NEW YORK – Last week, a group of rabbis gathered at the Jewish Theological Seminary for a dialogue on the topic of Keruv (Outreach), Conversion and Intermarriage. The October 25 gathering was jointly convened by the Schechter Day School Network and the Rabbinical Assembly. This program is an example of increased collaboration between the two organizations to support the work of day schools.
Most of the gathering’s participants work in Schechter day schools. Our rabbis welcomed the opportunity to engage with colleagues from schools across the Network about issues that touch the lives of students and prospective students and their families,” remarked Dr. Elaine Cohen, Schechter Day School Network Director. “They share a commitment to help more Jewish children attain a deep and sustaining relationship to Judaism through intensive day school education. With children from inter-married families, our work moving forward entails cultivating a strong relationship with parents and engaging with them on their Jewish journey.”
Consensus from the meeting was that it would be beneficial to work together to frame the schools’ admissions policies to include welcoming language inviting families to engage in an open conversation about their aspirations for their children’s Jewish education. The rabbis expressed their commitment to conversion according to the standards of Conservative Judaism, as the ideal for our keruv (outreach) to these families. They agreed that once a child is enrolled in a Schechter school, the ritual aspects of conversion should be treated as a celebration and affirmation of the commitment that the family has already made by choosing a day school education. Best practices include providing a school professional, such as the rabbi or social worker, to support families from the time of their application to the school throughout the child’s Schechter experience.
“The rabbis delved into the complexities Schechter schools face pertaining to keruv, which they encounter with greater frequency than in years past,” remarked Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Assembly. “They shared a number of success stories and ways that they support parents and work with them to reach the desired result of deeper family embrace of Judaism alongside conversion of the child, where necessary.”
Among the challenging questions that the group discussed were:
- What is the optimal timeline for conversion after admitting a child who is not yet Jewish to the school?
- How can the school reconcile its desire to include more families and children in Jewish education – and in turn, grow enrollment – while at the same time ensure preservation of the standards of Conservative Judaism?
- What are the best practices to engage the school’s leadership team to ensure a cohesive and coherent approach to keruv?
- What can the Schechter Network do to engage a wider group of school leaders, including lay leaders and heads of school, in the conversation about keruv?
- To what extent is it beneficial for the schools to exercise autonomy on this issue and in what ways would they benefit from clearer guidelines and standards for Schechter schools across North America?
- How might the schools reach out to Reform rabbis and their congregations in respectful dialogue about these issues?
Follow-up activities will include drafting recommended language for admission applications to the schools and holding focus groups of professional and lay school leaders to consider “mission appropriate” practices. All agreed on the need for training to welcome inter-married families to the school community within the parameters of each school’s mission.
The Schechter Day School Network is a voluntary membership organization that provides resources and support to affiliated day schools across North America under the umbrella of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. More information is available at schechternetwork.org.