NEW YORK — To an outsider, the battles might seem to be over trifles — in some cases, just a few feet.
Where may a non-Jewish parent stand in the synagogue during his child’s bar mitzvah? Can a non-Jew open the holy ark? Should non-Jewish synagogue members have voting rights?
Such questions have been pushed to the fore by the growing percentage of Conservative homes that include non-Jewish family members — more than one-quarter of them, according to the recent Pew Research Center survey.
For many Conservative synagogues, the issues are not trivial. They cut to the heart of a philosophical and practical debate about how open they should be toward the non-Jews in their midst.
“For a variety of reasons, my colleagues are being challenged to rethink positions that in the past we accepted almost as dogma,” said Rabbi Charles Simon, who as executive director of the Conservative movement’s Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs organizes seminars for Conservative synagogues on how to be more inclusive of non-Jews. “It doesn’t mean that the standards of Conservative Judaism are changing. It means that my colleagues are metaphorically learning they have to broaden their own tents.”
In some ways, the dilemma is not unique to Conservative Judaism; the Reform movement has grappled with some of the same issues. But Reform synagogues are not bound by Jewish law, and the movement accepts intermarriage — two key distinctions from Conservative Judaism. On the Orthodox side, the line against non-Jewish participation is pretty clear; many strictly Orthodox synagogues won’t even allow the Jewish partner in an interfaith marriage to lead services.
Conservative synagogues are navigating the parlous middle, wrestling with how to adapt to an era of increasing non-Jews in their ranks while still adhering to Conservative principles of Jewish law that among other things forbid intermarriage.
The discussions also come at a time of serious decline for the Conservative movement, whose share of the American Jewish population has fallen to 18 percent, according to the Pew study.
“Since such a large percentage of our younger families include interfaith marriages and relationships, we want very much to keep our children as loyal and involved Conservative Jews, and we realize that in order to do so we need to be welcoming to their partners and spouses and families,” said Rabbi Raphael Adler of the Woodbury Jewish Center in New York. “Many in our congregations are not willing to give up our children and our families to Reform synagogues or to no congregation at all. It seems wrong.”
The ways Conservative synagogues are adapting varies widely. Many offer non-Jews the honor of reciting the English prayer for the government, Israel or peace. Some allow non-Jews voting rights but bar them from board positions. Others exclude them from membership.
For Debbie Burton, who was married to a Jew and raising her kids as Jews but wasn’t Jewish herself, exclusion from synagogue ritual roles never really bothered her until her daughter’s bar mitzvah, when she was told she could not speak from the pulpit of her Chicago-area synagogue.
“It was the first time that I had ever felt that I was excluded from a minyan activity because I was not Jewish,” Burton, a professor of mechanical engineering at Northwestern, wrote in a 2010 essay for Interfaithfamily.com. “I was hurt to feel prevented from publicly sharing my thoughts on the occasion of a Jewish milestone of my child. After all, even though I wasn’t Jewish, I had played an important role in my children’s Jewish education and upbringing.”
Burton told JTA that the experience prompted her to push for changes in her synagogue’s policies, though in the end she didn’t require the changes for herself because she converted.
During life-cycle events, many Conservative synagogues now offer non-Jews a place of honor, but with limitations. At the Woodbury synagogue, non-Jewish parents may join their Jewish spouses when receiving an aliyah to the Torah during a bar mitzvah service, but the non-Jew must take a couple of steps back when the blessings are recited. A non-Jewish grandparent may offer an English blessing composed by the rabbi, but only from his place in the pews, not from the bimah.
Adler says reaction to the changes has been mixed: Some members have threatened to quit if certain changes are adopted.
Rabbi David Booth of Kol Emeth in Palo Alto, Calif., recently began giving non-Jews in his congregation a stand-alone ritual role unconnected to life-cycle events: opening the ark. Last month, the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards formally endorsed the practice.
At Congregation Kneses Tifereth Israel in Port Chester, N.Y., Rabbi Jaymee Alpert offers a public blessing to interfaith couples right before their wedding in an adaptation of the traditional Shabbat “aufruf” celebration that precedes a Jewish wedding. Alpert also presents the interfaith couple with the same synagogue gift bestowed upon Jewish couples.
“We should be as open and inclusive as possible within the parameters of Jewish law and the Conservative movement,” she said. “It’s not that the congregation is advocating intermarriage, but I think there’s a little bit of acceptance that this happens, and don’t we want our children and the next generation to feel comfortable in the synagogue?”
Alpert says she finds it painful to have to explain to interfaith couples why she cannot officiate at their weddings. Though the Conservative movement also bars its rabbis from attending intermarriages, the rule often is ignored.
Like many Conservative clergymen in Canada, Rabbi Jarrod Grover of Beth Tikvah Synagogue in Toronto considers intermarriage a breach of Conservative Judaism. At Beth Tikvah, non-Jews are barred from membership. Synagogue mail sent to interfaith homes omits the name of the non-Jewish spouse. The synagogue does not allow blessings for interfaith unions.
“We do not recognize the validity of intermarriages — period. There’s no simcha, there’s no aufruf,” Grover said.
He believes the best way to welcome non-Jews and encourage them to raise a Jewish family is to lower the bar for conversion.
“The danger of making the shul too welcoming for the intermarried is that there stops being any reason to convert, and I don’t want that,” Grover told JTA. “I want to push conversion because the right way to raise Jewish children is with two Jewish parents.”
Rabbi Stewart Vogel of Temple Aliyah in Los Angeles rejects that approach.
“Parents who have made a commitment to raise a Jewish household and they don’t convert, I think they’re heroes,” Vogel said. “I think they deserve our praise and recognition. Instead, what do they get? At best, a feeling that they’re accepted.”
Vogel’s synagogue doesn’t just welcome interfaith families but celebrates them. On “anniversary Shabbats,” when couples celebrating anniversaries are acknowledged in shul, intermarried couples are honored along with everybody else. At bar mitzvahs, the non-Jewish parent is invited to be part of the tallit presentation but must step back when the blessing is recited.
Vogel even officiates at funerals for non-Jewish congregants, noting in his eulogy that the deceased was not Jewish but was an “ohev yisrael” — a lover of the Jewish people. Vogel’s synagogue also allows non-Jewish spouses who have lost their Jewish spouse or divorced to remain a member of the congregation.
“Some of my most committed congregants are non-Jewish congregants,” he said.
Vogel says he initially was resistant to many of these changes, but his attitude shifted over time.
“My actions have been changed by the personal interactions with congregants and seeing how with a change in attitude we can really inspire them Jewishly,” he said. “Someone who might otherwise turn away is now validated and sanctified. It’s so affirming.”