Ner Tamid Disaffiliated by Conservative Movement

By Robin Friedman


Temple Ner Tamid has been disaffiliated from the Conservative movement following an official letter sent to the congregation on Dec. 5.

In the letter from United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s Committee on Congregational Standards, Ner Tamid was formally notified that the synagogue has been disaffiliated “effective immediately.” But the letter also states that the movement would be “delighted to welcome back” the Bloomfield synagogue should it ever decide to change its practices. Rabbi Steven Kushner, Ner Tamid’s religious leader, said he wasn’t surprised at USCJ’s decision. “We’ve come to an impasse over an issue we both feel strongly about. Ner Tamid has always tried to be as inclusive as possible, within limits.

“Interfaith families are here to stay,” said Kushner. “It’s much more important to reach out to them than arbitrarily exclude a large portion of our population.”

Ner Tamid, which, until now, was affiliated with both the Conservative and Reform movements, accepts interfaith families as full members as long as either the wife or husband is Jewish and the children are raised as Jews exclusively.

The USCJ Standards for Congregational Practice states in Article V on membership that “only Jews shall be admitted to membership in the congregation.” Barred as members are the non-Jewish member of a couple and children who identify as Jews through patrilineal descent, in other words, whose fathers only are Jewish.

An investigation by USCJ, launched about a year ago, was the first time Ner Tamid’s credentials had been officially examined since its founding in 1980, the result of a merger of two Bloomfield congregations: Temple Menorah, a Reform congregation, and Temple B’nai Zion, a Conservative synagogue. Since its founding, Ner Tamid has always been affiliated with both USCJ and the Reform Union of American Hebrew Congregations. The investigation was prompted by an inquiry last year from Rabbi Michael Monson of neighboring Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Montclair, a Conservative congregation, urging the movement to look into the religious standards at Ner Tamid. Monson subsequently withdrew his letter. “Had I realized people would have gotten so upset about it, I wouldn’t have sent the letter,” Monson told NJJN at the time. “It was not a criticism of [Ner Tamid]; it was a request for clarification of standards.”

When interviewed last year, USCJ regional executive director Rabbi Eric Lankin said that “there’s always been a variation of practice in the movement,” but, when a person walks into a Conservative synagogue, “there should be certain givens. One standard that is very clear is that we don’t accept patrilineal descent.”

In the Dec. 5 letter, United Synagogue had said it would allow Ner Tamid to remain in the movement if its policies changed.

‘This made us look at what’s important to us,” said Ner Tamid president Marjorie Grayson. “It made us stop and think about what really matters. We’ve come out stronger because of this.”

Moshe Edelman, director of the Committee on Congregational Standards at USCJ’s offices in New York City, put as good a face as he could on the action. “We’d love to have them stay as members, but this is our standard,” he said. “If they choose to have a different standard, one that is outside the boundaries of Conservative Judaism, we respect that. We only ask that our position be respected too.” He added, “The door is always open to Ner Tamid. They can come back at any time.”

Edelman said USCJ’s policy of accepting matrilineal descent only has never wavered since the movement’s founding in 1912. “United Synagogue is very proud of its policy. It’s a halachic policy,” he said. “Whether Ner Tamid chose to leave or was forced to go is a question of perspective. We tried very diligently to work with them for well over a year.”

When the issue arose last year, Kushner described Ner Tamid as a “traditional Reform templw” rather than as “a liberal Conservative shul.”

“We have never tried to sell ourselves as a Conservative synagogue,” he said. “We support both movements because we believe in religious pluralism. We feel there is credence to different Jews finding different paths in Judaism.”

Kushner praised his congregation’s founders for deciding that “ideological differences were not as important as community solidarity.” Kushner came to the congregation immediately after the merger but said he understands the UAHC was “much more aggressive and helpful in making the merger happen” than was the USCJ, where “on some level there must have been a sense of ‘something’s better than nothing.'”

Still, right from the beginning, USCJ “was not going to impose on us the standards they impose on other congregations,” Kushner said after first hearing about the inquiry last year, because Ner Tamid is a “hybrid.” The congregation still includes some Conservative members who were among those who worked to make the merger and dual affiliation succeed. “I think,” said Kushner, “it would be a shame if they had to surrender that.”

Ner Tamid uses Reform liturgy but includes more Hebrew than is common in most Reform congregations, he said, and observes the traditional liturgical calendar. The kitchen, which is dairy, used to be kosher, but now the synagogue allows food to be brought in without a hechsher “and we’re comfortable with that,” said Kushner.

In losing its USCJ affiliation, Ner Tamid can no longer avail itself of USCJ resources, including the organization’s educational curriculum and its networking and programmatic consultation services. In addition, the synagogue can no longer be home to chapters of the Conservative youth groups Kadima and United Synagogue Youth, the Hazak program for adults ages 55 and older and the KOACH program for college-age youth. “We’re a really terrific synagogue and we’ll continue to be a really terrific synagogue,” Grayson said, “no matter to whom we pay our dues. This won’t have an impact on our congregation.”

About Robin Friedman

Robin Friedman is a staff writer for the New Jersey Jewish News, where this article originally appeared.