Welcoming non-Jews in our synagogues

Welcoming non-Jews in our synagogues

Cathy Salamon and Ted Geardino are members of my Conservative synagogue. Cathy is Jewish and attended yeshiva through eighth grade. Ted is Catholic and attended catechism through eighth grade. Before marrying, they agreed to raise their children as Jews. Cathy regularly attends Shabbat services with her three children, and studies in our adult classes. She and her children accompanied me on a synagogue trip to Israel. Her children are enrolled in our religious school, Hebrew High School, and youth groups. At the bar mitzva of each child, Ted ascended to the bima to lead the congregation responsively in the English recitation of psalms, joined Cathy to place the tallit on his children’s shoulders, and rose with the family when they recited the Sheheheyanu prayer.

There are lots like Cathy and Ted within Conservative shuls. About 42,000 non-Jewish spouses are heads of households, approximately 7 percent of adults in Conservative synagogues, according to sociologist Steven M. Cohen. In affiliating with my synagogue, Cathy and Ted have decided to raise their children as Jews — not as Christians or “nones.” Early in my rabbinate I focused on the fact that people like Cathy had married out of our faith. Conversion for the non-Jew was the sole antidote. As I approach retirement almost 50 years later, I think of the fact that so many non-Jews who have married into our faith and affiliated with synagogues are a valuable spiritual asset. Those who join our institutions — and certainly not all do — are active partners, materially and spiritually, to perpetuate our people and religion.

Our sacred responsibility is to find broad places within our synagogues for these non-Jews to feel welcome and nurtured.

In late December, more than 30 Conservative rabbis met in my shul to strategize on the details of this inclusion, under the rubric of keruv (inclusion). Although convened by Rabbi Charles Simon, executive director of the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, the assemblage was a grassroots event, without official endorsement from the national arms of Conservative Judaism. The invited rabbis were known to spearhead outreach efforts in their respective synagogues. There was common agreement on the objective. Fulfillment of the religious rites should be restricted to Jews alone. But at the same time, there is substantial room within our institutions where non-Jewish partners can fit in. These include:

Membership, which should be defined by family units, and not individuals, so as to incorporate both partners to the marriage.

Ritual participation. At a baby naming, as the Jewish partner recites the bracha at the Torah, the non-Jew may hold the baby at the Torah as the child is named; at the bar/bat mitzva of the child, the non-Jew can read psalms in English or the prayer for the government.

Religious schools and youth groups. Children of patrilineal Jewish marriages, or unconverted adopted children, should be encouraged to enroll in our religious schools with the understanding that prior to bar/bat mitzva they will be required to convert. As for our youth groups, national United Synagogue Youth policy is that only Jewish children are members of USY and Kadima. There was general consensus, though, among our group that membership should also be extended to children of patrilineal Jewish identification who accompany our USYers to events.

Burial. A non-Jew may be interred next to his/her Jewish partner in a plot demarcated with special shrubbery so as to, in effect, designate the plot as non-sectarian but adjoining.

There was virtually unanimous agreement of boundaries that could not be crossed. We have all learned from the pioneering work of the Jewish Outreach Institute in its approach to the intermarried. But the position of its executive director, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, that non-Jewish spouses serve as voting members of synagogue boards of directors met with broad resistance. Our feeling was that synagogue governance entails deliberation and voting on issues that impact more than administration, including the religious direction of the congregation. Let’s encourage those who are adherents of a religion to practice its precepts and run its institutions.

Is keruv a radical departure from Jewish religious and historical precedent in incorporating the non-Jew? Some say so. But closer examination shows otherwise. My teacher, Rabbi Jacob Agus, taught that the biblical phrase in Psalms, “God venerators” (yirei shamayim) was understood by the rabbis in Roman times to describe ancient gentiles who sought the God of Israel. Today, these 42,000 within our synagogues are contemporary “God venerators” as they bless the God of Israel. We of Israel must do all we can to welcome their blessing, and in return bless them.

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