Sojourners Among Us: Non-Jews in Jewish Life

By Rabbi David Regenspan


They are models for the rabbi’s sermon about how to lead a good Jewish life. They light Sabbath candles and send their children to Hebrew school. They attend adult education classes on Jewish subjects. They sing boisterously at Jewish services and know the Hebrew words of every prayer. They serve on synagogue committees; they even become synagogue officers.

And they are not Jews.

The American Jewish community is filled with participants who are not Jewish according to the rules of anyone in organized Judaism, be it Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist or Reform. Having never undergone conversion, they are Jews in practice but not in name. They have no “church” other than the synagogue, no home rituals other than Jewish rituals.

Why do they not convert to Judaism, yet live as Jews? Here are two stories.


Cathy Currier is not Jewish and has no plans to become a Jew. Yet Jewish life is very important to her. Her husband Ted is committed to Jewish practice; son Yossi and daughter Hannah are being raised as Jews. Cathy’s family holds an honored place in a medium-sized Conservative congregation in Ithaca, N.Y., where her husband serves as membership chairman.

Cathy freely admits that her marriage brought her to synagogue life.

Having studied Hebrew and lived in Israel, Cathy is comfortable with Conservative Jewish worship. Raised a Unitarian, she is at ease with a religious environment that is not Jesus-centered or dogmatic. She now considers her synagogue to be a key element of her community life, and feels welcomed even though the rules exclude her from ritual and certain other activities.

Bringing up her children as Jews “was never a question,” because it was a condition of her marriage to Ted. Both children underwent conversion to ensure their Jewish status (due to not having been born of a Jewish mother); both attended Hebrew school and had a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Judaism, Cathy feels, provides them with a sound moral code, and she is happy that they are being raised as Jews. As a day care professional and social activist, morality is high on Cathy’s priority list.

Why does Cathy not intend to become a Jew? “Even if I converted I wouldn’t be Jewish in any meaningful way,” she explains. The product of a home in which religion did not play a major role beyond Unitarian church membership, Cathy does not feel that she can embrace any religious doctrine. Furthermore, she feels that unless she were born Jewish, she could not be an “ethnic” Jew. Being part of a Jewish community, however, is central to Cathy’s life, a paradox she accepts.


Charlie Wilson married into the Jewish community, but, unlike Cathy, may some day convert. For now, he is content with participating in his small Reform congregation.

An intensely moral man, Charlie gave up a lucrative defense industry career due to his horror at the Vietnam War. But organized religion did not interest him after being disillusioned with his Catholic upbringing. He felt a void was left in his life.

His marriage to public school educator Denise, however, represented the start of his gradual approach to Jewish life. Denise, a born Jew, felt alienated from Jewish religious life. The birth of their daughter Elsa, however, forced the couple to rethink the question of religion in the home. “I was concerned,” says Charlie, “that she should have an education in a religious system.” Judaism, at least of the liberal variety, seemed to be the logical choice. Later, Charlie was stunned to discover that his father’s mother had been Jewish, a fact she had never discussed. He suspects that some Jewish values were quietly transmitted to him down through the generations.

Charlie and Denise began to attend Jewish worship when Elsa’s religious school class was participating in the Sabbath service. Charlie enjoyed the rabbi’s historically oriented explanations of the weekly Torah portion. He found himself learning the Hebrew words to the prayers and hymns, and began to feel at home.

Charlie does see conversion as a possibility in his future, but he is still dealing with his old “fear of organized religion.” He is not ready for that ultimate step.

Issues for Non-Jewish Participants

Some non-Jewish participants will never convert, while others might and do. For many, family-of-origin issues come into play. As one rabbi observes: “My guess is that there are many. . . whose delay in conversion is linked (consciously or unconsciously) to family affection, not theology.” In other words, some may feel that they will hurt their parents’ or siblings’ feelings by formally embracing another faith.

How should Jewish communities respond to the non-Jews in their midst?

More liberal congregations allow some ritual participation for non-Jews. As one rabbi describes the practice in her synagogue: “We allow non-Jews to read parts of the service in English, to open the ark, and to stand with their spouse when they do an aliyah (recite the blessing over the Torah reading).” A good rule of thumb may be to bar non-Jews from reciting or performing such non-universal rituals as the Torah blessings, which are designed to celebrate Jewish particularity, but permit them certain more universal expressions of public prayer, such as reading many of the psalms.

Some synagogues allow non-Jews to assume certain leadership roles–here again, it seems advisable to be very cautious about which roles are permitted. It may be more appropriate for a non-Jew to work with the social action committee, an activity that transcends religious denominations, than to work with a committee on religious or ritual matters.

Yet perhaps the most important thing is the presence of a general sense of welcome rather than what the specific rules and restrictions are applied. Like anyone else in the community, non-Jews wish to be treated with warmth and kindness. Synagogue leaders must ensure that such treatment is the norm.

As the Jewish community continues to battle assimilation and attrition, welcoming non-Jewish participants may prove to be one key to its survival. As it says in the Torah: “But the stranger who dwells with you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Ten Tips for Dealing with Non-Jewish Synagogue Participants

Treat non-Jewish participants as honored guests, even though they may be restricted from many activities and decisions. They have chosen to be with your community.

If non-Jewish participants in your synagogue make you uneasy, try to understand your feelings. Do not behave in a hostile manner; uphold Jewish principles in a humane way.

Make congregational decisions concerning non-Jewish participants in a rational and fair-minded manner.

Make sure that non-Jewish participants have a voice ( if not a vote). Allow them to share their perceptions and suggestions.

Only place limits on the ritual and leadership activities of non-Jewish members that reflect the greater good of Judaism, and not petty and insignificant matters.

Welcome non-Jewish participants as potential converts, but do not badger them to convert.

If you must turn down a non-Jewish participant’s request to perform a specific ritual, e.g. saying the blessing over the Torah reading, do so in a gentle manner and explain the reason for the refusal.

Do not be inclined to suspect non-Jewish participants of having ulterior motives, e.g. Christian missionizing. This is very unlikely.

Go out of your way to ask the non-Jewish participant how she or he feels about her/his reception in the congregation. Is there some way that they could be made to feel more welcome?

If your rabbi or other leaders seem unaware of the importance of the issue of non-Jewish participants, then be sure to raise the issue. You will be doing the community a service.


About Rabbi David Regenspan

Rabbi David Regenspan is a former congregational rabbi, ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1988. David lives in Ithaca, N.Y., with his wife Barbara.