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Boundaries and Opportunities


A dozen years ago, before I was Jewish, I was asked to speak to a regional Reconstructionist conference on intermarriage. My topic: "the role of the non-Jewish spouse in the synagogue."

To me, that was obvious: My role was to cook and to drive. Our membership in the synagogue, especially the education of our children in the religious school, depended on my sharing transportation responsibilities and cooking dairy meals for an endless schedule of potluck dinners. It never occurred to me, back then, that my role as a non-Jewish member also could include participation in services or in sharing the work of the congregation.

Of course, back then I also didn’t dream that I would convert to Judaism and see these issues from another perspective.

When still a non-Jew, I found that Shabbat morning services became more important to me. It was, in fact, my only source of spiritual connection. When our family helped to found a new congregation, I worked obsessively on finding it a building. After a while, and long before I converted to Judaism, the synagogue had become a central part of my life, as well as my family’s, due in large part to the many connections I had made to the community by participating.

During those years, I was sometimes offered honors (such as carrying the Torah) that I sensed were inappropriate. Group aliyot for committees posed one such dilemma. I was a committee member, so shouldn’t I go forward? I wasn’t Jewish, so shouldn’t I stay put?

More than anything, I wanted to know what the boundaries were. I did not want to do anything inappropriate — yet I sometimes bristled at the notion of a congregational list of "thou shalt nots" for non-Jewish partners.

Not surprisingly, these questions were being raised in congregations throughout the movement. Interfaith households represent 30% of our under-40 congregants. This fact is a testimony to the "welcoming atmosphere" that attracts so many people to Reconstructionism--and an opportunity not to be squandered.

Not a few members of the movement, however, have feared that too much openness might water down the tradition and jeopardize our very identity. What does it mean for a Jew to be "commanded" to kindle the Sabbath lights if non-Jews are doing it as well? Yet if the entire intermarried family participates in this ritual at home, why not in the synagogue?

More than one congregation had been faced with the decision of a dedicated, hard-working, non-Jewish member to run for the board of directors or even the presidency of the congregation. One community learned a member wasn’t Jewish only after she had been named chair of the spiritual life committee!

In another synagogue, disagreement arose over whether its huppah (wedding canopy) could be used outside the synagogue for an intermarriage.

Many were surprised at the volatility of these issues. Policies for non-Jewish participation frequently tap into longstanding resentments from intermarried couples about the way they were treated years earlier, as well as from Jews who feel their communities are abandoning basic Jewish principles.

The Jewish Reconstructionist Federation was receiving requests for guidance in specific situations. Those with experience know it is important for congregations to set policies before crises threaten to divide a community -- in particular to avoid special exemptions and case-by-case decision making. In 1994, a task force was created to consider the role of the non-Jew in JRF congregations. JRF Board member Alan Friedlander was the chair, assisted by Rabbi Sheryl Shulewitz of the JRF staff. Other members included Rabbi Caryn Broitman, Ruth Chapman, Rabbi Gail Diamond, Elaine Hirsch, Val Kaplan, Esther Miller, Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, Alan Schenk, and me. JRF President Jane Susswein and Executive Director Rabbi Mordechai Liebling were ex officio members.

First, we were provided with relevant readings. We then participated in a series of conference calls in which we discussed various congregations policies on the three general areas we had been asked to consider: membership, governance and ritual.

The discussions were lively and informed by many views. Like Jews everywhere, we brought to our discussions feelings the others could not know about: deep connections with the tradition, perhaps, or hurts we thought had healed. I probably was not alone when I worried about how we ever would agree on recommendations.

The answer was: process. More important than our ultimate recommendations was the process of values-based decision making that our task force used. It is amply described in our report so that each congregation can use it to develop decisions based on values it considers most important. Such a process might be uncomfortable, but in the end a community will be strengthened and able, in the current jargon, to "own" its policies.

The Reconstructionist process can be used to confront any difficult issue. This is how it works:

  • Study of Jewish sources and practice: The past does have a vote, if not a veto. One of the most moving parts of Judaism for me, given my background in a tradition that does not encourage controversy, was the teaching of mahloket shehi leshem shamayim – "controversy for the sake of heaven." As long as our goal is to strengthen the community, the tradition says, arguments and struggles to arrive at communal norms are for the good.

  • Study of current information from the social and natural sciences: This was particularly helpful when the task force talked about the emotionally fraught subject of boundaries and their definitive importance to groups and peoples.

