Amid the Conservative movement’s examination of its approach to interfaith families, Kol Shalom in Rockville has come down on the side of more inclusion, last week voting to extend membership to non-Jewish partners or spouses of congregants.
The change reflects how Kol Shalom is organized as an institution, synagogue officials said. It does not change the traditional Jewish approach to prayer and rituals.
Eighty-percent of congregants voting supported the change to the bylaws. The recommendation had already been approved unanimously by the boards of directors and trustees.
Membership includes full voting rights as well as the right to serve on committees and the board of directors, with a few exceptions.
Membership will not be automatically granted to non-Jewish partners or spouses; they will need to apply.
“I think it’s something that’s becoming more and more prevalent in Conservative synagogues,” said Rabbi Jonathan Maltzman, who proposed the idea last fall. “It’s a recognition of the reality of Jewish life.”
What membership does not include is participation in Jewish rituals or in the committees that relate to Jewish rituals.
Members who are not Jewish are not eligible to serve on the executive, ritual and chevra kadisha (burial society) committees, or chair the education committee.
Synagogue leaders discussed the exceptions at length before they presented the final recommendation to the congregation, said Joel Greene, who was synagogue president until July 1.
In the end, he said, the board decided it would be inappropriate for non-Jews to make decisions about Jewish rituals. And because the religious school deals with the Jewish religion, the education committee should be chaired by a Jewish member.
The board also decided “it wouldn’t be appropriate for a non-Jewish person to be president.” Greene said.
The impetus for the change came from above, Maltzman said. Last year, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the umbrella group for Conservative congregations, issued a change to its membership standards. Where the organization previously said membership should be limited to Jews, the new standard “supports every affiliated kehilla [congregation] in developing its own criteria for membership.” It goes on to say that the organization supports congregations in “fully engaging the spiritual gifts of all community members.”
Maltzman said this membership change at Kol Shalom was “not a radical change” for the congregation. The way the synagogue conducts services and operates halachically — or according to Jewish law — will not change, which means non-Jews will still not participate in liturgical elements central to Jewish practice.
Maltzman said only Jewish members are counted in a minyan, or prayer quorum. The synagogue allows non-Jews to accompany their Jewish family onto the bimah for an aliyah, although the non-Jew does not recite any blessings said during the honor. Non-Jews can lead readings in English and may open the ark.
The new membership change would not alter any of this, Maltzman said.
When synagogue shopping, interfaith families ask about membership for non-Jewish family members, said Executive Director Deb Finkelstein. “We have always considered ourselves very welcoming to our non-Jewish spouses, but we couldn’t make them members until the change from USCJ.”
The change is meant to be a sign of welcome to the Jewish partners as well, Greene said.
“One of the things we were trying to say is, we appreciate you and we appreciate your non-Jewish spouse. And we will do everything we can to make you feel comfortable.”
Maltzman sees the change as legitimizing the way the congregation already thought of itself — as a welcoming place for families of all kinds.