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October 4, 2015 | 21st Tishrei 5776
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Non-Jews' Participation in Services

  1. We don't allow this [non-Jewish members having aliyot]. Our basic rule for participation of non-Jewish members in worship services is to prohibit prayers that refer to Jews in the first person (plural or singular). So, the Torah Blessings are out because we are praising G-d for choosing and giving us the Torah. Similarly, things like candle blessings are out. I've read in this forum, however, that some congregations have written prayers to be read at the Torah service so that when the child of an interfaith couple becomes bar/bat mitzvah, the Jewish parent can read the traditional blessing while the non-Jewish parent reads the "new" prayer.

    I don't think we have a rule about [participation of non-Jewish members on Ritual (Worship) committees], but I'm not sure why a Jewish congregation would want a non-Jew in a position to make decisions about ritual--or why a non-Jew would want to be in such a job.

    900 members

  2. I am an executive vice-president of a temple with about [150 households]. We have many seniors and mixed religion families. To make the answer short, we do not allow non-Jewish people to participate in Torah reading with aliyot, or to serve on the Board. Theoretically, non-Jewish people cannot have the understanding or perspective to help run a Jewish organization. They can participate in all other activities, dress the Torah, etc.

  3. I believe that non-Jews cannot participate on the ritual committee or on the board. My own opinion is that it is the work of Jews who have a true interest in their religion to further all of the ideals that we as Reform Jews possess. So, I agree with my temple's policies regarding non-Jewish partners holding office or committee chairs.

  4. As these issues go beyond worship, I suggest you consult with the Union?s Outreach and Synagogue Community resources (see the Union Web site for links, including one to your regional office). Those topics have been dealt with in that context to a great extent. I'll note that, at our congregation, Torah aliyot may only be performed by Jews. I don't think non-Jews are prohibited from serving on the Worship Committee, but I'm not aware of any who have.

  5. In reference to the questions that have been raised about the appropriate role of the non-Jew in Jewish worship and in the governance of synagogues, you will find a very sensitive "position paper" on the subject on the Web site of Temple B?nai Or, Morristown NJ (, backed up by an excellent sermon by Rabbi Rossoff.
    1450 families

  6. Practice varies throughout the movement with respect to inclusion of non-Jewish members, particularly parents of b'nei mitzvah, in rituals having to do with Torah, candle-lighting and Kiddush. Virtually every congregation finds ways--and there are many creative approaches that are appropriate to a given context--to honor the role of both parents in bringing their child to this moment of Jewish affirmation. As you know, the texts of these three particular blessings include words that indicate being chosen and/or commanded. Many congregations find it inappropriate for someone who is not Jewish to say these words on behalf of the congregation--many non-Jewish members are also uncomfortable, by the way. Other congregations interpret the honor differently and make other decisions.

    As David mentioned in an earlier post, the Outreach and Synagogue Community Department has two helpful resources for congregations working on this issue, as well as roles of non-Jews in membership and governance. "Defining the Role of the Non-Jew in the Synagogue" and the Supplemental Process Guide to that volume will enable you to study traditional and contemporary texts, evaluate your practice, your current policy and set guidelines that will work for you. Interfaith families, particularly non-Jewish parents, need to know what to expect--how they can participate and what is appropriate only for Jews. When your congregation undertakes this process, which needless-to-say, must be conducted with sensitivity to the feelings of all members, do contact your regional Director of Outreach and Synagogue Community, who can help guide the process toward a good and appropriate outcome for your congregation.

    Ms. Dru Greenwood
    William and Lottie Daniel Department of Outreach & Synagogue Community
    Union for Reform Judaism

  7. Regarding non-Jews participating on the Worship/Ritual Committee: I thought I should comment, since I seem to be the only one who encourages participation. In creating our committee, I asked that one or two members of the committee be non-Jews (not to exceed two). Since between 30-40% of our congregation is inter-married, I feel it is important to receive input in order to help our many non-Jewish members feel comfortable in our community. As to the many comments suggesting that non-Jews would not be interested in worship, that has not been our experience. We have many who are very interested. Some of them have begun conversion training, others wish to feel comfortable as they accompany their Jewish family members. So, I believe our investment in listening has been well worthwhile.

