Synagogues, Interfaith Families and Policies – Oh My!


Last month, I blogged about Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El, a Conservative synagogue outside of Philadelphia, that updated its constitution to be more explicitly welcoming of interfaith families.

Yesterday, the Jewish Exponent ran an article that looked at the more personal side of the decision. They interviewed Kari Kohn, a Presbyterian, who, with her husband, Joshua, is raising two Jewish kids.

When Kari and Joshua Kohn moved to Bryn Mawr a year ago, they enrolled their two sons, ages 3 and 5, in pre-school at Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in Wynnewood. But the interfaith couple had no intention of joining the congregation unless both husband and wife could be counted as members.

“I am looking to be part of a community,” Kari Kohn said. “I’m the one that drives the kids to pre-school, goes to Tot Shabbat with the kids, cooks the Shabbat meals. I’m committed to raising my kids Jewish,” she said, adding that she does not want to feel like an outsider.
Rabbi Elliot Strom

It’s families like the Kohns that Beth Hillel had in mind when it passed a constitutional amendment in June extending full membership to a family, even if only one of the adults is Jewish. Prior to the decision — the culmination of nearly two years of discussion — only the Jewish adult was considered a congregant.

The decision is not unprecedented for a Conservative shul, either nationally or locally. But it does represent a significant step for a prominent Main Line synagogue and signals a new commitment to attracting interfaith families.

But the article doesn’t stop there. It also looks a the personal impact decisions like these may have on a congregation’s clergy.

It mentions two Reform congregations:

Rabbi Eliot Strom of Shir Ami Bucks County Jewish Congregation, a Reform temple in Newtown, reversed a position he’s held for 35 years and will now officiate at interfaith weddings.

….He said he reconsidered his views because he’s seen many examples of non-Jews doing an effective job of raising their children as Jews — too many instances to be dismissed.

“My goal is to make more Jewish families, not to put a road block in front of them,” said Strom. “The reaction has been uniformly positive. The only issue that I have to deal with is some have said, ‘That’s great. I wish you had that position eight years ago or 12 years ago.'”

Other Reform rabbis are sticking to their positions. Rabbi Gregory Marx of Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen disputed the notion that refusing to officiate at interfaith ceremonies makes his synagogue less welcoming. “It is not whether or not you do the ceremony, it’s how you relate to them, the message that you give and how you explain the reason you don’t officiate,” he said, adding that he’ll allow a justice of the peace to officiate at a ceremony at his congregation and will even attend.

He said he designs ceremonies that revolve around Jewish vows and asking a non-Jew to make such vows essentially asks them to be dishonest on their wedding day, he said.

And “a Traditional shul considered to the right of the Conservative movement but not Orthodox”:

“We have such families and we don’t want to see them as something that fell into the cracks of communal life; we want them to feel welcome,” said Rabbi Jean Claude Klein of Shaare Shamayim.

So here are my questions: Does your synagogue include non-Jewish spouses as members? Does your clergy officiate at interfaith marriages? Do you agree with Rabbi Marx’s position? With Rabbi Strom’s reasons?

On a related note, Karen Kushner, our Chief Education Officer, is collecting examples of synagogue policies for non-Jewish partners and family members. Are you counted as a member? Can you take on a leadership position? Are you given ritual honors? []Let her know![/email] Please include the name of your synagogue and city in your response. Thanks!

One thought on “Synagogues, Interfaith Families and Policies – Oh My!”

  • My congregation accepts both partners as member even if only one of them is Jewish. I don’t necessarily agree with that but that is the way it’s done and my husband is a member for now. As for interfaith marriages, I am not sure because I haven’t asked. Our Rabbi has only been with us for a year and I haven’t heard anyone mentioned if she does them or not.

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