Making A Place For Non-Jews In Our Synagogues
Tue, 02/18/2014
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 of his children, Ted ascended to the bima to lead the congregation responsively in the English recitation of Psalms, joined Cathy to place the tallit on each child’s shoulders, and rose with the family when it recited the Shehechiyanu prayer.

There are lots like Cathy and Ted within Conservative shuls. About 42,000, or about 7 percent, of adults in Conservative synagogues are non-Jewish spouses, 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 thought to be 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 valuable spiritual assets. 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 kiruv (inclusion). Although convened by Rabbi Chuck Simon, executive director of the Federation of 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 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 kiruv a radical departure from Jewish religious and historical precedent of 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 Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen, N.J.

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Traditional Judaism certainly embraces converts. And, once a person has converted, it is strictly prohibited to make fun of them or make any disparaging comments about their background and they are accorded all the privileges and responsibilities of any and all Jews. Indeed, according to tradition, the Messiah himself will be a descendent of Ruth (who converted to Judaism). That said, those who choose not to convert to Judaism can not expect to be treated as Jews no matter how much they love their spouses, children, or even to attend synagogue. Even a very big tent has walls.

The conservative and reform movements are so desperate for new members that they
accept non-jews into their midst.Sorry guys going on trips,reading Psalms,and attending services do not a jew make.Whatever is left of real Judaism in conservative and reform approaches will be totally destroyed and by the next generation the jewish spouse's memory will be erased from the house of Israel.
The attempt to legitimize, accept,and approve these relationships is part of left-wing
absurd American liberalism that also sanctions so-called unions or marriages of people who practice abominations . So gather them into your defiled temples and let them make believe they are Jewish.May G-d have mercy on your souls !

Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) thanks Rabbi Zelizer for his warm endorsement. JOI is proud to lead the Jewish camp in the direction of greater inclusiveness to all who wish to enter our Big Tent, including members of Jewish families from other religious backgrounds. To learn more about JOI, please visit www.joi.org and www.bigtentjudaism.org.

Zohar Rotem is JOI's Program Officer for Evaluation

How long before the non-Jews that are being partially included object to the second-class status? Or, more interestingly, how long before they become the majority in certain groups, or even in positions of leadership?

To dismantle this plan from another vantage point--how much time is spent including Gentiles in Jewish religious life, vs time spent teaching Jews to marry other Jews, something that the Conservative movement is supposedly in favor of?

It's important to remember the possibility, here, of unintended consequences. The purpose behind the policies suggested above is to make sure that Jews (& their spouses & Jewish children) are not alienated from Judaism. But the unintended consequence is sending a message to our youth that intermarriage isn't such a bad thing. That's a message we don't want to send.

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