Last year, when I attended the annual convention of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international organization of Conservative/Masorti rabbis, in St. Louis, we were asked to provide a short blurb about ourselves for the convention directory. In my blurb, I noted that I was the rabbi of a small congregation in Aurora, Illinois, some of whose members were even Jewish. I was kidding, but there was much truth in my statement. A quick glance at our membership rolls reveals around ten interfaith couples who are members of the Temple, most of whose non-Jewish spouses are active members of our community, volunteering time and energy to our congregation. In fact, our volunteer of the year last year is a practicing Catholic.
This tally is not counting maybe another half-dozen or so households where one or more members of the family underwent formal conversion to Judaism, some so long ago that we often forget that their families of origin were not Jewish. After all, nobody converts to Judaism to become a “convert.” One who converts is considered a Jew in all matters and one is not even allowed to mention their origins. In addition, we have several people who have been coming to services regularly with the intention of joining the Jewish people after taking a course of study with the rabbi on Jewish belief and practice and completing the rites of conversion. Our board also created a form of affiliation which we call “Temple Supporters,” and we have a few people, some are regulars at our services, who even though they are not Jewish and have no plans to convert, are still an important part of our community and generously contribute to our welfare, whether or not they choose to become “supporters” in a formal sense. On many occasions, we also may have visitors who are studying religion or have a school assignment to visit a house of worship of a different faith as well as people who have read a lot about Judaism and now wanted to see it in practice. All of these people are welcome and we are happy to have them join us. Oh yes, some of our members are Jewish too.
Going back to biblical times, one finds a number of instances where non-Jews bring offerings to the Temple in Jerusalem. In the book of Isaiah, there is a passage, the end of which is repeated numerous times on Yom Kippur, which states, “As for the foreigners who attach themselves to the Lord, to minister to Him, and to love the name of the Lord, to be His servants…I will bring them to my sacred mount and let them rejoice in My house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices shall be welcome on My altar; for My house shall be called ‘a house of prayer for all peoples.” Also on Yom Kippur, at the afternoon service, we read the book of Jonah. In that story, after the sailors, on the ship heading toward Tarshish, unwillingly cast the reluctant prophet into the sea to be swallowed by a “big fish,” we read, “The men feared the Lord greatly; they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and they made vows.” In addition, we read that the people of Nineveh, in response to the prophet’s message, fasted, wore sackcloth, and changed their previous behavior. “God saw their deeds” and did not destroy the city.
In Second Temple days as well, there were people who were intrigued by Jewish beliefs and practices, adopted some Jewish customs like candlelighting on the eve of Shabbat, and joined Jewish communities without formal conversion. They are known by various Greek or Latin terms, as “God-fearers” like Jonah’s sailors. This category is also noted in the Psalms of Hallel as well, “Yirei Adonay barchu et Adonay, ki l’olam chasdo, Let those who fear the Lord bless the Lord, for his lovingkindness endures forever.” You don’t have to be Jewish to show reverence for God.
Until fairly recent times, congregations did as much as they could to discourage Jews from intermarrying, viewing “mixed marriages” as a great threat to Jewish survival. The question has often been posed, “Will your grandchildren be Jewish?” After the Holocaust with the loss of one-third of the Jewish population of the world, this concern became even more urgent. Various rules were created to attempt to discourage such marriages. Newsletters refused to acknowledge joyous occasions or losses among non-Jews married to their members. In some cases, I’ve heard of, even the Jewish partner in such a marriage was denied membership in a congregation, or even when permitted to join, the Jewish partner was not allowed to serve on the synagogue board or as an officer of the congregation. Some congregations would deny synagogue honors to anyone who “married out.” Gradually, many of these restrictions were lifted. Sanctions against Jews who married non-Jews clearly were ineffective as the percentage of intermarried couples soared. While some Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis will officiate at such marriages under certain conditions, Conservative and Orthodox rabbis are still restricted from doing so. In recent years, the prohibition of attending such weddings by Conservative rabbis has been lifted and some of my colleagues are even urging a change in the rules allowing them to perform such marriages.
Many rabbis, while still encouraging endogamy, marrying within the faith, recognize the high numbers of those who do not do so and, because we see the positive side of these marriages in so many cases, we have increasingly found ways to include the non-Jewish partners in our congregations since they are unquestionably part of our communities. As I mentioned, in many cases, they are a great asset to the congregation. Dr. Keren R. McGinity, an expert on Interfaith relationships, who for the past few years has been the Interfaith Specialist at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, is the author of several books on the topic. She shows, after interviewing many couples, how in many instances, even without the non-Jewish partner converting, a large number of such homes remain committed to the Jewish community and Judaism. In many cases, the children of such marriages are raised as Jews both in families which have a Jewish mother and are recognized by all as Jews, as well as in many cases where they have only a Jewish father and with or without recognition of “patrilineal descent” become active members of the Jewish community as well. Often these children are formally converted and celebrate bar or bat mitzvah in the synagogue and later get married there and have children of their own.
Our congregation in Aurora, has greatly benefitted from non-Jews who have joined our community and increasingly we have found ways to include them as members even when conversion is not contemplated. We are far from unique in this process. Dr. McGinity provided us with information about other congregations’ by-laws that offered greater opportunities for non-Jewish partners to play a significant role in congregational life. While it does not make sense to most of us to expect a non-Jew to perform a Jewish ritual act, like getting an Aliyah, being called to the Torah or counting in the minyan, the quorum for prayer, nothing stops them from participating in other ways. Joining our services, they may offer their personal prayers or join in the prayers in our siddur. When there is a joyous occasion or, God forbid, a tragedy, we encourage them to participate in Jewish life cycle events to the extent they are comfortable in doing so. Of course, at home, we encourage them to join in lighting Chanukah candles, participating in the Passover seder, and joining in the festive meals of the High Holidays.
In the past, these non-Jewish members have been an important part of our community, helping with fund-raising activities, working in the kitchen or the office, even teaching Sunday school. Some have served on Temple committees. Of course, they have always been welcome to attend social functions, holiday events, and take advantage of guest speakers or other adult education opportunities. So often, it is the non-Jewish spouse who is directly involved in getting the children to Sunday school, following their progress, bringing them to bar or bat mitzvah lessons, and making the arrangements for the celebration of these special occasions. Why not benefit from their knowledge and skills in areas outside of religious services?
Last Sunday, at our congregational meeting, the Temple By-laws were amended to provide greater participation by these important members of the community. From now on, they may serve on the Temple Board of Directors and even become officers of the congregation. In order to maintain the Jewish character of the congregation, we agreed that a maximum of three non-Jews might serve on the board at a time and only Jews could serve as President or Vice President of the congregation. However, secretary, treasurer, and financial secretary offices could be held by non-Jewish members. Committee chairs could be chosen from among our non-Jewish members with the exception of the chairs of the Board of Education, the Religious committee, and the Pulpit Committee. For those three committees, the majority of members must be Jewish.
In addition, in the past, non-Jewish members were not allowed to vote on issues designated by the board as “Religious Issues.” Under the revised by-laws that restriction was removed, recognizing that often these decisions impact their lives and those of their family as well. Provision was also made for membership for a non-Jewish parent or guardian of Jewish children as well as for the non-Jewish spouse or partner of a relationship that had ended, provided that the individual was committed to the purpose and mission of the congregation. So-called “Messianic Jews” were specifically excluded, though. Through these changes, we feel we are recognizing more fully the contributions of our non-Jewish members and including them in our community to a much greater extent than in the past. In doing so, we feel that we are following the mandate of the prophet in making our Temple “a House of Prayer for all peoples.”