The Jewish Telegraphic Agency recently found itself embroiled in controversy when it reported on the annual international convention of the Conservative movement’s youth arm in Atlanta. In a Dec. 23 story titled, “USY drops ban on interdating,” JTA characterized an amendment adopted by United Synagogue Youth voters as relaxing long-standing rules precluding the group’s teenage board members from dating non-Jews.
Barely had the report been disseminated across the wire service’s subscribers than the denunciations and clarifications streamed in from Conservative leaders. The movement had not decided to allow interdating, Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, explained. It had instead swapped out a negative injunction for a positive statement encouraging teenage USY leaders to “strive to model healthy Jewish dating choices.”
Such choices “include recognizing the importance of dating within the Jewish community,” according to the new standard.
While we appreciate the subtle distinction made by Conservative leaders in response to what they feel was inaccurate reporting, we can’t help but feel that the movement is splitting hairs. The fact is that the previous standard expected USY leadership to “refrain from relationships which can be construed as interdating.” It wasn’t an outright ban, of course, but it led some Jewish teens dating non-Jews to refrain from seeking board positions.
But who are we to judge? Fundamentally, what every Jewish group is grappling with today is how to be relevant to young people. What the Conservative and Orthodox streams are also struggling to contain is an explosion of intermarriage, which they view as a precursor to the bigger problem of assimilation and loss of Jewish identity.
In the case of USY, it appears that the Conservative movement is acknowledging that youth engagement is either more worrisome or more manageable than intermarriage. And while the new policy doesn’t encourage interdating, it doesn’t outlaw it either. So when it comes to its youth, the Conservative movement is opting to keep kids engaged by broadening the tent, which is an admirable goal.
The challenge the movement faces, however, is how to achieve a broader embrace and greater engagement while still staying true to its core principles. That is a very difficult line to walk.