For the first time ever, the umbrella organization of congregations affiliated with the Conservative movement of the United States is encouraging the acceptance of non-Jewish members. The decision, which is not binding and still allows every congregations to follow an independent policy, was passed a few days ago in an internet vote among congregations that belong to the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism General Assembly.
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According to the USCJ announcement, which was posted on the JTA Jewish news website, the proposal passed by an overwhelming majority of 94 to 8, with one abstention; 15 member congregations did not participate.
“We celebrate the diversity among and within our kehillot [congregations] and encourage the engagement of all those who seek a spiritual and communal home in an authentic and dynamic Jewish setting,” the website reported, quoting the decision. “We call on all of our kehillot to open their doors wide to all who want to enter. Let us strive to make the words of Isaiah a reality in our time: “My house will be called a house of prayer for all people” (Isaiah 56:7).”
It should be noted that the decision had already been approved by the executive committee of the UCSJ, before being brought up for ratification by the larger General Assembly electorate.
The USCJ serves a total of almost 600 congregations in North America.
According to a 2013 study by the Pew Research Center, 18 percent of American Jews consider themselves to be Conservative, at a time when the greater Jewish population is shrinking and some 22 percent of it defines themselves as having no religion.
Before the General Assembly weighed in on the issue of non-Jewish members, Rabbi Steve Wernick, CEO of the USCJ, told The Jewish Chronicle that the vote was designed to create “a set of standards that reflect reality and our values it needs to be updated.” He said that the main mission of the USCJ is “to help our sacred communities thrive,” adding that one of the ways to do that is to recognize the challenges they are facing.
The upshot of the decision is that Conservative congregations will be able to accept as rank-and-file members worshippers and family members who are not Jews according to halakha (traditional religious law). They will be able to pay membership fees, to vote on various issues, to be elected to the administrative institutions at their congregation, and even to influence the appointment of rabbis and cantors. However, someone who is not Jewish will not be allowed to assume spiritual positions, receive an aliyah (be called up to read from the Torah) or lead prayers.
The decision is not surprising in light of the situation that's been going on for years in the liberal denominations of U.S. Jewry. Already in the 1980s, the Reform movement in effect overturned the halakhic ruling that determined that a Jew is someone whose mother is Jewish, or who has undergone conversion. For years its houses of worship have opened their doors to people who are not Jewish, and its leaders have conducted traditional Jewish wedding ceremonies for mixed couples.
The Schechter network of Conservative schools in the U.S. has for some time allowed its institutions to accept children who have only a Jewish father (in other words, are not Jewish according to halakha), as long as the children convert before reaching bar- or bat-mitzvah age. In effect, the latest decision by the USCJ grants validity to a situation that has existed in many Conservative synagogues, where services are attended by members of families from mixed marriages.
Attorney Yizhar Hess, the executive director of the Masorti (Conservative) movement in Israel, offered this justification for the decision: “What should a Jewish woman do who married a non-Jewish man, and intends, in agreement with her partner, to have a Jewish home and to give the children a Jewish education?! Nobody will deny that the children are Jewish. So what is the moral, ethical, Jewish solution – to slam the door in the face of this family?
“This was a difficult but necessary decision. And it will continue to be the huge challenge of North American Jewry – among all the denominations, including Modern Orthodoxy, although they downplay it,” Hess added.