Behind the Headlines the Role of Non-jews in Temple: Should There Be Any Limitations?

Polly Goldberg attends services regularly. She is co-president of her temple’s sisterhood and active in her local Hadassah chapter.

And she is a practicing, churchgoing Catholic.

Goldberg was at the biennial convention of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations here last weekend to represent her congregation, Temple Israel in West Lafayette, Ind.

The president of Temple Israel, Brenda Lipp, says it’s “important that a leader of a congregation should be Jewish. You should want to be a Jewish leader enough to be Jewish.”

When asked about her own background, Lipp says she is Jewish, but admits that she was born to a non-Jewish mother and has never converted, though she was active in synagogue life for years before the Reform movement adopted the policy of patrilineal descent.

Lipp went to Reform Hebrew school as a child, and has always considered herself a Jew because she was confirmed in the 10th grade.

While it is not common for Reform temples to have non-Jews at the helm of a committee, on the board of directors or as the president of the congregation, it is becoming less rare — and it is an issue that is cropping up frequently in some Reform congregations, where as many as 40 percent of members may have non-Jewish spouses.

The overwhelming majority of Reform congregations, nearly two-thirds, have no written policy on the participation of non-Jews in temple governance, according to a movement-wide outreach census conducted from February to May.

Even more, 83 percent, have no written policy on the role of non-Jews in ritual participation.

Decisions about the limits, if any, on non-Jews’ participation in those congregations are generally based on the temple’s “oral tradition” and evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

MOST ALLOW NON-JEWS TO JOIN

According to the survey, conducted by the Commission on Reform Jewish Outreach of the UAHC, 88 percent of Reform congregations provide for the membership of non-Jews as part of a family, usually through the membership of a Jewish spouse.

And 62 percent allow non-Jews to vote on synagogue matters.

An overwhelming majority of 87 percent allow non-Jews to serve on all or most committees, and more than a quarter, 27 percent, do not bar non-Jews from serving as officers.

Over a fifth of Reform congregations allow non-Jews to have an aliyah to the Torah.

Forty-one percent allow non-Jews to light Shabbat candles in temple, and more than 90 percent of Reform congregations allow non-Jews to participate in some way in life-cycle ceremonies.

And, significantly, some three-quarters of Reform congregations have no precise information about the religion of their members because they do not ask for it on membership applications.

“What happens when someone who is fully integrated into synagogue life and we think is Jewish turns out not to be, and six weeks before her child’s Bar Mitzvah is told that she cannot light Shabbat candles” in the temple? asked Mimi Dunitz, the outreach coordinator for the UAHC’s Great Lakes region.

Dunitz posed the question at a workshop she led at the biennial titled “Defining the Role of the Non-Jewish Spouse in the Synagogue.”

The workshop was so popular it was run twice.

While UAHC President Rabbi Alexander Schindler has urged the creation of a central synod to help delineate the boundaries of Reform Jewish practice, as things stand now, each congregation must formulate its own policies regarding the role of the non-Jew in synagogue life.

The UAHC “is telling us to fight it out for ourselves,” Rabbi Eric Wisnia of Congregation Beth Chaim in Princeton Junction, N.J., said during the workshop.

The subject was clearly an emotional one for the participants.

They grappled with issues like how far temple membership applications should go in asking about religious background and conversion, as they tried to balance the now-acute need for information with the sensitivity of the topic.

When, in the future, the roles of non-Jews in synagogue life are more clearly defined, there will undoubtedly be some people who would like to join, but will not have a place that is involved enough for them in Reform temple life.

Saying “no” to people who want Reform affiliation will not be an easy task for the movement, which has made a mission of welcoming the intermarried.

But, acknowledged Minna Katz, a workshop participant from Temple Beth Am in Seattle, “we have to say goodbye to some people.”

“Judaism is a line,” said Wisnia, “and the question is where we are going to draw it.”

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