Shuls Face Hard Questions about Non-Jews

By Ami Eden

August, 2000


When Robert Williams walks into Temple Sholom in Northeast Philadelphia, he feels at home. The other members are quick to welcome him when he comes through the synagogue doors, whether for services or a social function. “Everybody is very friendly,” the attorney explains. “I don’t feel any different than anybody else there.”

However, considering how comfortable the attorney says he feels at the Conservative synagogue, some might be surprised to learn of at least one difference between him and many of the other congregants there–Williams isn’t Jewish.

The 47-year-old policeman-turned-lawyer was raised Catholic and, about 10 years ago, married a Jewish woman, Suzanne, whom he met on the force. Today, the couple has two young daughters.

“Yes,” Suzanne Williams says, “it is important to me that my husband” participate in synagogue life. “If he weren’t so involved, if it were just me taking the girls, I would feel like part of us was missing.”

According to Suzanne Williams, who is still a police officer, she and her family attend Friday-night services at the synagogue about once a month, as well as on holidays. Her older child, 8-year-old Samantha, attends Hebrew school at the shul.

“He goes when we go,” she says. “We go to dinners and other events there, too.”

When she first intermarried, Williams thought that her only option was a Reform temple.

“I wasn’t happy about that, because I was raised in a Conservative congregation,” she explains, before recalling her unhappy experience at a Conservative synagogue that the couple belonged to before joining Temple Sholom.

When it came time to name their first baby, Williams was told by officials at the other synagogue that her husband would not be allowed onto the bimah, or podium.

“I was furious,” she recalls. “They finally said he could come up and hold the baby.”

By the time they had their second daughter, Jessica, five years later, the family had switched to Temple Sholom. This time, no one questioned whether Robert could stand on the bimah during the naming ceremony.

A Conservative dilemma
Synagogue leaders from throughout the region insist that, more and more, non-Jewish spouses are seeking to take part in synagogue life and that a greater number of congregations are working to make them feel welcomed. This should come as no surprise, judging from the “Jewish Population Study of Greater Philadelphia 1996/1997.” The survey, sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, found that synagogues are by far the most common entry point into Jewish life for many intermarried families. According to the survey, about 60 percent of these families have at least one member who attends services, and about 20 percent of intermarried households actually belong to a congregation.

In response to the rise in intermarriage and the changing demographic portrait of the Jewish community, area rabbis from the Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative movements all say that their congregations have had to think hard about their approach to non-Jewish spouses. Each stream has grappled with the question of how best to create a “welcoming environment,” like the one Robert Williams describes at Temple Sholom, without totally removing the taboo against intermarriage and completely blurring the distinction between Jew and non-Jew.

“We encourage intermarried families to become part of the congregation,” says Rabbi Andrea Merow, religious leader of Temple Sholom. “We hope to encourage families to raise Jewish children.”

The most difficult issues tend to revolve around the celebration of family simchas, or joyous occasions, says Merow, noting that there are questions about a non-Jewish parent’s role in a Bar or Bat Mitzvah.

“We don’t permit non-Jews to receive any honor associated with the Torah,” adds Merow. “But we allow them to read an extra prayer for peace that is quite ecumenical, but found in [the Conservative prayer book], so that we can give the non-Jewish parent a chance to celebrate with the child.”

Conservative rabbis like Merow who feel compelled to reach out to intermarried families face a difficult balancing act. The movement’s Rabbinical Assembly and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism still have strict guidelines against performing or participating in an intermarriage, as well as against a non-Jew assuming a leadership role within the synagogue, receiving a ritual honor involving the Torah or becoming an individual member of the congregation. Issuing a public “mazel tov” in honor of either an intermarriage or the birth of a non-Jewish baby is not allowed. (Only children born to a Jewish mother are recognized as Jewish by the Conservative movement.)

Still, many Conservative leaders say, their congregations are trying to create a more open atmosphere. With this goal in mind, Congregation Or Shalom in Berwyn recently adjusted its policy to allow for more participation on the part of non-Jewish parents.

“Previously, we did not allow non-Jews on the bimah, or podium, whenever the Torah was out,” says Rabbi Alan Iser, religious leader of Or Shalom and the immediate past president of the local R.A. “This past year, we changed our policy. A non-Jew still cannot lead the congregation in prayer, even an English prayer, nor receive any Torah honors, such as opening the ark. But what we now allow for is the non-Jewish parent to be on the bimah when the child is called to the Torah.”

The challenge, say Iser and Merow, is to break down barriers in as many ways as possible while remaining loyal to halacha, or Jewish law, and the standards of the Conservative movement.

Going through a process
While the Conservative movement may have stricter rules regarding intermarriage and the role of non-Jews in synagogue life than do the more liberal Jewish movements, Reform and Reconstructionist leaders say their congregations are also wrestling with the issue.

“It will vary from congregation to congregation,” says Judith Erger Smalley, outreach director for the Pennsylvania Council of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

Non-Jews are permitted to become members of Reform congregations and to join an auxiliary group, like the Brotherhood or Sisterhood. However, Erger Smalley adds, each congregation must take up the question of what level of ritual participation to allow. “In almost all of our congregations, non-Jews are welcome on the bimah,” says Erger Smalley. “What will vary is the level of involvement in terms of prayer. Can a non-Jew lead a prayer in English? In Hebrew? Can a non-Jew light candles or not? It really depends on the congregation. All congregations understand the need for a non-Jewish parent to take part in a child’s simcha.”

One thing that would trouble most Reform congregations, Erger Smalley adds, would be a non-Jew reciting a prayer in Hebrew that includes the phrase, “We, the Jewish people.” On the other hand, she says, Reform congregations are “very comfortable with having a non-Jewish parent bless the child in English.”

“I know of no [Reform] congregation in the Pennsylvania region that will not allow a non-Jew to be a member,” Erger Smalley adds.

Rabbi Elliot M. Strom, religious leader of Shir Ami-Bucks County Jewish Congregation in Newtown, describes the situation as a “balancing act.”

“You try to involve and invite the non-Jewish partner,” says Strom. “And, at the same time, you need to have enough respect for Jewish life, rituals and blessings to make sure that those parts of Jewish life that are to be done by Jews are done by Jews.”

A key point, says Strom, is for synagogue officers to be straightforward with prospective members about the congregation’s policies regarding these types of issues. At Shir Ami, he adds, non-Jews are permitted to be members, serve on committees, take part in study and attend services. They are not allowed to chair committees or serve on the board.

“When it comes to a blessing or ritual act on the bimah as a representative of the congregation,” says Strom, “that is something reserved for people who are Jewish.”

At Reconstructionist congregations, says one movement leader, the emphasis is on process. “It’s very important that a community study sources, contemporary and traditional, and then reach an informed decision,” says Mark Seal, executive vice president of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation. A few years ago, in an effort to help congregations carry out this decision-making process, the organization released a report titled “Boundaries and Opportunities: The Role of Non-Jews in JRF Congregations.”

“The recommendation was that there need to be boundaries. There needs to be a difference between a Jewish parent and a non-Jewish parent,” says Seal, noting that the JRF recommends that non-Jews not be given the honor of reciting the blessings before and after the Torah reading. “At the same moment, there is an opportunity to bring a family into the community. There is no difference in how you treat the child.”

Seal notes that many Reconstructionist congregations have created new rituals to “enable the non-Jewish parent to have an involvement in a Bar or Bat Mitzvah.” While it’s important to make these types of outreach efforts, adds Seal, “Judaism is about accepting Torah at some level.”

This article is reprinted with permission of the author. It originally appeared in the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent.


About Ami Eden

Ami Eden writes for the Forward.