Dilution Of Conversion Standards
Wed, 03/06/2013

Rabbi Elliott Cosgrove is not wrong to seek new approaches to the problem of intermarriage, but like many, he fails to acknowledge the dilution of standards that has led to the high rate of interfaith marriage within Conservative Judaism in the first place (“Time to Rethink Conversion Policy,” Editorial, March 1).

Intermarriage is a symptom, not a disease. According to its website, Park Avenue Synagogue offers a Hebrew school that, like many, is one day a week and focuses primarily on preparing its students to read Hebrew and follow a synagogue service that is likely irrelevant, confusing and boring to them. If it is like most Hebrew schools, it fails even in this task because one cannot learn to read a language (let alone appreciate it) by practicing it once a week. Rather than further dilute the standards by sanctioning intermarriages, Rabbi Cosgrove should focus on building Jews from a young age who are more knowledgeable and engaged and can both practice and defend the modern traditionalism that Conservative Judaism has long embodied at its best. This involves rethinking synagogue education, rethinking the service, and worrying a little less about offending the congregants.

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I am writing in response to Michael Brenner’s letter “Dilution of Conversion Standards” of 03/06/2013. Michael is simultaneously right and wrong regarding the model of Hebrew Schools. In many synagogues the current Hebrew/Religious School model is obviously not working. But this is not the case at Park Avenue Synagogue. I know because I was the Educational Director there for six years.
At Park Avenue Synagogue, one of the country’s major Conservative congregations, we built a caring school community that fostered Jewish learning while advancing social justice. Students at our school could participate actively in Shabbat services, were knowledgeable of Jewish holidays and traditions, and had a strong identity as young, committed Jews. They were, indeed, “knowledgeable and engaged”, and did not attend school only one day a week. The key to our success was the willingness to constantly evaluate our programming and assess our educational model. It was my honor to serve as Educational Director at Park Avenue Synagogue, and I am confident that our students did not receive a “diluted” Jewish education.

Rabbi Cosgrove and Michael Brenner, in my opinion, are missing the point about conversions and about on day a week Hebrew schools. Both have focused on standards which assume that there is still a meaningful brand defined by standards called Conservative Judaism with an understandable and meaningful message to help a Jew live a religious life. At this point, every synagogue is making Shabbat for themselves. Some are stronger, meaning a strong community but very few congregations are facilitating an individual religious lifestyle which is consistent and non-negotiable, at whatever standard is chosen.

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