The Synagogue as Village: Will It Welcome Interfaith Villagers?

By Rose Levinson


For about ten years, my Conservative synagogue has functioned as a village, an intimate small town. Like many Jews, I live in a highly urbanized area. All around me are the stresses and demands of the modern metropolis. The requirements for belonging to and succeeding in that culture exact a high price. Within the Jewish community, and particularly within my synagogue, I have an identity which rests on a different set of assumptions, and in which my worth is determined less by what I do than who I am. The synagogue provides a sense of place and grounding not to be had in the larger world.

Primarily for these reasons, the response of my synagogue when I brought in my non-Jewish partner was of paramount importance. I had been on my own for many years. For a good portion of that time, I sought a suitable partner, and had looked long and hard within the confines of the Jewish world.

When my yearning for a life-companion was fulfilled, it came in the form of someone who is not a Jew. After working through my own profound questions and sorting out, as best I could, my internal contradictions, I presented him to my synagogue-village with joy and excitement. I wanted the blessing of the community, which served, so strongly, as my ballast and my home base.

Instead, I experienced the message that it was not possible to grant this relationship full support because of my partner’s not being a Jew. We were, for example, not permitted to join together at the bimah to express publicly, within a Jewish context, the gratitude we felt at coming together.

It is life-cycle observances which highlight the isolation that interfaith couples face. Non-Jewish parents committed to rearing a Jewish child are not permitted to be part of the synagogue naming ceremony. The non-Jewish parents of a B’nai Mitzvah child are greatly restricted as to what they can do to participate in the simcha (joyous occasion).

Intellectually and rationally, I understand the boundaries that the synagogue draws. I understand that Conservative Judaism articulates those boundaries for reasons of halachah (traditional Jewish law). I struggle with knowing that opening the village gates to non-Jews will have profound implications, negative as well as positive.

But it is one thing to understand intellectually and another to grapple with the emotional implications of being an interfaith partner. My relationship to my synagogue has undergone a profound shift. The place upon which I had stood in my synagogue-village will never be as solid as it once was, and I do not feel as safe and whole there as I once did.

In fairness, mine is a relatively new synagogue and has not had to confront such realities as the increasing presence of interfaith couples. There have been, and continue to be, attempts to address the role and place of interfaith families. Furthermore, most of the synagogue members and particularly the rabbi address this issue in a spirit of openness. And the interfaith situation does not yield easy answers.

That said, the ambiguities surrounding the role of the non-Jew in my synagogue still serve to confuse my relation to what was always a warm and welcoming home. There is not yet clear articulation about the ways in which the non-Jew shall have a place–or shall not–in the life of my village-synagogue. There tends to be a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ approach. And there is no stated recognition that interfaith couples are part of the fabric of the synagogue; often there is a sense of being invisible. This lack of validation leads me to feel a need to make excuses for myself, to be secretive. At the least, it would help if the synagogue addressed the interfaith issue forthrightly and articulated the boundaries more clearly.

Because the synagogue means so much to me, I choose to stay within the village walls and to take an active stance. I was instrumental in forming a group for interfaith couples. This group is beginning its fifth year together. There are nine couples, and we have become a meaningful support system for one another as we grapple with the various permutations of being a committed Jew partnered with a person who is not a Jew. Equally important, we are making our presence felt and raising the need for the synagogue to acknowledge and define our role.

Each of us, Jew and non-Jew, feels connected to the synagogue, and wishes to work out our relationship to it. We recognize that a Conservative synagogue confronts institutional impasses and difficulties in dealing with intermarriage. None of us tries to simplify a complicated situation. What we are doing as a collective is, we hope, helping our synagogue work toward clarifying its stance on mixed partnerships.

It would be easier sometimes to walk away, to seek a Jewish home elsewhere. There are alternatives. But we came together within the confines of this particular Conservative synagogue in this particular time and place. We have roots, friends, ties, history within these walls. Home is the place one goes for shelter, succor, meaning. May it be so in our synagogue-village.


About Rose Levinson

Rose Levinson was recently Project Director of Tiferet, a pilot program of National Camp Ramah for intermarried families raising Jewish children. She has written for Jewish Lights' Lifecycles, Volumes I and II, and is host of a weekly radio program focusing on public policy issues.