  8. We just recently revised our rules regarding what non-Jewish parents can do at bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies. They were always permitted to read English readings at the services and to congratulate their child on his or her good work. Now we will permit the non-Jewish parent to be on the bimah for the passing down of the Torah. If the parents choose to do so, both together may pass the Torah to the child or only the Jewish parent may pass it. The non-Jew in other words may not pass it on his or her own but may with the Jewish parent. We made this decision because the non-Jewish parent often is passing the Torah down symbolically with the Jewish parent by supporting the Jewish upbringing of the child, by schlepping the child to religious school, and by schlepping the child to and from the bar or bat mitzvah lessons.

    We also decided to let both parents be called up for the aliyah together but only have the Jew say the blessing.

    We did not change our previous minhag that only Jews may say the blessings for candles and the Kiddush.

    350 families

  9. . . . . . .The temple at which I sing has a lovely practice used when one parent of a bar or bat mitzvah is not Jewish. Both parents go up to the Torah table for the aliyah. The non-Jewish parent reads a short statement in English "presenting" his or her child as a bar or bat mitzvah and expressing joy and pride in the child's identity and growth as a Jew. Then the Jewish parent recites the blessing. This practice includes the non-Jewish parent in a really meaningful way without threatening ritual appropriateness. Every parent I have heard read this statement has done so in a heartfelt way, and I assume that any Gentile parent who doesn't buy into it has the option of not reciting it.

    I think maybe the non-Jews who really chafe at exclusionary ritual practices (I'm not addressing governance here) are those who truly feel themselves to be a part of the temple community. Since contentions, when they arise, often focus on bar/bat mitzvah, why not educate parents about these ritual policies as their kids start sixth grade, a good year or more before the ceremony? Then when a non-Jewish parent (who doesn't identify with any other faith) expresses hurt at being kept from fulfilling a ritual role when he/she's spent so much time in temple, has been so supportive of the kid's Jewish education, has been a partner in making a Jewish home all these years, you can ask, "That's true, you've been living as a Jew for years. Ever think about taking the next step and becoming a Jew?" And with a year's lead time, that person has the time to think about and finalize a conversion if that what he or she wants.


  10. As someone who has seen these issues from both sides as a Jew and non-Jew, as well as someone who has participated in discussions on synagogue policy, I'd like to echo three points which I think are important.

    First, each synagogue is different in terms of what is right for it. Although there are statements and policies from other synagogues, and strongly held opinions on what is "right" some of which have been addressed by members of this list, your synagogue needs to struggle seriously with these issues and decide what is best for you based on discussions which allow for input from all parts of your community.

    Second, not all non-Jews are the same and, understandably, someone who has been actively participating in the synagogue life may be quite upset to be excluded from participation in a bat/bar mitzvah. I strongly agree that early discussion, at minimum a year before the bar/bat mitzvah is important to minimize last minute unpleasantness/ misunderstanding as well as allowing time for conversion if that is appropriate in a given situation.

    Third, if your synagogue does not allow a non-Jew to participate in a certain way during a bar/bat mitzvah, alternatives which recognize the commitment/support of a non-Jewish parent to the education of their Jewish child are available (prayers which do not use the "chosen us" phrase etc) and are preferable, when appropriate, to just excluding that person. Focusing on what the family member might do rather than what they can't do may help to foster future Jewish choices on the part of the non-Jew and family.


  11. Please consider the following three events that happened at my synagogue within the last seven days.
    1. A funeral was held in the synagogue for a non-Jewish spouse (who was deeply committed to the temple and beloved by all). The rabbi and cantor performed all of the normal ritual including the El Malei Rachamim. She was in a kosher casket and buried in the temple cemetery. Her Christian pastor fully robed with crosses et al delivered the sermon in which Jesus Christ was glorified several times, and the deceased's reaffirmation of Christian faith only weeks before the demise was described. A similar integrated committal was held at the cemetery.
    2. On Erev Shabbat the rabbi celebrated the the weddings of members of the congregation whose anniversaries were in multiples of five. Using the traditional Hebrew vows, the unions of both Jewish and intermarried couples were thus reaffirmed and solemnized.
    3. The following morning non-Jews were given Hebrew names and called to the Torah for aliyot.
    Is this the future of our Movement? Rabbi Shelly Zimmerman, former President of HUC-JIR, warns that unless we build community we will have real tzurus in twenty years, but is this outreach building community or shattering it?


  12. With regard to the programs at the temple where a Jewish funeral, a blessing of interfaith marriages (if that is what occurred) and the giving of Jewish names followed by aliyot, I am disturbed. We can be inclusive, and should be, to inter-faith couples but there is a limit. There are many others ways to honor our non-Jewish Temple member-spouses. When we say the Blessing before reading the Torah we speak of how God chose us for His people and His (Her) Torah.

