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Keeping the Interfaithful

September 21, 2011 By:
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Rabbi Jeremy Gerber of Ohev Shalom of Wallingford has worked to make interfaith families feel welcome at all synagogue functions, including a recent blessing of the pets.

In the 10 years since she married a Jewish man, Kari Kohn has learned a thing or two about synagogues -- how some can make her feel alienated and others can make her feel welcome.

One cue about a synagogue's vibe is how members react when she reveals she's not Jewish, said Kohn, who was raised a Presbyterian. Do they pause awkwardly to absorb the news, offering a quizzical expression, or continue talking without skipping a beat and provide reassurances that they welcome interfaith families?

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.

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.

On the other side of the region, 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 plans to speak about his decision on Yom Kippur.

The Reform and Reconstructionist movements have long been considered the most welcoming streams for interreligious households. Virtually all Conservative rabbis will not officiate at interfaith marriages and among the Reform, a majority of clergy still refuse to do so, according to Reform officials.

The steps taken by Strom and Beth Hillel's Rabbi Neil Cooper -- who pushed for the constitutional amendment -- sprang from changes in conviction after internal struggles. But the developments are also a result of demographic and economic realities, with many synagogues struggling to retain and attract members.

Congregations have felt the fiscal crunch and are striving to remain relevant to a generation of Jews who no longer feel obligated to join, even if only to attend High Holiday services.

The 2009 "Jewish Population Study of Greater Philadelphia" found that the intermarriage rate has reached 45 percent for Jews under 40 in the five-county region, with only 29 percent of intermarried couples of all ages raising their children solely as Jews.

"Where is the potential growth for synagogues? It is with these interfaith families," said Rabbi Rayzel Raphael, rabbinic consultant for InterFaithways, a small nonprofit that works to make the Jewish community more welcoming to interfaith families.

Many Jewish leaders have described a gradual paradigm shift in which the focus, they say, is no longer on preventing intermarriage, but on working to ensure that children of intermarriage are raised as Jews.

Raphael said that even some Orthodox congregations are starting to have discussions on intermarriage, though none appears to want to be the first to take part in the group's annual InterFaithways Family Shabbat Weekend in November. However, this year, for the first time, Congregations of Shaare Shamayim, a Traditional shul considered to the right of the Conservative movement but not Orthodox, is expected to take part.

"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.

For three decades, the Reform movement has accepted patrilineal decent -- meaning children are considered Jewish if they have a Jewish mother or a Jewish father and are being raised as Jews. Traditional Judaism considers someone Jewish only if the mother is Jewish or if the person has converted.

And while the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly prohibits its rabbis from officiating at interfaith ceremonies, the Reform and Reconstructionist movements leave it up to the discretion of their clergy.

Strom said he has struggled with his position ever since the synagogue amended its own policy five years ago, allowing clergy to conduct interfaith ceremonies.

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.' "

Strom's decision came less than a year after Rabbi David Straus, religious leader of Main Line Reform Temple-Beth Elohim in Wynnewood, made a similar announcement to his congregation.

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.

Beth Or's program director, Elisa Heisman, said the clergy and lay leadership are highly focused on interfaith families and the synagogue runs programs, such as the Mother's Circle, for non-Jewish moms raising their kids Jewish.

At Conservative shuls, which are more closely bound by Jewish law, having a rabbi perform an interfaith wedding isn't an option and they are more restricted in their ability to allow non-Jews to perform certain rituals, such as having an aliyah to the Torah.

At Beth Hillel, non-Jews are generally not permitted on the bimah or to hold top leadership roles, though they can hold committee positions. Rather than start with any concrete changes, said Cooper, the synagogue needed to examine how it defined community and membership.

"This does not pass judgment on intermarriage. What it says is that this is a reality of Jewish life today," Cooper said, adding that some of the thornier issues would be hammered out later.

Kathy Elias, chief kehillah coordinator for the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, said there are no local statistics on Conservative congregations that counted non-Jews as members. A query of some larger shuls found at least two had made the change years ago, others hadn't, a few didn't have any kind of official policy, or the policy wasn't widely known.

Ohev Shalom in Wallingford has long counted non-Jews as members and is considered to be one of the more successful local Conservative synagogues in reaching out to intermarried families. Five years ago, the congregation took the step of allowing non-Jews to be buried in its cemetery.

Rabbi Jeremy Gerber said that a 2010 ruling by the Rabbinical Assembly made it possible to allow such burials, and he and the synagogue leadership thought that a welcoming shul needed to do just that.

"You can err on the side of stringent and you can err on the side of lenient," he said.

At Ohev Shalom, non-Jews can read an English blessing from the bimah. But holding the Torah, opening the ark or reciting a blessing in Hebrew during an aliyah are off-limits. "There are still aspects of the Jewish ritual service that are for Jewish participants," said Gerber.

Back at Beth Hillel, the Kohns said they believe their new congregation has taken the right steps, but they are anxious to see to what extent interfaith families can become part of the fabric of congregational life.

Kari Kohn is hoping that by the time her oldest son becomes a Bar Mitzvah in eight years, non-Jews will be able to take on a more public role at the ceremony.

"I've been a very important part of my son's Jewish education and I would like to be recognized," she said.

Being excluded from the bimah, she suggested, would be "a deal breaker."

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