Conservative Congregations Aim for Greater Inclusion

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As the Conservative movement continues to grapple with the role of non-Jewish members during religious rituals, several local congregations have come up with their own creative practices to better include interfaith families. 

Nicole Sirken, a product of Catholic schools from elementary school through graduation who “made all my sacraments,” had what she described as an “overwhelming experience” at her oldest daughter’s Bat Mitzvah last December at Ohev Shalom of Bucks County.

Part of what made the day so special, she said, was reading a prayer she had written for her daughter from the bimah.

She and her husband, Gary Sirken, who grew up attending a Conservative synagogue in the Northeast, have two daughters and a son and are active members of the congregation. Their oldest daughter, Emma, attended Camp Ramah in the Poconos this summer; and all three children attended preschool and now religious school at the Conservative congregation.

“As long as they were raised in a religion where they had beliefs and values, I was OK with raising them Jewish,” said Sirken, who lives in Jamison.

But what about Sirken herself? In the Conservative movement, where rabbis don’t officiate at interfaith weddings, does being a non-Jewish member of the family mean coming in a side door while the spouse and children are warmly received through the main entrance?

Sirken says no, she has “always felt welcome” at Ohev Shalom, which like many Conservative congregations, is continuing to grapple with the role of non-Jewish spouses, particularly during services, even as they initiate new outreach efforts.

“I used to believe that those Jewish individuals who married non-Jews were making a statement of giving up on Judaism, and over the years I have learned and seen very clearly they are not giving up on Judaism, and I don’t want to give up on them,” said Rabbi Elliot Perlstein, who has led Sirken’s synagogue since its founding in 1976.

Perlstein said he has shifted his stance not only out of a change in philosophy but also “in response to the present reality.”

The release of the Pew Research Center’s “Portrait of Jewish Americans” last year hit the Conservative movement particularly hard, showing a significant drop in numbers and that only 11 percent of Jews aged 18 to 29 identified as Conservative. The study also found that 71 percent of non-Orthodox American Jews who wedded between 2005-2013 married non-Jews.

Around the same time the study was released, the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards moved to endorse the practice of non-Jewish members opening the ark. While Reform and Reconstructionist congregations have long allowed non-Jewish spouses to participate more fully in ritual, the issue has been harder for Conservative congregations, many of which adhere more closely to Jewish law.

Some local Conservative synagogues had already formalized changes to allow non-Jewish spouses greater participation on the bimah, especially during their children’s Bar and Bat Mitzvahs.

The committee’s decision “is an indication of how the status is changing,” said Rabbi Charles Simon, executive director of the Conservative movement’s Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, which is behind the movement’s keruv initiative to reach intermarried families. “A decade ago, the big issue was who could stand on the bimah, and there are some shuls where that still is an issue —‘bimahitis’ for a lot of congregations is a disease.”

Synagogue leaders describe the pro­cess of figuring out how to include non-Jewish spouses as fluid. Part of that involves distinguishing participation in certain rituals that are restricted to Jews — such as reading the Torah — while still ensuring that non-Jewish members feel part of the congregation.

At Ohev Shalom, the religious committee has not yet endorsed allowing a non-Jewish person to stand next to his or her spouse during an aliyah at their child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah ceremony. Perlstein said he has observed family members who feel “overlooked” or “alone” sitting in the congregation while the rest of their family is at the bimah during the Torah reading.

Perlstein, who is trying to introduce a new mindset at his congregation, which just formed its first interfaith family outreach committee, said he first brought this issue to the religious committee last year and sees a change in policy as “inevitable.”

“It’s necessary if we are going to truly welcome families into our community,” he said.

That does not mean that the non-Jewish spouse would also be able to read a blessing at the Torah. Perlstein said he would explain the blessing is a “statement of being a part of the Jewish people,” but he would not say “we expect you to remain silent.”

Rabbi Neil Cooper of Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El also said he would not employ “armed police” at the bimah.

“No one is going to sneak in a blessing,” he said. “That’s not what people are looking for, and I’m not worried about that.”

His Conservative congregation in Wynnewood started allowing non-Jewish spouses to stand on the bimah during an aliyah and next to the ark when it’s being opened a few years ago, after changing its constitution to ensure that a non-Jew is considered a “fully participating member of the community,” said Cooper.

He sees the participation that the congregation now allows not a matter of “Jewish law” but rather “synagogue etiquette.”

There are other ways synagogues are finding to allow non-Jews to participate in the service. Before her daughter’s Bat Mitzvah in June, Temple Sinai member Tami Astorino, who is Jewish, wanted to include her husband’s Catholic family. She asked relatives to read a prayer for peace and sing “lech lecha” to her daughter, Eden.

Her husband, David, stood at his wife’s side while she read the blessing over the Torah.

Those rituals “were incredibly meaningful to me in the moment,” Astorino said, but she was also moved “that my synagogue was willing to work with me to make that happen.”

For his part, Rabbi Adam Wohlberg said, “I have not had one person tell me that they are unhappy about” the synagogue’s approach to interfaith families, which has evolved over the last decade.

He said he first discusses any change with the religious committee, where he said some individuals may not be in favor of a particular change, “but no one was upset enough to vote against it or say they would leave the synagogue as a result.”

Not everyone in the Conservative moment is convinced that allowing participation during services is the best approach. There are some Jewish leaders who say that by encouraging people of other faiths to participate at such a high level, you take away any reason for them to convert.

But Rabbi Rachel Brown of Congregation B’nai Jacob in Phoenixville does not see intermarriage or a spouse’s reluctance to convert as a problem. She described such marriages as a sign that Jews “have finally achieved the kind of assimilation we have always wanted.”

Brown said she had a conversation with a Jewish member about their non-Jewish spouse a few years ago that changed how she views their participation in the synagogue.

“She came to me and said, ‘What if I were to die? Would my husband who is not Jewish be welcomed to still be a member here and raise our children in the synagogue?’ ” Brown said, noting that her  congregation just granted voting rights to non-Jewish spouses in the past few years.

Brown noted that “there are a lot of very good reasons why people who are full participants in their Jewish families don’t convert,” such as not wanting to cause pain to their parents. But some people ultimately do decide to convert.

Sirken, who was raised Catholic, said she was so moved by her daughter’s Bat Mitzvah that she is now considering becoming Jewish.

Perlstein, who met with her about a year ago, said if it happens, “I think it’s great.” But that’s also not the ultimate goal.

“I want people who are part of interfaith families to know we’re not doing all of this outreach with the hidden motive that our goal is to at some point have them convert,” he said. “I’m interested in accepting people as they are.”
 

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