  • Reflection on values: As Reconstructionists, we share many values, but some can be interpreted in different ways to argue for different decisions. Our dearest values can also come into conflict with one another: How to choose?

  • Analysis of the impact of each possible decision on each affected party: Its important to enumerate the stakeholders in a formal way. Otherwise, we may be insensitive to what effect a decision about ritual or governance might have upon those whom we’ve not considered.

  • Democratic and inclusive process maximizing the number of participants: Involving as many people as possible, especially through small group discussions, ensures that decisions will be deeply rooted and widely accepted in the community.

After setting up this process, we followed it. Here are the values we decided would inform our decision-making:

  • Commitment to Community

  • Connection to God

  • Democracy

  • Diversity

  • Holiness (Kedushah)

  • Human Dignity

  • Integrity of Jewish Ritual Practice

  • Jewish Continuity and the Survival of the Jewish People

  • Jewish Education

  • Maintaining an Inviting and Accepting Atmosphere

  • Preservation of Jewish Tradition

  • Preserving Peace in the Home (Shelom Bayit)

  • Welcoming the Stranger (Hahnasat Orhim).

As we looked at the three main aspects of congregational life - membership, governance and ritual - we found values-based decision making to be complicated. Take membership: Should a non-Jewish partner be a member of the congregation, responsible for dues and able to vote? Clearly, the value of democracy applies to arguments both for and against granting voting membership to non-Jewish partners. For: In a democratic system, individuals have a say in policies that affect them. Against: In a democracy, a person who has not first become a citizen does not have the right to vote.

The value of "Jewish continuity and the survival of the Jewish people" could similarly be cited in opposition to voting membership for non-Jews. Against: A groups survival depends on boundaries. The tradition advocates "making a fence around the Torah." What more obvious boundary could there be than synagogue membership? What is the point of surviving if the group has lost its unique character?

Yet the same value can be interpreted to support voting membership for non-Jewish individuals. As the task force report notes, "The midrash teaches that a ‘vineyard with a fence is better than one without. But one should not make a fence higher than the object which it is to guard, lest the fence fall and crush the plants.’ . . . Given the reality that so many of our families are intermarried families, it is important to attract families where not everyone is Jewish and to help them grow in Jewish commitment." The task force thus recommended that a non-Jew who is partnered to a Jewish member ought to be able to be a member of a JRF congregation, except for a non-Jew who is actively involved in another religion. Children who receive formal instruction in another religion should not be enrolled in JRF religious schools.

In matters of ritual, values also came into conflict, and it was necessary to weigh some against others and then choose. Our discussion about aliyah (going to the bimah for Torah blessings/ reading) highlights the sort of conflicts we faced. The value of "maintaining an inviting and accepting atmosphere" would argue for allowing non-Jews to participate in aliyot. So might the value of shelom bayit. If a non-Jewish partner is explicitly excluded, especially in lifecycle events, the peace of the home could be strained.

But other values connection to God, holiness (kedushah is sometimes defined as "separateness"), integrity of Jewish practice, preservation of Jewish tradition, Jewish continuity and survival of the Jewish people, all argue for limiting aliyot to Jews. In particular, we felt that the blessings of the aliyah "Blessed are you, Eternal One . . . who has drawn us to your service and has given us your Torah: - is a public affirmation of Jewish identity, and would not be appropriate for a non-Jew.

The task force recommendation was that aliyot must be reserved for Jews. At the same time, we felt it entirely appropriate that a non-Jewish spouse participate in an affirmation of respect during an aliyah, standing silently as the Jewish partner recites the blessing. As for group aliyot to honor members of the synagogue for their contributions, we suggested that other recognitions be found.

By the time our task force went through the values and discussed them, there was little disagreement on the 12 recommendations we made. Yet we also could see how different people using the same values could reach different recommendations. That understanding is significant.

The task force report, Boundaries and Opportunities: The Role of Non-Jews in JRF Congregations, was approved by the JRF Board last November. It recently has been sent to congregations. While the recommendations in the report are boxed and included in an executive summary, the task force urges that communities see them only as guidelines. Even if they seem like "common sense", as some have declared them to be, each congregation should go through its own process.

As we ourselves learned and the report states, "Exploring the role of the non-Jew in Jewish communities can engender a deeper awareness of the many facets of Jewish identity. When Jewish values inform decisions, Jewish life is deepened for both the congregation and its individual members."



Type: RT Article

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