Stephen Lachter didn't know what to expect when a friend dragged him to a men's club meeting at his Conservative synagogue five years ago.
"My father was in a men's club, and to me, it was guys sitting around playing pinochle and volunteer ushering," he admitted.
Instead, Lachter was surprised to see "interesting people having serious discussions," and he "fell into a session on kiruv," or outreach, to intermarried families. "I said to myself, this is something shuls need to be talking about."
Today, Lachter is a kiruv consultant, a lay leader trained to reach out to intermarried families in his Washington congregation. He's part of a nationwide program run by the Conservative movement's Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs, which is aimed at making Conservative synagogues more welcoming to their non-Jewish members.
The initiative comes at a time when the Conservative movement is concerned about declining numbers. The Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs has consistently been ahead of the Conservative movement in reaching out to the intermarried.
That groundwork is bearing fruit. Last December at its biennial convention, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism announced its own kiruv initiative, advocating a more open attitude toward members' non-Jewish spouses, while still holding conversion as the preferred goal.
The document, which has been distributed to Conservative congregations around the country, doesn't go as far as the Men's Club kiruv initiative, but it's a big step in the right direction, said Rabbi Chuck Simon, executive director of the Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs.
"Four years ago, we set our goal to put kiruv on the Conservative movement agenda within five years. We did it in three and a half," he said.
In the past three years, the Men's Club organization has held seven training seminars for lay leaders and now has close to 40 kiruv consultants working in Conservative congregations around the country. The consultants set up kiruv committees at their synagogues and organize discussion groups with intermarried couples, their parents and grandparents.
At Kiruv consultant Lachter's congregation, "people have come out of the woodwork," he said. "How do you talk to your child who is interdating? We don't have that language. How do grandparents deal with their grandchildren, teaching them what Judaism is without treading on toes?"
The Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs also has organized rabbinic seminars for interested Conservative rabbis on the assumption that kiruv consultants have to work closely with their rabbis to be effective. More than 120 rabbis have taken part in such seminars, including about 30 at a gathering held recently at Berkeley's Congregation Netivot Shalom.
In its April 2006 edition, the federation's Kiruv Initiative states its position as "in favor of conversion if possible," while recognizing that many non-Jewish spouses "lead Jewish lives and raise Jewish families" even if they don't convert themselves.
"The [federation] favors meeting these people where they are and assisting them in making Jewish choices," the document concludes.
That's a subtle distinction from the United Synagogue position. Rabbi Jerome Epstein, the United Synagogue's executive vice president, spoke diplomatically about the federation approach.
"Anything one can do to encourage people to identify more clearly as Jews is good," he said. "It's not the approach we're using, but it's hard to be against an attempt to reach out to people."
Rabbinic and lay training seminars are planned for Cincinnati and Anaheim in November, with more to follow next spring. This winter, the federation will begin an online evaluation of cultural change in the congregations taking part in the program.
At the Berkeley gathering, some of the rabbis, including Netivot Shalom's Rabbi Stuart Kelman, were part of the Tiferet Project, a four-year effort that culminated with last year's publication of "A Place in the Tent," a booklet that urges the Conservative movement to adopt a more welcoming attitude toward intermarried families.
"For me, it's not even a question," Kelman said of the kiruv consultant idea. "One of the reasons there's no bimah in my congregation is I'm trying to create a congregation that is accessible. I don't think the rabbis can do it themselves; the best way to create cultural change is to empower lay people."
Many of the rabbis have practical concerns: Their members are intermarrying, and they don't want to lose them.
Rabbi Chai Levy of Marin County's Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon noted that the most recent statistics in the county show that 90 percent of children ages 2-5 in families that identify as Jewish have a non-Jewish parent.
"The future of my congregation is, obviously, intermarried couples," she said. "I have to think seriously about these people."
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