(JTA) — To an outsider, the battles might seem to be over trifles — in some cases, just a few feet.
Where may a non-Jewish parent stand in the synagogue during his child’s bar mitzvah? Can a non-Jew open the holy ark? Should non-Jewish synagogue members have voting rights?
Such questions have been pushed to the fore by the growing percentage of Conservative homes that include non-Jewish family members – more than one-quarter of them, according to the recent Pew Research Center survey.
For many Conservative synagogues, the issues are not trivial. They cut to the heart of a philosophical and practical debate about how open they should be toward the non-Jews in their midst.
“For a variety of reasons, my colleagues are being challenged to rethink positions that in the past we accepted almost as dogma,” said Rabbi Charles Simon, who as executive director of the Conservative movement’s Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs organizes seminars for Conservative synagogues on how to be more inclusive of non-Jews. “It doesn’t mean that the standards of Conservative Judaism are changing. It means that my colleagues are metaphorically learning they have to broaden their own tents.”
In some ways, the dilemma is not unique to Conservative Judaism; the Reform movement has grappled with some of the same issues. But Reform synagogues are not bound by Jewish law, and the movement accepts intermarriage – two key distinctions from Conservative Judaism. On the Orthodox side, the line against non-Jewish participation is pretty clear; many strictly Orthodox synagogues won’t even allow the Jewish partner in an interfaith marriage to lead services.
Conservative synagogues are navigating the parlous middle, wrestling with how to adapt to an era of increasing non-Jews in their ranks while still adhering to Conservative principles of Jewish law that among other things forbid intermarriage.
The discussions also come at a time of serious decline for the Conservative movement, whose share of the American Jewish population has fallen to 18 percent, according to the Pew study.
“Since such a large percentage of our younger families include interfaith marriages and relationships, we want very much to keep our children as loyal and involved Conservative Jews, and we realize that in order to do so we need to be welcoming to their partners and spouses and families,” said Rabbi Raphael Adler of the Woodbury Jewish Center in New York. “Many in our congregations are not willing to give up our children and our families to Reform synagogues or to no congregation at all. It seems wrong.”
The ways Conservative synagogues are adapting varies widely. Many offer non-Jews the honor of reciting the English prayer for the government, Israel or peace. Some allow non-Jews voting rights but bar them from board positions. Others exclude them from membership.