    How can a non- Jew say these words and still have respect for Torah? The parent of a Jew by choice had died. She was Christian. The funeral was conducted within the faith of the parent but after much searching by the son-in-law, a rabbi, into Reform Responsa, they decided that the daughter could sit shivah and mourn in a Jewish way. The family was very grateful that they could find a way to mourn that was a comfort to them and that the mother was buried according to her faith. There is a way. It just requires a little thought and research. Inclusivity is not a path to changing our faith if we do not let it become so.


  13. The discussion of how non-Jewish spouses participate in the life of a congregation is, at the very least, fraught with emotion. The examples which were given by the anonymous writer point to the need for more structure within the Reform movement.

    In the twenty-four years I have been at [temple name], we have worked with interfaith families in a variety of situations. At this point, the only policies in place are:

    1. non-Jews may not say Hebrew blessings during worship
    2. non-Jews may not serve on the Board of Directors
    3. non-Jews may join the congregation if they are raising Jewish children from a previous marriage (for the purpose of educating the children).

    A discussion in the Worship Committee determined that (as custom) non-Jewish fathers would not lift the Torah for hagbahah. However, many issues are left very much to the discretion of the rabbi. While the Union published a booklet about the role of the non-Jew in synagogue life, it was careful not to suggest policies that would apply to all congregations--thus leaving a wide berth for practice.

    In the best of all possible worlds, each congregation would study itself and Jewish tradition to design practices which are sensitive to human needs but remain true to the spirit and practice of Judaism. In the Torah, we read of the "ger toshav--the resident alien" who has rights but not all privileges. The Noachide Laws were created by the rabbis to define responsibilities of non-Jews in ancient times. Surely, with the collective intellect and compassion of our leadership we can find ways to recognize the reality of non-Jews in our communities without diluting the meaning of Jewish ritual. One of the most cogent arguments I every heard came from a Jew by choice who said, "If any one can do anything in our congregation, why did I take the time to commit myself to becoming a Jew?"

    Janice (1240 families)

  14. I do not think this is outreach by compromising Jewish standards.

    I sing at a temple which is pretty interfaith, however, the non-Jewish members are very welcomed yet there is no Christian doctrine ever like you described. I hope it stays that way. Our temple shares space with a Protestant church, and the relationship with that church is very good. When we did a peace service with the church, it was good "taste" with no Christian ideology mentioned that I remember.

    If we Reform Jews do not keep Jewish standards then I think is possible that the religion will fade into oblivion. Already that is the basis of the Messianic "Jews" that made more inroads into Jewish lives than might have happened otherwise.


  15. Michael describes three events in close succession--a synagogue funeral with Christian clergy and Christological language, a group anniversary blessing with interfaith couples renewing their vows with the traditional Hebrew wedding formula, and calling non-Jewish members for an aliyah with a temporary Hebrew name, all of which, in the context of the congregation, seem to blur the distinction between Jews and those who, while part of our community, have not chosen to become Jews. He asks the question: ?Is this where Reform Judaism will be in twenty years?? and wonders if this is Outreach run amok.

    This is not Outreach. Reform Jewish Outreach (now Outreach and Synagogue Community) invites Jewish choices. That's the short definition. Outreach depends on a knowledgeable, proud Jewish community whose members offer a way into Jewish life in its fullest sense to all, including family members, who seek it. Syncretism or a false joining of the symbols and theology of Judaism and Christianity undermines the whole notion of Outreach.

    While on the one hand I wonder if anyone has invited those actively-involved partners who are not Jewish to consider becoming Jews or consulted them about the effect on their sense of integrity of receiving a Hebrew name for a day, my deeper concern lies with the sense of integrity of the congregation. During the past ten years many congregations, in good Reform tradition, have made use of the resources of the Union, including the two volumes entitled Defining the Role of the Non-Jew in the Synagogue, to study and make policy for themselves on appropriate roles in governance and ritual for those who are and are not Jews. (At this moment the Outreach and Synagogue Community Department is putting the finishing touches on a revised edition that will be published by the Union Press by early fall.) The policy of every synagogue of which I am aware finds ways both to welcome and honor the contributions of those who are not Jews and to set appropriate boundaries. These two goals--?welcome and boundary setting--are not mutually exclusive; they are mutually interdependent. Articulated and successful Outreach happens in congregations that attend to both.

