Originally created 08/29/98

Reconstructionist Jews tackle issues of gentile spouses



PHILADELPHIA -- Margaret Clark and husband Ralph Silberman attend services, prepare Sabbath dinners and send their two children to Torah school at Adat Shalom, a Reconstructionist synagogue they helped found in Rockville, Md.

Ms. Clark is barred, however, from leading the congregation in prayer and from participating in other aspects of synagogue life.

Why? She's not Jewish.

With thousands of active interfaith families like Ms. Clark and Mr. Silberman's, the progressive Jewish Reconstructionist Federation has struggled with the role gentile members should play. The federation is considered American Judaism's smallest but fastest-growing branch.

Earlier this year, a Reconstructionist task force issued guidelines for congregations trying to embrace interfaith families while retaining their Jewish character.

Ms. Clark, who helped Adat Shalom develop policies more than a year ago, applauds the effort.

"It's important to me that people know and recognize and deal with the fact that there are non-Jewish members of the congregation and that it not be some dirty little secret," says Ms. Clark, a freelance writer from Arlington, Va. "It goes back to my core issue that there are non-Jews raising Jewish children."

The recommendations are not binding on the more than 90 Reconstructionist congregations. The movement, based in Wyncote, Pa., treats men and women equally in religious practice, welcoming homosexual couples and interfaith families.

"I believe that this is far and away the most sensitive issue in liberal congregations today," says Rabbi Brant Rosen of Denver's B'nai Havurah, where more than a third of the 250 households are interfaith.

"We've talked about being open and accepting congregations from the beginning," he says, "but we never really wrestled with what that would mean specifically in terms of the status and the role and the participation of non-Jews in a Jewish community."

The task force convened because rates of Jewish intermarriage have soared. Judaism's older and larger liberal Reform movement, which launched a campaign to reach out to interfaith families two decades ago, also grapples with the issue.

"Should there be any restrictions on their roles? Should they be full and equal members? Should they be able to participate in rituals?" JRF executive director Rabbi Mordechai Liebling says. "It became a point of contention in many congregations. The emotional heat was out of proportion in many ways to what was going on."

Interfaith families comprise an estimated 20 percent of the 20,000 member households in Reconstructionist synagogues. More than 30 percent under 40 married outside the faith.

A few years ago, Rabbi Rosen invited B'nai Havurah members on a Sabbath retreat to explore the issue. Apparently feeling threatened, some of the non-Jews stayed home. "It was a very, very, very tricky and touchy discussion," he recalls.

Rabbi Rosen welcomes the report as a template. "Every community needs boundaries," he says, "even a liberal community."

Philadelphia's Mishkan Shalom started discussions a few years ago after a Christian minister participated, innocently, in "aliyot" honors surrounding the Torah, and that upset some members.

"We often have bar, bat mitzvah families wrestle mightily with this issue," Rabbi Brian Walt says. Often, he notes, a protective Jewish partner is more offended by restrictions than a gentile. "Christians understand that this is a sacred ritual ... by which a Jew affirms their connection to Judaism."

While traditional Judaism still shuns intermarriage, it was comparatively rare just a generation ago. "It was not on the reality screen," says Dru Greenwood, outreach director at the Reform movement's Union of American Hebrew Congregations in New York City. The group represents 870 synagogues.

The Reform branch issued its own guide several years ago, she says, and the majority of its synagogues welcomes interfaith couples. But she notes that, in some cases, members have split over policies and formed new congregations.

In its report, Boundaries and Opportunities: The Role of Non-Jews in Jewish Reconstructionist Federation Synagogues" issued in February, the task force suggests that:

-- Gentile spouses be voting members unless active in another religion.

-- Children receiving formal instruction in another faith not be enrolled in JRF religious schools.

-- Gentiles be allowed to participate but only Jews should lead worship services or receive certain ritual honors.

-- A gentile parent may recite certain blessings and open the ark containing the Torah during a bar mitzvah, with similar leeway for weddings and baby namings.

More conservative movements require synagogue members to be Jewish, says Rabbi Jerome Epstein. The executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism in New York City says gentiles may attend services but not assume ritual roles.

"It doesn't fit in with our philosophy," he says of JRF guidelines. "We encourage intermarried spouses to convert ... . Judaism is for Jews, and we want to strengthen that position."

Raised as a Roman Catholic, Margaret Clark became an Episcopalian in her early 30s. Now 48, she hasn't ruled out Judaism. At home, on Friday night, she lights Sabbath candles, a ritual traditionally performed by Jewish women.

Guidelines from Reconstructionist Adat Shalom indicate that gentiles should not light Sabbath candles for a congregation. But Ms. Clark, who has never felt excluded, doesn't mind. This line-drawing, she says, is "entirely appropriate for a religious group to do."