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We are glad to report that the Conservative movement is making an important step toward inclusion. In an official move on March 1, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism voted 94-8 to allow individual congregations to permit people who are not Jewish to be members. Some Conservative synagogues, like many in the Bay Area, have already welcomed those who are not Jewish as members of their congregations.
In a recent article, Religion News Service stated that there were Conservative synagogues that considered those who were not Jewish as members through family memberships. With this official vote, individuals can now be welcomed as members without being part of a family membership.
There is speculation that this could pave the way for the Conservative rabbis’ association to allow rabbis to officiate at interfaith weddings in the future.
This post originally appeared on www.edumundcase.com and is reprinted with permission
It’s been quiet on the intermarriage front for a while; it feels like most people’s attention is understandably in the political realm these days. But in the past two weeks there has been interesting news and comment on intermarriage in the more traditional, conservative parts of the Jewish community.
When people talk about intermarriage, for example about the 72 percent rate of intermarriage since 2000 among non-Orthodox Jews, the general understanding is that intermarriage isn’t much of a phenomenon in the Orthodox world. A fascinating blog post on intermarriage in the Orthodox world, The Rise of Interfaith Marriage in the Modern Orthodox Community, suggests that that may not be the case. The blog’s creator, Alan Brill, estimates that 7-8 percent of young Modern Orthodox Jews are intermarried, and says that “ordinary Modern Orthodox Jews are talking about this topic,…” He also says “cases of full Orthodox conversion … are now quite common.”
Most of the blog post is a guest post by “Ruvie,” a Modern Orthodox man, writing about his feelings about his son’s marriage to someone who was not Jewish – feelings that aren’t that different from those of many non-Orthodox Jews.
Ruvie says he is aware of five interfaith marriages in the past year and a half among children of his observant Modern Orthodox friends. “All parents went through various stages of shame, anger, confusion and guilt.” “This is something new and growing in the MO community.” He refers to estimates of 5 to 20 percent intermarriage rates in the Orthodox world.
Ruvie complains that there is a taboo about talking about intermarriage that no longer exists in other controversial topics in Orthodoxy, like homosexuality and people abandoning Orthodoxy:
Ruvie describes the reactions of his friends and himself:
It is very clear that Ruvie’s son may have left Modern Orthodoxy but has not left Jewish life. The officiating rabbi recommended that the young woman take an introduction to Judaism course and during the course she decided to undergo a Conservative conversion. Before the wedding the son asked the father to put up a mezuzah at his apartment; after the wedding the son asked his mother where he could ritually immerse their dishes.
It is also very clear that Ruvie prioritizes his relationship with his son:
Ruvie’s conclusion: “There is a lack of open conversation and dialogue on this topic in our community. Let’s begin now.”
The Conservative movement currently restricts synagogue membership to Jews. The recent news, described in a JTA article, “Conservative movement proposes allowing non-jews as synagogue members,” is that the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (the association of Conservative synagogues) is asking the synagogues to vote in March to allow individual synagogues to decide whether to grant membership to those who are not Jewish. Rabbi Steven Wernick, head of USCJ, said that “the current standards don’t make sense in a world where many intermarried couples are active participants in Conservative congregations” and that “the language of ‘only Jews can be members of a synagogue’ makes it seem like [someone who is not Jewish] who is connected is not a member of that community.”
Rabbi Wernick also said that the USCJ is not changing the definition of who counts as Jewish: “What we’re trying to do with this is distinguish between community and covenant.” But Rabbi Chuck Simon, head of the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs and the most outspoken Conservative leader on intermarriage issues, recently created a pamphlet in which he essentially recommends that the Conservative movement adopt patrilineal descent. “The Elephant in the Room: Conservative Judaism and the Patrilineal Question.”
It will be interesting to see movement in the Modern Orthodox and the Conservative parts of the community toward more acceptance and welcoming of interfaith families.
There was also a piece on eJewishPhilanthropy about Hebrew College’s new certificate program in Interfaith Families Jewish Engagement, and a positive comment by Phoebe Maltz Bovy in the Forward.
I love synagogues, in theory and many in reality. I have blogged before about my enduring connections with the congregation where I grew up, even though I haven’t lived in that community for over twenty years. I have written about just stopping in to congregations and hanging out there. Most recently, I wrote about my experience in my parent’s new congregation. I don’t think liberal Judaism can survive in America without synagogues. I am all for new and different models for congregations, like Mishkan Chicago. There are several congregations in Chicago with alternative dues structures and different religious school models like Sukkat Shalom.
