A recent article by Neil Rubin in the Baltimore Jewish Times, “Conservative Judaism Thrives in Baltimore, But Troubled Nationwide,” makes an interesting point. One reason why the Conservative synagogues in Baltimore have more members than the Reform synagogues (which is the reverse of the rest of the country) is their emphasis on outreach programming.
Beth Israel was a pioneer in the Kiruv project, spearheaded by the movement’s Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs. It strives to make congregations more welcoming for interfaith families. It has organized several training sessions for rabbis and volunteer leaders, one of which was hosted by the Pearlstone Conference and Retreat Center.
With that topic, just as with the national movement, local congregations struggle to adhere to Halachah (Jewish law) while being as open as possible.
“If you are intermarried, you can still live an integrated life and your family can still have a family membership, and the truth is there are many b’nai mitzvah meetings with families where I know the non-Jewish spouse better than the Jewish one,” Rabbi Goldstein said.
The rest of the article also emphasizes the ways that the Baltimore Conservative congregations work within halachah to reach out to formerly underserved Jewish populations. They have pushed people to keep kosher while at the same time creating programming to reach out to same-sex couples and their families. They also sound like great congregations in other ways: innovative pastoral counseling, continuity with old families in the neighborhood, good adult education.
We know from our work at InterfaithFamily.com that there are a lot of ways to reach out to interfaith families and a lot of profiles of those families. Not everyone wants the most liberal option–some want Conservative or Orthodox Judaism, and are disappointed when they can’t find welcoming congregations.
Among Reform congregations, which have grown precisely because of openness to interfaith families, some are popular with interfaith families even when the rabbi doesn’t officiate at interfaith weddings–because the congregation is intellectually challenging or provides great children’s Jewish education, or because they do social action.
There are many best practices in creating communities that are friendly to one population that also help outreach to other populations. Spirituality and adult education appeals to interfaith families–and also to many Jews in my generation. It’s not surprising to me that being open to interfaith families is one of the many factors that has made these Baltimore Conservative congregations vital.