is an expression of Conservative Judaism’s desire that youth commit themselves to personal relationships with Jews.
The newly worded interdating clause “changes negative language to positive language” and moves it from “thou shall not, to thou shall,” said Wernick from this week’s Atlanta convention.
Everybody is missing the point, said Wernick.
“We live in a society that shoots first and asks questions later… We’re talking about two sentences: You don’t teach people how to have a life of value in a constitutional document,” he said.
Instead, he said, the process the youth leaders underwent in drawing up the amendments and in ratifying them is the transformative experience.
“They put the most critical issues of Judaism on the table and dealt with them and affirmed higher expectations than what was originally proposed, with dignity and poise,” Wernick said.
Outgoing USY president Pluemer told The Times of Israel that through the entire process of drawing up the amendments, there was a very healthy discussion among the leaders, which culminated in Monday’s vote.
‘They put the most critical issues of Judaism on the table and dealt with them and affirmed higher expectations than what was originally proposed, with dignity and poise’
He said there were those who wanted to entirely remove the interdating clause, and also those who wanted to keep the original version.
“It is a testament to the future of USY that we have our youth engaged in these discussions and that we challenge each other because we can only grow from this experience,” he said.
“From day one when the officers’ standards were instituted, it was to ensure a strong Jewish future,” the UC Santa Barbara freshman said.
At the Atlanta conference, the 800-odd participants took advantage of the location to learn about civil rights. They’ve also volunteered at soup kitchens, packaged parcels for Africa, studied text, prayed, and, said Wernick, “had the times of their lives.”
“These guys have their heads screwed on right; they’re learning, growing and having fun,” said Wernick. He sighed. “I feel sad that something that was so beautiful has been perverted into something political.”