I believe liberal Jews in America need a structure by which we can educate our children, join together for holidays and share in social justice pursuits. We need programs and classes that add meaning to our lives and help us infuse Judaism into the busy rhythm of our days. True, there are individuals who hire Jewish teachers to educate their children and to teach Hebrew and there are people who create individual and personalized life cycle ceremonies like bar and bat mitzvah outside the realm of an “organized” community. These people are often labeled as “unaffiliated” as if they are hurting the Jewish pursuit in America. I think that however people find Judaism and pass it on is important and should not be marginalized or demeaned. However, for many people who want their children to be raised with Judaism, joining a synagogue would be the easiest and most effective way to fulfill that holy objective (which is a pursuit that takes a lifetime, which is why leaving after bar/bat mitzvah is so problematic for continuity).
For many years, interfaith families in congregations felt or still feel that extended family and parents who are not Jewish are not fully embraced. Some express that their cultural and religious lives have to be dormant or invisible inside the realm of synagogue. Children in interfaith homes report that religious school teachers or other members of the congregation make off-handed comments which make them feel less than fully Jewish or different or other. When people feel close to clergy members who can’t officiate at their life cycle events, it can deeply sting. So even though the majority of American Jews are partnered with someone who is not Jewish and congregations are by and large welcoming and want interfaith families to be part of the community, it can take some convincing to encourage interfaith couples and families to try again, so to speak, when a negative experience has already occurred.
We at InterfaithFamily/Chicago have created a new offering (which I explained in this previous blog post) to encourage interfaith families to take a chance with a synagogue for their family because we feel that being part of a community is so intrinsic to our ability to live and pass on Judaism. We have asked congregations to designate an interfaith family that is active at their synagogue to be listed as a “connector” on their Temple’s profile on our website. You can email this person to ask them to share their honest experience at the synagogue. They can tell you about how the parent who isn’t Jewish feels there. They can tell you about the vibe at the religious school and how the diversity of the community is celebrated.
As well, each of these congregations has a link back to InterfaithFamily on their temple’s website as a show of support for the interfaith families in the community and as a sign that they want to be supportive with resources to help pave the way to exploring Judaism however they can.
The following is a list of synagogues that we endearingly call our Super Orgs!
We here at InterfaithFamily believe, like the rabbis of old, that language is extremely important. The rabbis of the Talmud wrote about the power of words. God created the world with words. God said, “Let there be…” and there was. The rabbis said that to embarrass someone was akin to killing their soul (bringing blood to the face). They spoke against lashon harah (gossip—literally the evil tongue). There are prayers about guarding our tongues from evil and our lips from deceit. The Amidah, the central prayer in the Jewish worship service, begins with a line asking God to open our lips that our mouth can declare God’s glory. The old adage, “sticks and stones can break our bones but words can never hurt us” is indeed not very Jewish. The words “thing” and “word” in Hebrew share the same root “d’var” teaching that our words create reality.
It is because words are so important that you may notice that we avoid using the term, “non-Jew” because we don’t promote the idea that someone can be a “non-entity.” We rather say, “someone not Jewish.” You may feel that this is just semantics, but we disagree.
Many Jewish institutions ask people if they are affiliated with a congregation on membership forms and surveys. The Jewish world wants to know who is a member of a synagogue and what behaviors they have as opposed to people who are not members of a synagogue. We are also interested in tracking synagogue membership for dozens of other reasons (although the topic of another blog, I personally believe it is extremely difficult to raise children with Judaism without the help of a congregation or organized community whether school, community center or chavurah).
Here are my top five reasons for not using the word “unaffiliated” anymore:
Language matters. Labels matter. This is how people end up feeling connected or disconnected. If we stop calling people “unaffiliated” and start talking about who they are, what they are interested in or what would make them want to join or help create an organized Jewish community, we may find more answers.
So many couples I marry have one partner who grew up at an area congregation but left after their bar or bat mitzvah. I have thought about creative ways to reunite this person and now this couple with their synagogue of origin, so to speak. There is probably still a picture of them from some class on the wall there! Then it occurred to me, why do synagogues let families just leave? If a family calls the executive director of a congregation to say that they are leaving, the conversation should end with them staying members unless they’re moving away or have a pressing need to leave the synagogue.
Why do people leave synagogues? Money. The synagogue can sympathize with the fact that the financial commitment is difficult to meet for many families. For some, they struggled to pay the dues in order to see their children through their bar or bat mitzvah and feel relieved to take these thousands of dollars of cost off their budget. Thus, the synagogue could say: You are not members because you pay dues. You are members because you have been part of this community. Anything you can contribute now that you are in a different stage of life will help our synagogue stay open and functioning. However, you are not off of our emails and off of our newsletter list and we do not bar you from holiday services because you need a break from the yearly dues after so many years of supporting the congregation in this way.
Whatever the synagogue then collects from this family will be more than if the family had left never to walk through its doors again. But now, won’t other people want to stop paying too? Each house of worship will have to figure out how this plan can work. Do they give post bar/bat mitzvah families a three year period of reduced dues and then hope that they have found value in the continued connection to the congregation and they can again make a bigger financial contribution? Money alone cannot make someone suddenly a “non-member.”
