Conservatives Admit Non-Jews—and No One Blinked
By Marilyn Cooper
The Jewish youth group I grew up in, Hashachar Young Judaea, had two major ideological objectives on its agenda in the late 1980s. First, convince us all to eventually make aliyah—and preferably become avocado farmers on a socialist kibbutz in the Aravah Valley—and second, to indoctrinate us about the perils and pitfalls of intermarriage. The dire, and largely unquestioned, narrative for the latter went something like this: On a typical Friday night, rather than staying home for Shabbat dinner or attending Young Judaea’s lively discussion on Zionist thinkers Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Ahad Ha’am (with the bonus of afterwards making an ice-cream map of Israel), you instead go to your secular school dance. (Gasp!) A non-Jew asks you to slow dance, you start dating and end up marrying him. As a result, your grandchildren will be pork-eating Amalekites who shun the state of Israel and fund neo-Nazis. The lesson: Don’t date a goy or the ultimate destruction of world Jewry will be your fault.
Flash forward to 2017, and for many American Jews, myself included, there has been a seismic shift in how we view intermarriage. The most recent evidence of this came on March 1 when the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ)’s General Assembly, in a historic move and by an overwhelming majority of 94 to 8 and one abstention, voted to pass a non-binding resolution allowing individual congregations to decide to grant membership to non-Jews. The USCJ stressed that the resolution is meant as a way to bridge the gap between ancient laws and modern social changes. Several existing restrictions remain in place: Conservative rabbis are still prohibited from officiating at, or attending, the wedding ceremonies of interfaith couples, and non-Jews are barred from receiving an aliyah (being called to the Torah) and from leading prayers.
While the ruling itself was unprecedented, so was the reaction. A move that would once have generated heated responses and angry debate within the Conservative movement was, for the most part, met with widespread but tempered praise. When asked about the decision, David Wolpe, senior rabbi at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, CA, told me that, “the admission of non-Jews to synagogues is a further attempt to grapple with the reality that non-Jews who are willing to raise their children as Jews should not be ignored, insulted or shunted aside.” Rabbi Noah Bickart, who serves on the Rabbinic Assembly Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, offered me a nuanced response: “I think that there are two important, but unfortunately mutually exclusive, considerations: First, anything short of radical acceptance is going to drive people away. Second, I believe endogamy is a basic Jewish value, which should not be changed. It’s not wrong to try to have it both ways, but it’s incredibly difficult. That’s what the USJC ruling attempts to do.” Steve Lachter, a member of the USJC commission that wrote the resolution, describes it as “embracing people and encouraging them to join us and get involved with the community, rather than telling them that we have no role for them and sending them away.” He adds that, in effect, the USCJ’s ruling is “catching up with reality on the ground.” Many Conservative congregations, especially larger ones in urban centers, had not followed USJC membership standards for some time.
Personally, I applaud this decision. It validates my experiences within the Conservative movement. Subsequent to my life as a Young Judaean, not only have I not permanently relocated to the Negev desert, but I also date non-Jews as well as Jews. Despite this, most Saturday mornings find me in shul, I organize a Torah study group and I said daily Kaddish for my father for the full 11 months. I have found that you can have a rich and meaningful Jewish life while dating or married to a non-Jew. The two are not mutually exclusive; the non-Jewish men in my life have been fully supportive of my Jewish practice. While I recognize that there are still American Jews, particularly among the Orthodox, who do not support the full integration of non-Jews into Jewish communal life, I would argue that we fail to accept intermarriage at our own detriment. With only a few exceptions, the days are long gone when individuals are shunned by their communities and even disowned by their parents as a result of intermarriage. Not only is it better to be welcoming than alienating, I believe that the new perspectives and voices of non-Jewish members will strengthen and enrich Conservative synagogues.
After all, standards and expectations around Jewish practice continuously evolve and change. A few generations ago, it was unusual and at times controversial for a woman to become a Bat Mitzvah. Today, outside Orthodox circles, it’s become commonplace. Likewise intermarriage, once taboo, now is often accepted if not always warmly embraced. In truth, I believe there is very little risk that my dating non-Jews will result in one of my descendants being an Amalekite. While they may well eat pork, perhaps they’ll feel that reading Ahad Ha’am’s Nationalism and the Jewish Ethic is the ideal way to spend a Friday night.