    If your congregation is ready to begin the process of policy setting and to strengthen your Outreach and Synagogue Community efforts, you can contact your regional Outreach and Synagogue Community director (where they are in place), your regional director, or this office.

    Ms. Dru Greenwood, MSW
    William and Lottie Daniel Department of Outreach and Synagogue Community
    Union for Reform Judaism: Serving Reform Congregations in North America

  16. I shared the recent post that described some "interesting" practices in one synagogue with respect to non-Jewish family members with our Outreach Chair, who is also a trained Outreach Fellow. Her response follows:

    Why bother being Jewish if one can have all the perks and privileges without making the commitment??? It undermines all the Outreach work, (which was designed to help people make Jewish choices), for the last 20+ years and totally perverts the vision of Rabbi Alexander Schindler z"l. Why bother having rabbinic schools? Just send our rabbis to Harvard Divinity or Moody Bible Institute!! Let's conform to the stereotype of our more traditional brethren and become a Christian sect! Doing things like those described just confirms those beliefs.

    I made the commitment to Judaism over thirty years ago and I've been in Outreach for 20+ years. A large part of my time, other than working with people seeking conversion, is spent trying to show other Jews that Reform Judaism is a serious form of Judaic practice, not "Mac Judaism" or "Jewish Lite." But when I read of things such as this, I begin to question whether I've been in the wrong movement. Am I going one direction and the Reform Movement another??

    In addition, I can share that our trustees, a number of whom are Jewish members of interfaith marriages, recently reaffirmed continuing some boundaries with respect to non-Jews. They were articulate about our need to continue to make all family members feel welcome, but that there are still some important "rights and privileges" of our faith that need to be preserved for members of the faith. We welcome all, we offer many avenues for participation and a path for conversion if that is chosen, but we also need to say some things belong to those who choose.

    If not, what are we?

    Shared courtesy of Iris

  17. I am the Religious and Cultural Vice President of NFTY. I need to express the essential and paramount need to properly define our Jewish community, whether through temple or through informal education. Jewish youth live in a world of pop-culture, fast trends and fads, and in my opinion, are searching for an identity that transcends the physical and social and extends into the spiritual. The ultimate desired effect for the youth, therefore, should be for Judaic ritual and practice, a form of religious education, to be defined by Judaism, and not nessisarily pluralism. Interfaith ritual and pluralistic programs are an essential part of being a Reform Jew, but should not compromise the very essence of a clear, definite Jewish identity. To do so could potentially and more than likely confuse the youth who are trying to find logic and meaning in a religion that at points, compromises the defining characteristics of our religious customs. As far as adults go, the guidance of congregations and proper Judaic ritual fall under the responsibility of the spiritual leader of the congregation, the rabbi and cantor. But if you are asking what Judaism will be like in twenty years, then you must consider the children and young adults that are seeing somewhat illogical practice, and the effect it will have on them.

    Matt NFTY RCVP

  18. A question has been raised [at our congregation] about whether or not to allow a non-Jew to carry the Torah around the sanctuary during the High Holy Days. We allow non-Jews to participate in most pulpit rituals, including g'lilah, Torah dressing, and reading from haftarah. We exclude non-Jews from reciting benedictions which state Jewish chosenness and from fulfilling the mitzvot which follow after these benedictions, with the sole exception of reading the Haftarah. Our membership is more than forty percent mixed married. What are the policies and customs of your congregations regarding allowing non-Jews to touch, dress or carry the Torah?

  19. We allow [non-Jews] to touch and dress, and for b'nei mitzvah with lots of gentiles in the family, this gives us a way to let those family members participate. I think we allow gentiles to carry the Torah, but it really only comes up at Simchat Torah, so I'm not certain we even have a policy. (For other hakafot, the reader carries the scroll, and we require that readers be Jewish.) not allow gentiles to say the b'rachot reserved to Jews; at a bar/bat mitzvah we'll allow a couple to come up for an aliyah together with the Jewish member saying the blessing, but the gentile does not say the b'rachah. Similarly, the parents do candle-lighting on Friday night, and if it's an intermarriage then the Jewish partner says the blessing.

    All of this does make me wonder about one issue, though. I feel strongly that we should not loosen our rules to give to gentiles roles that belong to Jews; however, I am also mindful that a careful observer in our congregation can easily play "spot the intermarriage" based on who does and doesn't do what. Does this cause embarrassment to those people? Should that concern us? Without violating our principles, is there a better way to handle these situations?

