Debra Rubin is bureau chief at the New Jersey Jewish News.
Non-Jews As Officers in Reform Temples: A Live Issue
June 12, 2009
Editor's Note: This article was first published as two separate pieces in the New Jersey Jewish News under the titles "Edison temple to reconsider non-Jews as officers, Emanu-El responds to couples' request to revisit bylaws" on May 26, 2009, and "Temple reasserts stance on non-Jews as officers" on June 9, 2009. We are reprinting these pieces by permission. We invite reader's comments on this issue.
Temple To Reconsider Non-Jews As Officers
May 26, 2009
Members of Temple Emanu-El in Edison, N.J., are preparing to vote on a proposal that would allow non-Jews to serve as synagogue officers and trustees.
The issue at the Reform synagogue comes only months after the congregation voted to change its bylaws to limit such positions to Jewish members. The second vote was triggered by a letter received in January from three couples who said they "took issue" with the requirement that officers and trustees "be of the Jewish faith."
The temple's board of directors in turn sent a letter to congregations, saying the issue will again be put before the membership at a June 3 congregational meeting "out of respect" for those couples.
However, the board's letter also stated the action "should not be construed as an endorsement by the board of the congregants' suggestion. To the contrary, the board recommends to the members that the bylaws remain as originally written and passed."
The board further stated, "Temple Emanu-El is, at its core, a Jewish organization, and its leadership should reflect that."
Congregation president Joan Ellen said the November change was the culmination of almost two years of intensive research by a committee whose members went over each of the temple's bylaws "with a fine-tooth comb." The bylaws were last revised in 1993.
All proposed revisions were shared with the congregation in advance of the November vote, and several meetings were held for members to discuss any issue, Ellen said.
"We did a lot of soul searching about where the congregation is today and went through the guidelines the Union for Reform Judaism puts out for Reform congregations," said Rabbi Deborah Bravo. "We polled other Reform congregations. We definitely did our research."
She said that although other revisions to the bylaw were questioned by various members, there was "minimal conversation" about the change in eligibility for officers, and it "overwhelmingly passed."
She estimated about 25 percent of the congregation is intermarried, including those who live as Jews although they have not gone through a formal conversion. Most understand and support the current bylaw, added Bravo.
The move to limit leadership positions to Jews is in line with what other Reform congregations are doing in the region, said Rabbi Randi Musnitsky, who served as regional director of the New Jersey-West Hudson Valley Council of the URJ.
"Most synagogues are following what Temple Emanu-El has done in this part of the country, but that's not true for the rest of country," she added, explaining that the decision is often fueled by demographics.
"As you move across the country you will see a tremendous difference in those allowed to participate in congregational leadership," she said. "In areas where you have a smaller pool of Jewish congregants from which to draw, there is a tremendous difference about whom [the synagogues] allow to participate in congregational leadership. It makes perfect sense."
Musnitsky said her own synagogue, Temple Har Shalom in Warren, N.J., like most other Reform congregations in the state, does not allow non-Jews to serve as officers and trustees.
Rabbi Rex Perlmeter, the URJ's current regional director, said "finding a place in the ranks" for non-Jews is a situation with which many non-Orthodox synagogues are grappling.
"It's idiosyncratic to each synagogue and must be part of a sacred holistic discussion," he said. "In reality, non-Jews have become very interwoven in the fabric of the American-Jewish community."
The recent Emanu-El board letter cited a URJ guideline that "the work of the board is to become a community, learning and living Torah and serving as a model for the congregation" and that "its mission is to create Jews and sustain Judaism." As such, its officers and trustees are "representatives, policy makers, and role models for a Jewish religious organization."
"We feel that it is appropriate that the individuals providing the leadership and guidance to Temple Emanu-El be of the Jewish faith," stated the letter.
However, in their letter, Kathy and David Liss, Barbara and John Barr, and Denise and Lew Missuk said they "took issue" with the requirement that officers and trustees "be of the Jewish faith."
"It is our feeling that stating this requirement in the bylaws conflicts with the inclusive spirit that attracts so many members to join the congregation in the first place," they wrote. "So with concern for preserving the inclusive nature of our congregation and with concern for further growth of our temple, we ask the board to consider this request."
Ellen said the synagogue has always maintained a welcoming attitude toward its non-Jewish members, most of whom are spouses or partners of Jews. It also has several members whose Jewish spouses or partners have died but are raising Jewish children.
"They are welcomed on any of our committees, although not on the ritual committee, but certainly any other," she said. "In every other aspect they feel they are a part, and they are a part, of our congregation.
Bravo said over the years several non-Jews had served as officers or trustees, although not since she arrived about three years ago.
Bravo said non-Jews have "an important role that we would never want to change." They are welcome to join their children on the bima for a blessing at a bar or bat mitzvah, she said, adding that they can hold a Torah scroll, because it is not a religious obligation, but cannot read from the Torah.
"In many ways it's harder for non-halachic Jews than for traditional Jews," explained Bravo. "Traditional Jews will follow the Halacha and not have to make such decisions. We have to use Jewish text and guidance and also have to recognize our own community. In the liberal movement, there is a lot of gray area."
Temple Reasserts Stance on Non-Jews as Officers
June 9, 2009
Members of Temple Emanu-El in Edison, N.J., reaffirming a stance taken only months before, voted to bar non-Jews from becoming synagogue officers and trustees.
Last November, the Reform congregation voted to amend its by-laws to ban non-Jews from such positions.
Synagogue leaders agreed to put the issue to another vote June 3 at the request of three couples who objected to the earlier decision. A two-thirds vote was required to change the by-laws.
"We had a spirited and passionate discussion with about 30 people speaking," said temple president Joan Ellen, adding that speakers were almost evenly divided on the issue.
"We alternated speakers both pro and con," Ellen said. "Those opposing it felt that the temple had always been very inclusive and welcoming [to intermarried families], and they felt this wasn't. For those who felt we shouldn't change, the overriding issue was that we're a Jewish organization and we should have Jewish leadership."
Prior to the re-vote, the board sent a letter to congregants stating it was putting the matter up for a vote "out of respect" for the three couples who requested the policy again be reviewed.
Barring non-Jews from leadership positions is common among New Jersey area Reform synagogues, despite the movement's assertive outreach to intermarried families.
Ellen said discussion revolved around many issues, including things non-Jewish members were permitted to do within the congregation.
"They are pretty much permitted to do anything except read from the Torah and [recite] the Torah blessings, so we focused on what they can do rather than what they can't," she said. "We also talked about the right of everyone to have their own opinions and expectations and about how we value each other's opinions. In the end, one group won and one didn't, but we think we did it in a fair and democratic way."
Rabbi Deborah Bravo said she believed congregants reacted "very passionately and honestly from their hearts."
"Whatever happened, some people were going to be upset on either side," she said. "But at the end of the day, most people were supportive of each other. Although this was something written in our by-laws, I don't think it will change the look or feel of our synagogue, which has always been welcoming and inclusive. It changes the makeup of the board and nothing more than that."