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Guide to the Synagogue for Interfaith Couples and Families: What Kind of Synagogue Is It? Jewish Denominations

Return to Guide to the Synagogue for Interfaith Couples and Families.

When someone asks "What kind of synagogue is it?" you might want to say, "A Jewish one." Of course, that's a great answer! Still, it's good to know what to expect. Will the rabbi be female? Do men and women sit together? Will my small children be welcome or are they too rambunctious for the community? How long is the service?

For interfaith families, there are other questions. How will a non-Jewish person be received? Does the congregation have a way to honor non-Jewish family members at lifecycle events? Do they consider my children Jewish? Who can become a member of the synagogue, and how will we integrate into its social life?

Sometimes, knowing what denomination the synagogue affiliates with will help you answer those questions.

At the beginning of the modern era, European Jews developed movements or denominations that split the Jewish world along factional lines. These movements have come to the United States and grown here.

Reform

Reform Judaism is the largest Jewish movement in the United States, with 1.5 million members and 893 congregations. Reform started in the early 19th century in Germany and Hungary. If you had to pick a single Jewish concept that motivated the original Reform movement, it would be kavanah--intention. Reformers were concerned that Jews were reciting prayers they could not understand. They introduced vernacular language to the synagogue, and also brought in instrumental music. Before that point, all synagogue music was exclusively vocal music and there were very few prayers translated into people's everyday language. Reformers believed that services in a language everyone could understand, with a high level of decorum, would help modern Jews retain their religiosity.

Reform rejected the divinity of the Talmud and the binding character of halachah--the practical code of Jewish law. They began to call their synagogues "temples" in a conscious rejection of the need for a re-establishment of the Temple in Jerusalem. Reform Jews were the first to have family seating in synagogue instead of separate seating for men and women, and nearly a century later, the first to ordain women as rabbis. Reform prayerbooks follow the form of the traditional siddur but prayers are translated or summarized in English. Services in the Reform movement today still feature choral and instrumental music. It's still relatively easy to follow a Reform service, even though some prayers are read or sung in Hebrew. If you have small children, do ask whether there is a children's service for them, as the general level of decorum in a Reform congregation may be too hard for them. Some Reform congregations have intergenerational services like Tot Shabbat that may be just right for you.

In a Reform congregation, any child of one Jewish parent who was raised Jewish and with no other religion is Jewish. This is different from much of the Jewish world, which insists on matrilineal descent. The patrilineal descent decision of 1983 made it possible for the highly organized Reform movement--the Union of Reform Judaism in the US--to grow to be the largest Jewish movement.

The Jewish community has a bad habit of contrasting "Reform" with "religious." This isn't right. Many Jews choose Reform not because of what it doesn't require of them, but because of what it does. The positive values of egalitarianism and an explicit endorsement of ethics motivate many Reform Jews. Inclusivity of interfaith families is one of the Reform movement's values, and that may make a Reform congregation a good one for you.

Conservative

The Conservative movement grew out of the mid-19th century idea of Positive Historical Judaism, pioneered by German Jewish reformer Zecharias Frankel. In the United States, Conservative Judaism was at one point the largest movement. It's a reform movement (lower case) that embraces traditional Jewish legal process. Hence, Conservative Jews rely on Jewish legal reasoning to justify the ordination of women, for example.

Conservative synagogue services are most often mainly in Hebrew. Most of the prayers appear precisely as they do in an Orthodox prayerbook. The Conservative movement changes the Hebrew of some of the prayers, usually in very minor ways. For example, in the morning blessings, most siddurim have Jewish men bless God that they are not created female and not created as a non-Jew. Conservative movement scholars found an alternative text in a medieval prayerbook that blessed God for making the individual in the divine image, as a Jew, and used those positive versions of the blessings, so that they would no longer stigmatize women and non-Jews. This is very typical of Conservative Judaism: an ideological change based in an alternative historical text. It's also typical in that it's a change that's very subtle to a newcomer to the synagogue.