    855 households

  20. I think the issue should have nothing to do with the fact that 40% of the congregation is intermarried. There's no easy answer to this question. Much depends on the meaning of the ritual for the congregation and for the non-Jews who might participate in it. At first grace, it would seem that to carry the Torah around the sanctuary is to embrace the Torah in its entirety, not only as a physical act, but as a spiritual commitment. And since what defines non-Jewish members of the congregation is precisely that they have not yet made this commitment, they could act it out liturgically, however politically appealing it might be. But, and there's always a but, it could be argued that what is it at issue is not so much obedience to the Law as it is reverence for it. A non-Jew who worships with the congregation of Israel honors the God of Israel, and in carrying the scrolls but not reading from them, he or she could be said to bear witness to the universality of the particular revelation made at Sinai and perhaps could even be drawn closer to it.

    This is certainly not a solution or answer to the question, but perhaps it is a starting point for further discussion.


  21. The policy where I am now had been that non-Jews may engage in acts that are clearly universal (reading prayers about peace, etc.) and may not engage in acts that are clearly particularistic (an aliyah, or, for example, reciting the "mitzvah" formula in a berakha; anything that would create cognitive dissonance, anything that says, essentially, "may we, your people Israel," or "we Jews.") The way I would describe this policy is: we believe in the maximum degree of appropriate inclusion.

    Of course, then come the grey areas. Our congregation has never had an issue (that I am aware of) with non Jews opening the ark doors. "Touching" the Torah, however, was a source of some confusion and misunderstanding. Non-Jews were in particular prohibited from participating in the symbolic passing of Torah from generation to generation. On arrival at this congregation, that was a position I disagreed with--often it is the non-Jewish parent (often but not always the mother) who did the schlepping, the pushing, the nudging--and the philosophical backing to the concept of any religious education. Since there is no halachic prohibition on non-Jews "touching" the Torah (that is something of a myth), I had no problem with the Torah being passed through the Jewish grandparents only, but through the hands of both supportive parents. I also would have had no problem with non-Jews participating in dressing or undressing the Torah.

    Now, I am less sure. The Torah is, in fact, a Jewish symbol. And it is not a shared symbol: It is in no way sacred to Christians in a comparable manner, as the distinction we make between the first five books and the rest of the TaNaKh is utterly and completely absent in any and all versions of an Old Testament. So I can see the argument in favor of what had been the policy here, although I am still not settled on the issue (the image of that non-Jewish mother who is the only reason the bar mitzvah is taking place remains with me).

    What we have clarified, however (at least within the Worship Committee so far), is this whole business of "touching" the Torah. This arose because, at the time our policy on non-Jews and ritual participation was written (decades ago already, and one of the first to be completed), such things as hakafot and unrolling the scroll and dancing with it were not on the radar screen of this particular congregation. With all of the changes in the movement has come the idea of the "accessibility" of the Torah, and we do things like pass it around for dancing on Simchat Torah (oh, my, so radical!), as well as unwrapping the entire scroll during ST, having the congregation participate in changing the robes of the scrolls during S?lichot, etc. We even have "baby" Torahs (photocopied $40 Torah scrolls) in the ark, so that kids can participate every time we do a hakafah--and so, what, we're going to stop the service and say only Jewish kids can come up? Don't think so. The whole question, then, of what might be called the "communal" handling of a Torah scroll, new in our movement, has made the idea of excluding non-Jews in this area somewhat obsolete. The outstanding issues therefore remain mostly focused on a Bar/Bat Mitzvah Service rather than more congregationally-oriented services (and yes, I know the Bar/Bat Mitzvah Service should be a completely communal service as well; we're working on it but welcome any and all ideas to promote that.)


  22. remind you all of a wonderful resource that's from the Dept. of Outreach and Synagogue Community. It's available from the URJ Press ( title is Defining the Role of the Non-Jew in the Synagogue.
    Rabbi Sue Ann Wasserman, Director
    Department of Worship, Music and Religious Living
    Union for Reform Judaism

  23. August 2007 Digest 167

                At [our congregation] we invite all grandparents and both parents to the bimah as we pass the Torah through the generations to the child even if it is an interfaith family. The Jewish parent must be the one to actually hand the Torah to the child, which is done with a short (1-2 paragraphs) speech which the child then responds to. The reason we invite all of the grandparents and both parents is an acknowledgement that it is only with the support of all, even those who are not Jewish, has the child been able to reach this moment.


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