Defining the Role of the Non-Jew Brings Clarity and Community
Highlight from the August 2011 Talking Outreach Newsletter
Congregations often grapple with how to welcome and include the non-Jewish spouse or parent in an interfaith relationship. Over the years, we've learned that it is important to be proactive and develop a policy using an open and thorough process. Here, we will share how educating the congregation about this issue can help non-Jewish members of a congregation feel welcome.
Congregational leaders are often concerned about examining and defining the role of the non-Jew in the synagogue. They are concerned that a non-Jewish spouse or partner may feel unwelcome if their role in the congregation is, potentially, more limited than that of a Jewish member.
Here is your opportunity to reframe this conversation. Examining the role of the non-Jew is also about examining the role of the Jew in the synagogue. What does it mean to be Jewish and what obligations and privileges does each Jew take on when they join a congregation? Does the congregation's tradition separate the Jewish member's responsibilities to the synagogue from the non-Jew's responsibilities?
Determining synagogue policy about how to appropriately include non-Jewish partners in various areas of synagogue life may cause a period of disruption in the congregation. Interfaith couples may fear a lessening of their welcome to the community. This does not have to happen!
The Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) recommends that the conversation about defining the role of the non-Jew be a process that includes involving all demographic groups in the synagogue community; learning from texts and traditions; and having a series of conversations about the tradition of the congregation and how that is reflected today. As this process unfolds, communication should be continuous between whoever is facilitating the conversation and the congregational community.
What is the benefit of initiating this process? Having a clear, fully vetted policy in place that is explained to each member when they join - and again before significant lifecycle events - prevents painful misunderstandings that can often lead to disconnection from the congregation and possibly from Judaism. There are many situations that can arise from miscommunication or lack of policy.
A non-Jewish mother has been very involved in her Jewish children's religious education, bringing the children to religious school and volunteering on a regular basis. She learns right before her oldest child becomes a bar mitzvah that she will not be lighting Shabbat candles at the beginning of Friday night services, which is the tradition in their congregation. She and her family are upset and wonder why she is being excluded.
A long time member of the congregation who sits on the Board notices that a non-Jewish member of the congregation has been nominated to chair the Social Action Committee. This non-Jewish member has been incredibly active in the congregation's social action efforts and is excited to move up to this position. The board member wonders why a non-Jew is chairing a synagogue committee and brings it up at a board meeting.
Both of these situations have the potential to either reinforce or negate the wonderful feeling of belonging to a community that we wish to build with each person who enters our doors. Defining the role of the non-Jew and clearly and explicitly sharing this policy with members on an ongoing basis is a strategy to help prevent misunderstandings, and it provides an opportunity for the synagogue to strongly state what being involved in a Jewish congregational community includes.