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Liberal Judaism Branch Weighs Non-Jews' Role

Worship: As the number of interfaith families grows, Reconstructionist Federation grapples with new issues.

July 11, 1998|From Associated Press

PHILADELPHIA — Margaret Clark and her husband, Ralph Silberman, attend services, prepare Sabbath dinners and send their two children to Torah school at Adat Shalom, a Reconstructionist synagogue they helped found in Rockville, Md.

Clark is barred, however, from leading the congregation in prayer and from participating in other aspects of synagogue life.

Why? She's not Jewish.

With thousands of active interfaith families like Clark and Silberman's, the progressive Jewish Reconstructionist Federation has struggled with the role non-Jewish members should play. Reconstructionism is the smallest of American Judaism's four main branches, but is considered the fastest-growing.

Earlier this year, a Reconstructionist task force issued guidelines for congregations trying to embrace interfaith families while retaining their Jewish character.

In its report, issued in February, the task force suggests that:

* Non-Jewish spouses be allowed to be voting members of congregations unless they are active in another religion.

* Children receiving formal instruction in another faith not be enrolled in Reconstructionist religious schools.

* Non-Jews should be allowed to participate in services, but only Jews should lead worship services or receive certain ritual honors.

* A non-Jewish parent should be allowed to recite certain blessings and open the ark containing the Torah during a bar mitzvah, with similar leeway for weddings and baby namings.

More conservative movements require synagogue members to be Jewish, says Rabbi Jerome Epstein, the executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the rabbinical organization for the conservative movement.

"It doesn't fit in with our philosophy," Epstein said of the Reconstructionist guidelines. "We encourage intermarried spouses to convert. . . . Judaism is for Jews, and we want to strengthen that position."

But Clark, who helped Adat Shalom develop policies more than a year ago, applauds the effort.

"It's important to me that people know and recognize and deal with the fact that there are non-Jewish members of the congregation and that it not be some dirty little secret," says Clark, a freelance writer from Arlington, Va. "It goes back to my core issue that there are non-Jews raising Jewish children."

Raised as a Roman Catholic, Clark became an Episcopalian in her early 30s. Now 48, she hasn't ruled out Judaism, but also hasn't converted. At home, on Friday night, she lights Sabbath candles, a ritual traditionally performed by Jewish women.

The Reconstructionist guidelines indicate that non-Jews should not light Sabbath candles publicly for a congregation. But Clark, who has never felt excluded, doesn't mind. This regulation, she says, is "entirely appropriate for a religious group to do."

The recommendations are not binding on the more than 90 Reconstructionist congregations, which include Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades and University Synagogue in Irvine.

"I believe that this is far and away the most sensitive issue in liberal congregations today," says Rabbi Brant Rosen of Denver's B'nai Havurah, where more than a third of the 250 households are interfaith.

The task force convened in reaction to the high rate of intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews. Judaism's older and larger liberal Reform movement, which launched a campaign to reach out to interfaith families two decades ago, also grapples with the issue.

"Should there be any restrictions on their roles? Should they be full and equal members? Should they be able to participate in rituals?" asks Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, executive director of the Reconstructionist federation. "It became a point of contention in many congregations. The emotional heat was out of proportion in many ways to what was going on."

Interfaith families constitute about 20% of the 20,000 member households in Reconstructionist synagogues.

A few years ago, Rosen invited B'nai Havurah members on a Sabbath retreat to explore the issue. Apparently feeling threatened, some of the non-Jews stayed home. "It was a very, very, very tricky and touchy discussion," he said.

Rosen welcomes the report as a template. "Every community needs boundaries," he says, "even a liberal community."

While traditional Judaism still shuns intermarriage, it was comparatively rare just a generation ago. "It was not on the reality screen," says Dru Greenwood, outreach director at the Reform movement's Union of American Hebrew Congregations in New York City.

The Reform branch issued its own guide several years ago, she says, and the majority of its synagogues welcome interfaith couples.

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