The Conservative movement considers the children of Jewish mothers to be Jewish. Children of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother are not technically Jewish under the rule of matrilineal descent. Some interfaith families who want to raise Jewish children have conversion ceremonies for their children in order for them to participate in Conservative synagogues.

Conservative synagogues often have a lot to offer interfaith couples. Services tend to be more traditional but the pages are announced and there may be cantorial or choral singing and instruments, like an organ. Conservative synagogues often have great educational programming, both for children and for adults and families. Check for children's services--many Conservative congregations offer them. The Conservative Movement's Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs has made outreach to interfaith families their priority. Active laypeople in the Conservative movement have been at the forefront of outreach to interfaith families--the impulse to do this comes from the heart of the movement.

Orthodox

There are many kinds of Orthodox synagogues. Some are congregations that moved together as a group during one of the waves of Jewish immigration from a particular city or Jewish community. These congregations maintain the tunes and traditions of the old country and sometimes have names that reflect their origins. These synagogues may be Sephardi--that is, sharing the customs of Jews whose ancestors lived in Spain in the Middle Ages--or Ashkenazi, sharing the customs of Jews whose ancestors lived in Christian Europe in the Middle Ages, like the majority of Jews in the U.S. There are also synagogues with Iranian, Iraqi, Italian or Greek customs. Some congregations are the second and third generation of a single Ashkenazi community that settled together in the United States after the Holocaust.

Some Orthodox synagogue services may seem busy and a little chaotic, a feeling is that is enhanced by children running around. In other synagogues, congregants are focused on their prayers and may pray at a rapid rate. The service will be entirely in Hebrew and the leader may or may not announce page numbers. Your best bet if you are brand new is to introduce yourself and sit near someone friendly to help you follow the pages. You may feel alienated that men and women don't sit together, or you may find that a lot of good things are happening on your side of the barrier between the two sections--it really depends on the congregation and your openness.

The largest association of Orthodox synagogues in the United States is the Orthodox Union, which claims about 1,000 synagogues under its aegis. Synagogues in the Orthodox Union must have separate seating for men and women with a barrier called a mehitzah separating the two sections. They pray in Hebrew, but usually discuss the Torah portion in English. The Orthodox Union is also one of the largest organizations providing supervision of kosher food. Orthodox Union synagogues are often called "Modern Orthodox."

Orthodox Jews consider the children of Jewish mothers to be Jewish. Children of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother are not technically Jewish under the rule of matrilineal descent. Some interfaith families who want to raise Jewish children have conversion ceremonies for their children in order for them to participate in Orthodox synagogues.

The kind of Orthodoxy many non-Orthodox Jews get to know is Chabad Hasidism, described below. A non-Hasidic Orthodox outreach organization that interfaith families might encounter is Aish Ha-Torah, which has 26 offices providing programming and a popular website. This organization is not geared to interfaith families. Indeed, they are the inventors of Speed Dating (really!) as a means of helping Jews to find Jewish partners, and they actively discourage intermarriage. Like Chabad, however, their purpose is to provide outreach to any Jew who wants to become more observant in an Orthodox fashion, and this includes some children and spouses in interfaith families.

Though Orthodox Judaism by definition resists new things, many Jews identify as Orthodox who are liberal and open to new things--and new people. An Orthodox synagogue doesn't seem like the natural choice for an interfaith family--but one near you might be.

Hasidic Orthodox

Hasidism looks very old-fashioned, but one could think of it as the first of the modern European Jewish movements. A backward-looking popularization of mysticism, Hasidism was founded in the 1700s by Israel ben Eliezer, the Ba'al Shem Tov. Clinging to past dress and language, Hasidic Jews are anti-modern--and you can't have an anti-modernist movement before there is at least a threat of modernity!

The most important concept in Hasidism is devekut (usually transliterated devekus) sticking or cleaving to God. All practices in Hasidic Judaism are intended to bring the individual closer to God. These practices may include more ritual immersions than other Orthodox Jews typically do, singing and dancing, storytelling and other mystical practices. One item of practice that divided Hasidim from non-Hasidic Orthodox Jews in Europe was kashrut; Hasidim had additional practices around ritual slaughter.