Another reason people may give for leaving a synagogue is that they don’t “need it anymore.” Now that their children are through this major life cycle event, the parents in the family don’t feel a need to attend the congregation. They are not Shabbat attendees, they don’t come for adult education or Torah study. They would like to come for High Holidays, but they are not going to pay $3,000 a year for this when they can be someone’s guest or just buy tickets. The response the synagogue could have is, “you are still members here.” We will still be in touch and you can still attend any or all programs of the Temple.
Then a conversation could take place (preferably in person) about what they would enjoy coming to. Do you like cooking? We have cooking classes. Do you like knitting? We have knitting circles? Downtown lunch and learns? Meeting occasionally with the rabbi to talk about your aging parents, trouble with your teenager, a new health diagnosis you are facing? Your own marriage issues? We are here for you. It turns out you don’t attend services because you can’t read Hebrew? We can help with this. We need to be relevant for people beyond bar and bat mitzvot.
We obviously cannot make someone stay a member who does not want to receive information from the synagogue and who has had a negative experience there. Some say that so much of the correspondence with a synagogue involves asking for more money: money for a building campaign, money for memorial plaques, etc. I think that most people would be thrilled to hear that they are still members, even if they can’t or won’t pay the same dues anymore.
Now, what about the people who do not call the office to say that they are stopping their membership. The synagogue knows who has just stopped paying. Those people probably receive a phone call and hopefully an in-person meeting to say, “We miss you…what’s going on?” When people have ties to a community, it is hard to leave. Let’s make it hard for people to leave.
Many rabbis I meet with me tell me that they need more members in their synagogues. They want to retain their current members while adding new members. Congregations have tried different models for making membership more appealing to more people, from suggested donations rather than membership dues to low cost membership for the first year or for people under 30. More and more congregations are going into secular spaces to try to meet potential congregants who may have misconceptions about synagogue membership or may not know all that a community has to offer.
There is much talk about what young professionals need and want. There is more and more talk about what newly empty nesters need and want and how to engage or re-engage them before they walk away from the synagogue where their children were called to the Torah as a bar or bat mitzvah. As a caveat to this thought, I meet so many couples where one partner had grown up at a local congregation but the family had “dropped out” after the bar/bat mitzvah and now they need to find a rabbi for a wedding.
I have been thinking about a possible new model for congregations. This is the Give and Take model of membership. What if congregations said to the wider community that they want people to associate with this congregation because:
The way it works is that the person, couple, or family figures out what yearly financial contribution they can make to help sustain this local house of learning, worship, social justice, and fellowship. The new member then decides what they can give to the community in addition to money. Maybe it is time teaching in the religious school, preschool, or adult education realm. Maybe it is time sharing a background in PR, marketing, branding, website design, etc. Maybe it is time cooking for communal Shabbat and holiday meals. Maybe it is time visiting families with new babies or sitting with someone who has lost a spouse. Maybe it is job counseling. Maybe it is yoga classes. Whatever you do, the synagogue should make use of it. This is the “Give” part of the membership model.
The “Take” part of the membership model involves taking what those feel is a benefit. If people feel that they benefit from having a school for their children and for them to continue to learn about Judaism, then it has to be supported. If people feel that they benefit from communal holiday celebrations, there has to be space, prayer books, leaders, music, and food. People have to figure out what they value and find ways to keep those things running with vibrancy.
I know there is talk about how some people can’t articulate even why to be Jewish. Not only do most young professionals not want to join a synagogue, they feel no reason to enter one, investigate what’s out there, etc. Finding a rabbi for a life cycle event is one thing, but going to a temple is a whole other ball of wax. Judaism and religion are not on their minds. They are thinking about where to live, whether they like their jobs, whether they should marry their partner, how to keep a good relationship with parents. People think about having fun, how to make friends, whether they are happy. People think about the homeless, about their health, about international affairs. The environment, gun control, and whether all women will have access to safe abortions are topics discussed over coffee. People are secular. They don’t think about liberal religion on a daily basis. As I am writing this, I am sitting next to a neighbor at a coffee shop who said, “As a working mom I am just trying to survive!” Volunteering her time at a local temple would not see fathomable.
However, I am convinced that if this model began, and the people who are inclined to take part in the organized Jewish world find meaning in this Give and Take model, then the joy and sense of purpose and connectedness that they would garner from the experience would spread.
You may read this and say that all membership is give and take. You’re right, it is (or should be), but it needs to be made explicit. It needs to be organized with thoughtfulness and individuality.
What do you think? Could this work? Would people feel more engaged and committed in this model?
And through this, I haven’t even mentioned interfaith couples and families. For the partner who didn’t grow up with Judaism and for their extended family and friends who may find themselves at the synagogue, the community this person was actively giving and taking from would hopefully reflect their values and ideals as well. When people are active, not passive participants, their vision becomes reality.