The Unofficial Member

By Debbie Burton


It was a challenging day to be coordinating services.

It was the Saturday morning of our congregation’s annual Shabbat retreat. According to traditional protocol, I needed to find a Cohen and a Levite to bless the first two Torah readings. Handing out Torah honors (aliyot) should have been easier since there were a few more people than at a regular Shabbat service. But as I scanned the faces of the people present and looked through the box of index cards listing our members, I could not find a Cohen for the first aliyah. So I looked for Levites. I was foiled again. The only Levite present had the special aliyah for the person reading from the Prophets. With no Cohen and no Levite around, each of the people assigned to aliyot would move up two slots and I would have to scurry around to find two more people for the remaining aliyot.

Debbie B's family
Debbie Burton.’s family at her daughter’s bat mitzvah.

The previous evening, I had asked our guest speaker if he was a Cohen or a Levite. He wasn’t. He was simply an Israelite, he said. I’m sure he would have been shocked to learn that the person asking him was not in any of the three categories because she wasn’t even Jewish. Being Chinese I don’t “look Jewish,” but a lot of people assume that I am a Jew-by-choice. However, despite having attended synagogue for 24 years, being married to a Jewish man for 21 years and raising Jewish children, I am still not (yet) Jewish. It seemed out of place to tell our guest speaker, “Welcome to our minyan. I’m not a member, because I’m not Jewish.”

It took a decade of regular participation in my Jewish community before I found out that I was not a member. Our minyan’s by-laws make being Jewish a requirement of membership. We don’t even have a different category of membership or association for someone like me. I was stunned. Was I merely a “guest” like the relatives of members who sometimes visited our minyan for High Holidays?

For 10 years I had done my share of “gan duty” in which members take turns helping to babysit the younger children. I had brought in kiddush snacks when it was my family’s turn. I had even edited and formatted the cookbook that our minyan produced for its 25th anniversary. I noted archly that by paying the family membership dues we had effectively been making an unintentional donation all these years. Still, despite all of my involvement in the minyan, I felt like I had been told that I was nothing, not worthy of any designation at all. I even started to feel self-conscious when using “we” to refer to minyan activities.

Of course, my lack of official designation does not reflect how warmly the minyan community has welcomed us. We had been invited to members’ homes for many Shabbat and holiday meals. They had come to our aid when I spent a week in the hospital for a ruptured appendix when my children were ages 1 and 4. They babysat, brought my family meals and even did our laundry because we had just moved and did not yet have a working washing machine.

But still I felt hurt and excluded. I had come to love and feel a part of this community. Meanwhile, a member became disturbed when he realized that I wasn’t Jewish from an indirect reference in an email posting. At that time he held the minyan board position for assigning people to coordinate services. Hadn’t he noticed that I wasn’t on the coordinators list and guessed the reason earlier?

He told me that he had strong opinions on allowing only Jews to be members but he wanted to be clear that it “did not in any way suggest any disrespect or disapproval of you, your family or any choices you’ve made.” The strange outcome of this situation was that he decided that despite my not being a “member,” nothing precluded me from coordinating services. I myself thought it somewhat improper for a non-Jew to coordinate services, but I did not feel that I could turn down his gracious offer.

Although it was emotionally difficult for me to learn that I was not a member of the minyan, it did cause me to do some needed soul-searching concerning my involvement with Judaism. As much as I hate to admit it, it was an additional motivator for me to convert. A few months ago, about two years after I found out I was not a minyan member, I contacted the rabbi of a large Conservative synagogue in which my family also has a membership and began to study with him for the purpose of conversion.

Recently when we were attending services at the small lay-led satellite minyan of that Conservative synagogue, I was offered an honor. I turned it down with my usual apologetic “I can’t,” without further explanation. I wondered whether the person who offered it to me did not know that I am not Jewish or if he felt that it was permissible for a non-Jew to do “gelila” (wrapping the Torah). It was still a slightly embarrassing situation, but this time I smiled as I thought to myself: “Not now, but ask me again in the future when I will be able to accept.”


About Debbie Burton

Debbie Burton was concurrently active in three Conservative synagogues before her conversion made her eligible for "official" membership: the Ner Tamid Ezra Habonim Egalitarian Minyan (a lay-led congregation in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago), the Skokie Egalitarian Minyan (the lay-led "library minyan" of Ezra Habonim, the Niles Township Jewish Congregation, which is within walking distance of her home) and Beth Hillel Congregation Bnai Emunah (the synagogue where her children attended Hebrew school).