For Conservative Jews, Few Inches Raise Vexing Questions on Interfaith Families

Where Can Non-Jewish Parent Stand at Child's Bar Mitzvah?


By Uriel Heilman

Published November 14, 2013.
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For Debbie Burton, who was married to a Jew and raising her kids as Jews but wasn’t Jewish herself, exclusion from synagogue ritual roles never really bothered her until her daughter’s bar mitzvah, when she was told she could not speak from the pulpit of her Chicago-area synagogue.

“It was the first time that I had ever felt that I was excluded from a minyan activity because I was not Jewish,” Burton, a professor of mechanical engineering at Northwestern, wrote in a 2010 essay for Interfaithfamily.com. “I was hurt to feel prevented from publicly sharing my thoughts on the occasion of a Jewish milestone of my child. After all, even though I wasn’t Jewish, I had played an important role in my children’s Jewish education and upbringing.”

Burton told JTA that the experience prompted her to push for changes in her synagogue’s policies, though in the end she didn’t require the changes for herself because she converted.

During life-cycle events, many Conservative synagogues now offer non-Jews a place of honor, but with limitations. At the Woodbury synagogue, non-Jewish parents may join their Jewish spouses when receiving an aliyah to the Torah during a bar mitzvah service, but the non-Jew must take a couple of steps back when the blessings are recited. A non-Jewish grandparent may offer an English blessing composed by the rabbi, but only from his place in the pews, not from the bimah.

Adler says reaction to the changes has been mixed: Some members have threatened to quit if certain changes are adopted.

Rabbi David Booth of Kol Emeth in Palo Alto, Calif., recently began giving non-Jews in his congregation a stand-alone ritual role unconnected to life-cycle events: opening the ark. Last month, the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards formally endorsed the practice.

At Congregation Kneses Tifereth Israel in Port Chester, N.Y., Rabbi Jaymee Alpert offers a public blessing to interfaith couples right before their wedding in an adaptation of the traditional Shabbat “aufruf” celebration that precedes a Jewish wedding. Alpert also presents the interfaith couple with the same synagogue gift bestowed upon Jewish couples.

“We should be as open and inclusive as possible within the parameters of Jewish law and the Conservative movement,” she said. “It’s not that the congregation is advocating intermarriage, but I think there’s a little bit of acceptance that this happens, and don’t we want our children and the next generation to feel comfortable in the synagogue?”

Alpert says she finds it painful to have to explain to interfaith couples why she cannot officiate at their weddings. Though the Conservative movement also bars its rabbis from attending intermarriages, the rule often is ignored.

Like many Conservative clergymen in Canada, Rabbi Jarrod Grover of Beth Tikvah Synagogue in Toronto considers intermarriage a breach of Conservative Judaism. At Beth Tikvah, non-Jews are barred from membership. Synagogue mail sent to interfaith homes omits the name of the non-Jewish spouse. The synagogue does not allow blessings for interfaith unions.


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