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Making A Place For Non-Jews In Our Synagogues
Wed, 01/29/2014 - 19:00
Special To The Jewish Week
Gerald L. Zelizer
Gerald L. Zelizer

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 mitzvah of each child, Ted ascended to the Bimah to lead the congregation responsively in the English recitation of Psalms, joined Cathy to place the tallit on his childrens' shoulders , and rose with the family when they recited the Shehechiyanu 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 focus 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 Chuck Simon, executive director of the Federation of Men's Clubs, the assemblage was a grass- roots 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 brachah at the Torah, the non-Jew may hold the baby at the Torah as the child is named; at the bar/bat mitzvah 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 mitzvah 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 Kadimah. 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 Olitsky, 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," 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. 

Rabbi Gerald Zelizer is rabbi of Cong. Neve Shalom in Metuchen, NJ.

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While I maintain my position about participation, leadership and voting rights, it turns out that I was wrong about one thing: Neve Shalom did change its policy with regard to membership listing and mailings at Rabbi Zelizer's direction. I apologize for mischarachterizing this aspect of the congregation.

I regret that in Rabbi Kerry Olitsky's response to my op ed he included the misinformation that my cong does not include the non Jewish member on our mailing list and on membership list. Simply not accurate. For several years now, at my instruction, the opposite has been the case- both on the membership list and in mailings. Had he checked with me, one colleague to another, I would have corrected his misinformation, but he did not.

The problem with being so 'welcoming,' is that it sends out a message to the 'masses' that intermarriage isn't so bad after all. That's the wrong message to be sending to the younger generation.

Rabbi Zelizer reflects the views of many within the Conservative movement for the need for outreach to non-Jewish spouses. While dressing it up as a Jewish response to an intractable problem, his solutions reflect the paucity of inreach programs and a general surrender to realpolitik within the movement.

Does anyone actually believe that the default position of a congregational rabbi is to view the non-Jewish spouse as a "valuable spiritual asset" as Rabbi Zelizer does? Can anyone with an understanding that a beracha is a Jewish response which reflects a world view which specifically excludes non-Jewish participation really believe that Jewish ritual is not compromised by having non-Jewish spouses pronounce it? We are deluding ourselves if we do.

Judaism has historically believed that both words and actions have consequences. The rabbis of the Talmud, for example, were concerned with the implication of not wearing tefillin in the morning while saying the Shema since "his actions testify against his declaration." Now that sensitivity is to be replaced by saying non-Jews can belong to a synagogue (by defining them as part of a family unit) but then prohibit or limit their ability to vote or fully participate? Aside from the perception that this is a crass grab for additional dues, it will, no doubt, be perceived as overtly un-American. After all, didn’t we Americans already have one revolution over a policy of taxation without representation?

The movement also needs to be concerned with making ultimatums that, in the end, it will not enforce. For decades Conservative Hebrew Schools have had attendance requirements. Yet how many Bnei Mitzvah has Rabbi Zelizer or any other Conservative rabbi cancelled because students failed to meet those requirements? We know that parents will push for their (halachically) Gentile children to attend U.S.Y. activities and whether out of compassion or pressure, in the end, the synagogue will relent.

Finally, before making major changes, perhaps it would be wise to see how things are doing for those who have already implemented such changes. The Reform movement’s carefully thought out vision of outreach is often subsumed demands for inclusiveness that range from rabbinic participation in mixed-marriages in which the couple has no intent to affiliate Jewishly to election of non-Jews to synagogue boards. There is even anecdotal evidence of synagogue Shabbat services at which the majority of participants are not Jewish. Is this truly the path the movement wishes to go down?

One cannot and should not question the motivations of those who see the data from the Pew study and fear for the future of American Jewry. Nor should one doubt their sincerity when they speak of the pain inherent in prohibiting the greater participation in public Jewish life of Gentile spouses. Their sensitivity should be lauded but they must also fortify their own faith. Judaism has survived by understanding that while not everything is a core value, those things that are must be held onto with an intensity born out of love, commitment, and when necessary, sacrifice.

Thank you for your kind words for the non-Jewish spouse. My wife is Jewish and was raised as part of a Conservative Synagogue. Together we celebrate Jewish faith and practice. I'm learning Hebrew (slowly) at the Temple. The Rabbi recommended Heschel as a an author respected within and without Judaism. I am finding out why as I read "I Asked for Wonder." I am a lucky man to have found such a woman with such a faith. Oh, and really good food. Kosher is easy when the table is full of deliciousness. So what can I say, I'm a Happy Shegetz.

Normally I would not respond to such an op ed. But I feel compelled to do so since my work is mentioned and I was present both for the Kiruv Think Tank and also spoke at Neve Shalom a few shabbatot ago. While Rabbi Zelizer paints a welcoming picture, let's be real. It is my understanding that his congregation is still among those that chooses not to send mail to the non-Jewish partner nor include that person's name in the membership directory or among its list of members. He may not agree with the positions I take with regard to governance and the like but surely there is much more to be done to demonstrate the welcoming values of Abraham and Sarah to these "strangers" in our midst.

I regret that Rabbi Olitsky posted this message before checking the authenticity of his information by contacting me privately.beyond " it is my understanding.". For several years now, at my direction, Neve Shalom has included the non Jewish partners name on the membership list and on the membership directory.
Gerald Zelizer