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The Role of Non-Jews in Reconstructionist Congregations

In 1998, the organization of affiliated Reconstructionist congregations established a task force on the role of non-Jews in their communities. In 2008, they released the following summary report of their findings:

Boundaries and Opportunities: Summary Report

Responding to a demographic sea change which has seen Jews intermarry at high rates in the past several decades, and which has led increasing numbers of non-Jews to become involved in synagogue life, the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation (JRF) has issued a major report on the role of non-Jews in Reconstructionist congregations.

"This document had to be written," said Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, Executive Director of the JRF [Editor's note: Liebling currently serves as the director of the social justice organizing program at RRC]. "This is a very contentious issue in congregational life - it's not abstract. Congregations are struggling with the issues raised by having non-Jewish spouses, partners and family members as part of their communities, and we have responded to that struggle."

Entitled Boundaries and Opportunities: The Role Of Non-Jews In Jewish Reconstructionist Federation Congregations, the report presents guidelines and recommendations for use by synagogues and havurot in creating their own policies and practices regarding non-Jews in membership, ritual participation, observance and other matters of congregational life. The report is based on nearly two-and-a-half years of study by a JRF Task Force.

The report offers one of the most in-depth considerations of an issue that has proved volatile in many Jewish congregations - not just Reconstructionist ones. By providing a framework for discussion and policy-making on the role of non-Jews, the JRF hopes to help congregations make decisions, as the report states, "in advance of a crisis, in a calm and measured atmosphere, rather than when pressing issues force emotionally charged decisions."

"As the report makes clear, the presence of non-Jews in JRF congregations and havurot is an opportunity and not a threat," Liebling added. "These people have made a commitment to their Jewish partners. For the most part, these are people who are supporting their partner's Jewishness, raising Jewish children, or on spiritual quests themselves. Their presence should not to be ignored, or treated lightly."

The report draws strongly upon Jewish tradition, values and sources, as well as upon information from the social sciences and organizational behavior, to build a values-based decision-making process.

"The title of the report, Boundaries and Opportunities, really says a great deal about how we see the issue," says Alan Friedlander, Chair of the JRF Task Force, who serves as Vice-President for the Midwest region of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation. "We are trying to negotiate the territory between maintaining the integrity of Jewish ritual and community - the distinction between Jew and non-Jew in synagogue life - and the opportunities represented by the presence of new and vibrant people in our congregations."

Jane Susswein, President of JRF, who also served on the Task Force, added, "This report should be a valuable resource for congregations - and may even be a transforming one for those participating in the decision making process. The balancing of a range of values - from those steeped in Jewish tradition to contemporary perspectives - is an example of Reconstructionist practice at its best."

Friedlander said the Task Force was comprised of 15 people from across the country, representing rabbis, professional staff, and lay members of the Reconstructionist movement. The Task Force compiled materials and studies from all the major branches of the Jewish religion and began a study process which included teleconferences, face-to-face meetings, focus groups and interviews. The JRF Board of Directors approved the report.

Recommendations and Guidelines For Decision- Making Process

Twelve major recommendations in the report deal with issues of membership, holding office and chairing committees, ritual observance, use of ceremonial objects, and participation in life-cycle events, such as bar and bat mitzvah and other ceremonies. As part of its membership recommendation, for instance, the report states: "A non-Jew who is married/ partnered to a Jewish member or divorced/widowed from one or is the custodial guardian of a Jewish child may be a member of a JRF congregation; however, if the non-Jew is actively involved in another religion, ways other than membership to participate in the communal life of JRF congregations should be made available."

The report also suggests that there are important positions in congregations which may be held by non-Jews. The posts of congregational president, vice-president(s), treasurer and secretary, however, must be held by held by Jews because people in those positions represent the congregation inside and outside the Jewish community; and committees dealing with Ritual, Religious School and Adult Education, should be chaired by Jews as well, because they require knowledge of and deep commitment to Judaism, and because those committees supervise service leaders and educators.

With respect to rituals, the report states: "Non-Jews should be encouraged to participate in as many appropriate rituals as can be found, but we believe non-Jews will respect appropriate limits on that participation." While limiting direct participation in major rituals, prayer leadership, and partaking of an aliyah (being called to the Torah), non-Jews may participate in other life-cycle events. The report recommends, for example, that non-Jews might take part through an "affirmation of respect," in which a non-Jewish family member is invited to the bimah, the raised platform where worship services are led, to witness and stand alongside Jewish family members as they take part in rituals, such as baby naming and circumcision. The report also outlines certain prayers and other ceremonies in which non-Jews may take part.

The report recommends a comprehensive, 10-step decision making process for congregations to use in devising their own policies concerning non-Jews. The steps include:

  1. Appoint an Inclusivity Committee that reflects all the views and constituencies of the congregation.

  2. Create a trusting atmosphere.

  3. Examine the congregation's mission andunderlying values.

  4. Determine who will be affected by thedecisions.

  5. Consider the issues in membership, ritualand governance.

  6. Explore which values pertain and whichvalues conflict in each area.

  7. Select an appropriate means to educate thecongregation (including the board) once the Inclusivity Committee arrives at a series ofpositions.

  8. Vote on the positions at the committee andboard levels.

  9. Make policies available to all members andprospective members.

  10. Continue the educational process.

The report contains an annotated bibliography, along with key documents such as the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association Guidelines on Conversion and on Intermarriage, and the JRF Resolution on Intermarriage passed in 1984.

"The Movement spent two years really studying this issue in depth, and I think we have come up with a remarkable document," said JRF Outreach Director Rabbi Sherry Shulewitz, who served as staff person for the Task Force. "We want it to serve as a model for congregations in devising their own processes. And we believe process is key; we have all but insisted that process be central to any congregational approach to the issue."

"There is very acrimonious debate on all sides," Liebling continued, "and it is only through an open, honest discussion - acknowledging feelings and concerns, and allowing people to 'unpack their emotional baggage' - that congregations can really solve these thorny issues and create a policy that is sensitive to everyone involved, one that respects Jews and non-Jews alike.

"That's why I think this report is helping to break new ground," Liebling added. "Dealing openly and seriously with the issues raised by non-Jews in our congregations enables us to strengthen our communities, enhance our Jewish identity, and deepen Jewish life and practice for both the congregation and its individual members.

Type: Policy

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