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Easton, PA 18042
Phone: (610) 258-5343
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Thursday, 7:25 am
Minyan

Friday, 8:00 pm
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Saturday, 9:30 am
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BAS Rabbi's Message

Rabbi's Message Archive

December, 2014

By now, many of you have read about the Pew Research Forum’s study of Jewish Americans. It showed, among other things, tremendous decline in Conservative communities, and, to a lesser extent, growth in Orthodox Judaism. It also showed that most Jews leaving the Conservative movement ultimately affiliate with the Reform movement—if they choose to affiliate at all.

Scholars have focused on different causes for this trend: perhaps we have not sent our young people to camp or provided them with an adequate Jewish education. Perhaps we do not sufficiently fund USY, or perhaps we are too liberal generally to appreciate the value of religion.

In the year since the publication of the Pew study, though, I’ve been drawn to a different hypothesis: perhaps the reason we are not attracting new families to Conservative communities is our pervasive failure to address and wholeheartedly welcome interfaith families into our communities.

Today—at least theoretically—Conservative Judaism is based on a particular approach to halakha (Jewish law). Our “official” belief is that to be a “good” Conservative Jew, one must follow Jewish law as interpreted by the United Synagogue and its affiliated organizations. Practically, though, Conservative Judaism in America means something else: to my mind, it means a serious appreciation of aspects of Jewish tradition, if not complete fidelity to Jewish law. We value Hebrew. We value Shabbat. We value Kashrut. I could think of more, but to my mind, these values are the essential tenets of Conservative Judaism. Over the years, we’ve added to them: Today, Conservative Judaism values gender egalitarianism—women and men are considered equals in our communities. Increasingly, we’ve added inclusion of LGBTQ Jews as a central value. If we are to survive the massive shifts in Jewish identity, I believe we have to add another central value: engaged openness to interfaith marriage.

To some extent, this change has been forced upon us: 60% of married Jews are in interfaith marriages. While we could bemoan this reality—as my Jewish thought leaders continue to do-—this only serves to alienate couples while validating the worst sentiments of the Jewish partner towards her faith. Instead, we must challenge ourselves to celebrate every family that has the potential to foster a Jewish home, and support them as they struggle to understand their identity. While this will necessarily change Judaism, it does not mean that Judaism will be harmed. As we explore Judaism’s transformation, perhaps we will discover a new path for its survival. Scholars have focused on different causes for this trend: perhaps we have not sent our young people to camp or provided them with an adequate Jewish education. Perhaps we do not sufficiently fund USY, or perhaps we are too liberal generally to appreciate the value of religion.

A few years ago, I heard a fascinating interview with Sarah Kay, a young poet who identifies as a Jewish–American–Japanese– Episcopalian. Here’s the quote that made my ears perk up: My mother is Japanese-American, so the Japanese side is pretty far back. I'm third or fourth generation. So more than the Japanese culture, it's more the Japanese-American culture, which is definitely its own thing. But that was certainly present.

My grandmother on my mom's side was interned during World War II, and my father's family is Jewish. I was bat mitzvahed. I was baptized in the Episcopal Church. I just got back from my family's Passover, Easter, Seder dinner, which was wonderful wherein we had matzo ball soup filled with Japanese noodles and all kinds of great Japanese additions.

I don’t know about you, but I find her life and story fascinating. It is so different from my own, and my Judaism is challenged and enriched by knowing it. I want people like her to feel welcome in our community; perhaps you do as well.

I know many of our families will explore the complexities as we approach the December holidays. Please know that I am always available to talk through these and any other issues you might be dealing with. I wish all of you a wonderful month, a Happy Hanukkah, and a festive (secular) New Year!

Best Wishes,
Rabbi Stein