Conservatives open door to non-Jews

B’nai Israel Congregation is “seriously discussing changes in the definition of our membership to make non-Jews feel more inclusive in our congregation,” according to Rabbi Jonathan Schnitzer. Photo by Justin Katz

The umbrella body for Conservative synagogues voted overwhelmingly in favor of a resolution that effectively allows individual synagogues to admit non-Jews as members.

The measure adopted March 1 by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, permits each affiliated synagogue to set its own membership criteria, and it removes language specifying that members must be Jewish.

Most local synagogues reached for this article have no plans to change their own membership policies.

The USCJ sees the resolution as a way for the movement to become more inclusive. The resolution states that the USCJ “supports every affiliated kehilla [congregation] in developing its own criteria for membership. We call on all of our kehillot to open their doors wide to all who want to enter.”

The resolution was passed by USCJ board members by a vote of 94 to 8 with one abstention in voting over the Internet during its general assembly in Washington. According to the USCJ, 15 members did not vote.

While most of the eight local synagogues interviewed for this story support the resolution, only one is considering a change in its membership policies.

B’nai Israel Congregation in Rockville is “seriously discussing changes in the definition of our membership and we would look favorably on the expansion of membership criteria to make non-Jews who are a part of interfaith relationships feel more inclusive in our congregation,” according to Rabbi Jonathan Schnitzer.

He said the congregation began discussing the issue before the USCJ vote, but congregants have not reached a decision.

Why congregations would support the resolution but not adopt the change for their own members is unclear, but Rabbi Charles Arian of Kehilat Shalom in Gaithersburg said synagogues may be trying to avoid hurting the USCJ in the long run.

“The alternative could be if congregations feel this is what they want to do [admit non-Jewish members],” he said. “And the USCJ says ‘no’, then they’ll just leave the USCJ. And that doesn’t really help anybody.”

The USCJ’s standards for membership before the change said: “Only persons of the Jewish faith, as determined by the rabbi, may be admitted to membership in the congregation.

“Congregations are encouraged to welcome the participation by non-Jewish spouses and children of a Jewish member of the congregation,” it continued, clarifying its position this way: “However, this is not intended and should not be construed as permitting non-Jews to become members of congregations.”

That has been the approach of Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac.

“We don’t offer full membership to non-Jews,” said Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt. But “we go out of our way in a number of ways to make them feel welcome and to include them in whatever it is that we do.”

Weinblatt said his congregation supported the resolution because it affirms each congregation’s right to make its own decision.

In Washington, Adas Israel Congregation also supported the resolution, but does not have plans to adjust its membership criteria. President Debby Joseph thinks the USCJ’s policy change will not be an issue for most congregants.

Adas Israel, like some other synagogues, counts each family as a single member unit. If one spouse is Jewish and the other is not, the family as a whole are considered members at the synagogue.

Rabbi Ethan Seidel of Tifereth Israel Congregation in Washington said he believes the Conservative movement should be open to its congregations having a variety of policies for membership. His synagogue supported the resolution.

Congregation Olam Tikvah in Fairfax acknowledged the change in policy, but “we don’t plan to make any changes in connection to this particular [USCJ] vote,” Rabbi David Kalender said in an email.

The USCJ’s resolution grew out of a commission set up last March to explore ways to involve intermarried couples in synagogue life.

The Conservative movement bars its rabbis from marrying or attending the wedding ceremonies of interfaith couples, though some of its synagogues celebrate intermarriages before they occur and welcome the couples afterward. In recent years, several Conservative rabbis have protested the intermarriage prohibition.

The change in membership guidelines was endorsed by the major Conservative institutions in the United States, including the Rabbinical Assembly, the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. n

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—JTA News and Features contributed reporting to this story.

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