After an ardent debate at the biennial convention of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations here, Reform Jews have voted to permit only children who are not being educated in another religion to be enrolled in the movement’s religious schools.
Leaders of the movement said it is the first time since adopting the principle of patrilineal descent that the UAHC, which prides itself on its outreach to intermarried families, has drawn a clear line excluding their children from a central community activity.
Patrilineal descent, formally adopted as a policy in 1983, regards as Jewish a child born to a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother if the child is reared and educated as a Jew.
That decision was a watershed break with Jewish tradition and Jewish law, which only regarded as Jewish children born to a Jewish mother. It often is cited by Orthodox leaders as a central factor for their lack of interest in dialogue with Reform Jews.
The Reform movement’s new policy – adopted in a clear, but close vote last Friday – encourages congregations to “establish a clearly articulated policy that offers enrollment in Reform religious schools and day schools only to children who are not receiving formal religious education in any other religion.”
But the murky question of whether children educated as Reform Jews as well as in another faith are regarded as Jewish at all by the Reform movement was left unaddressed by the resolution, as well by movement leaders interviewed after the vote.
Because autonomy – for congregations and individuals – is a fundamental tenet of Reform Judaism, the UAHC will now encourage its congregations to adhere to the new policy, but it cannot force them to implement it.
During the debate prior to the vote, Rabbi Sheldon Ezrick told the 4,000 delegates about his recent experience with one student in his Syracuse, N.Y., congregation’s Hebrew school.
The boy was six weeks away from his Bar Mitzvah when the rabbi discovered that he was also preparing to receive his first Communion in a Catholic Church.
“So what am I supposed to do?” said the rabbi.
“I decided to let him go ahead with the Bar Mitzvah. A week afterward, I invited the Jewish father in to talk with me and asked him about it.
“He told me that `we baptized our children because we want to give them the protection of both religions,’” related the rabbi, shaking his head in disbelief.
Ezrick said rabbis need the UAHC “to give us strong boundaries, so people can know whether they are in or out of Judaism.”
Another rabbi, Arnie Gluck, from Somerville, N.J., said prohibiting these children from Reform religious schools “doesn’t deny access to any child to study Judaism.”
“We have programs that teach about Judaism. Religious school is not a place to teach about Judaism,” he said. “It is where we teach Judaism.”
Dru Greenwood, director of the UAHC’s Commission on Outreach, said the resolution would affect very few families, because only a tiny percentage of Reform temple members are raising their children in two faiths.
But other speakers during the debate indicated that the problem may be more common.
“Rabbis and educators around the country are dealing with children who are questioning one God, who are asking, `What about the Trinity,’ who are asking, `Why aren’t you praying in Jesus’ name?’” said Harris Gilbert, chairman of his Westfield, N.J., temple’s outreach committee.
“This is in religious schools,” he said. “Our goal is to raise Jewish children into Jewish adults.”
Some in favor of the resolution said it is confusing to children when they are reared with dual religious identities.
“We don’t say: `Pretend that you’re Jewish, try it out that God is one,’” said Rabbi Wolf Pruzan, the temple educator at Congregation Emanu-el in San Francisco.
“Young children only understand the now. It is cruel to them to say that this is a game, that you’re Jewish today and next week you will be Christian, and when you’re older and wiser you’ll figure it out.”
The vice chairman of the movement’s outreach commission, George Markely of Bridgeport, Conn., who has been married to a non-Jewish woman for 25 years, spoke ardently in favor of the policy change.
“I do not want teachers engaged in a battle for the souls of our children – that is not their job,” Markely said.
“Parents can make any choice they want, but we do not have to participate in asking a child to deny who he think he is.
“We cannot be all things to all people. Outreach does not mean that anything goes,” Markely said. “I do not want to get Jewish grandchildren at any cost.”
Although they were in the minority, opponents of the new policy were just as passionate.
“We have got to let them in the schools so we can show them the beauty of Judaism,” said one delegate, from Tampa, Fla.
A delegate from Temple Emmanuel in Marblehead, Mass., said, “Many people join to see what will happen, to expose their children to Judaism. Any exposure to Reform Judaism is better than none.”
One teen-age girl from New York City who was in Atlanta as a delegate with the movement’s National Federation of Temple Youth, said, “When you put limits on it, you turn people off to the Reform movement.”
The new policy concerning the education of interfaith children comes as many congregations also grapple with the role of non-Jewish adults in synagogue life.
While some permit non-Jews to be called to bless the Torah, others allow them only to open and close the ark or to recite “less religious” prayers before the congregation, such the prayer for the welfare of the community, the UAHC’s Greenwood said.
Many congregations have only recently delineated their policies regarding the role of non-Jews in their ritual and administrative life. Many others have avoided defining what they will and will not allow for fear of alienating the non-Jews in their midst.
The debate at the convention over the religious school issue made it clear that some congregations will continue to allow children who are also being educated in another faith to be enrolled in their Hebrew schools.
But Greenwood was visibly relieved by the policy change.
“Outreach is not interfaith dialogue,” she said. “In the past we assumed that members intended to raise their children as Jews.”
Reports of children being educated both in Reform Hebrew schools and in Christian or other religious schools as well “have become more frequent in the last three years,” she said.
“It became clear we were making an assumption that wasn’t true.”