Hasidic Jews differ from other Orthodox Jews in following a single leader, called a rebbe or tzaddik. A rebbe isn't an ordinary rabbi--he's more like a guru. Each school in Hasidism is named after the town where the original rebbe lived, whether or not he had dynastic successors. Hasidim also have rabbis, men who have learned enough Talmud to teach and make legal rulings, but rebbes have special status.

In the present day, an interfaith family is most likely to come into contact with Chabad Hasidim, because this group has sent emissaries (called in Hebrew shlichim) to all corners of the globe to share with other Jews the traditional practices of Judaism. Other Hasidic groups are more closed to outsiders.

Chabad rabbis and their families provide Shabbat dinners to guests on college campuses and demonstrate how to put on tefillin, light Shabbat and Hanukkah candles, and perform other mitzvot. Chabad synagogues are often warmly welcoming to interfaith families in spite of publishing books and articles that decry interfaith marriage. Chabad congregations do not consider the children of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother to be Jews. Chabad synagogues, like other Orthodox synagogues, seat men and women separately. Chabad was innovative in using women's education to reach out to non-Orthodox Jews. Chabad has brought Hasidic influence to many non-Hasidic Jews.

Reconstructionist

Most Reconstructionists date the beginnings of their movement to 1934 when Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Conservative movement's main institution, first published Judaism as a Civilization. Kaplan maintained ties to the Conservative movement during his lifetime, and it wasn't until 1968 that Kaplan's followers established a rabbinical college, defining themselves as a Jewish movement. More than 100 synagogues and Havurot are affiliated with the Reconstructionist Federation. The Federation of Reconstructionist Synagogues and Havurot first passed a resolution affirming that children with one Jewish parent, whether it was the mother or the father, were Jewish, in 1968.

Reconstructionist theology is very different from Reconstructionist practice. The Reconstructionists tend to be more traditional in their practice than some Reform Jews, but Kaplan's thought moves away from a personal God to a more naturalistic view of spirituality. Traditional Judaism has a strong notion of a personal God, and Reconstructionism departs from that. Reconstructionists regard Judaism as the Jewish people's creation, a response to the divine presence in the world.

Synagogues in the Reconstructionist movement are typically welcoming to interfaith families. Individual Reconstructionist congregations decide who is a Jew for purposes of religious school. The Reconstructionist movement has recommended that synagogues allow non-Jewish family members in Jewish families to become members on condition that they are not participants in another religion.

Reconstructionism is still a relatively small movement, and you may not be able to find a Reconstructionist congregation to explore where you live. Reconstructionist synagogue services follow the format of the traditional siddur, with many changes to the Hebrew text of the prayers.

One of 54 sections of the Torah read, during Shabbat services, in order on a weekly basis throughout the year. Having Jewish family origins in Germany or Eastern Europe. Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. Having Jewish family origins in Spain, Portugal or North Africa. The term literally means "Spanish" in Hebrew. Plural form of "siddur," Hebrew for "prayer book." Hebrew term derived from the word "to pray," and translated into English as the unhelpful word "phylacteries." A set of small black leather boxes containing scrolls on which the Torah verses are written, one goes on the upper arm (with the black leather straps wrapping down the arm and around the hand and fingers) and the other goes around the head (with the straps dropping down the back of the head). A divider (such as a curtain or barrier) that separates men and women at prayer. Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. Plural form of the Hebrew word "mitzvah" which means "commandment," it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. ("You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!") The second is a good deed. ("Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!") A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. Hebrew for "prayer book," the plural is "siddurim." Hebrew for "instruction" or "learning," a central text of Judaism, recording the rabbinic discussions pertaining to Jewish law, ethics, philosophy, customs and history. It has two parts: Mishnah (redacted c. 200 CE) and Gemara (c. 500 CE), an elucidation of the Mishnah. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. Yiddish for "my master," derived from the Hebrew word "rabbi," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. In some Orthodox communities, the title refers to the leader or founder of a particular hasidic movement (for example, the Lubavitcher Hasids refer to their rabbi as rebbe).
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