Conservative Jewish Assembly Votes to Allow Non-Jewish Synagogue Members

March 10, 2017
Man in kippah kisses cheek of woman in wedding dress

During a special meeting of its General Assembly on March 1, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ) voted overwhelmingly to reverse their prohibition on granting membership to non-Jews.

The measure will have a sweeping impact on North American Conservative Jewish communities, 80 percent of which belong to the USCJ umbrella organization. Whereas synagogues were previously permitted only to allow non-Jews as guests, Conservative communities may now choose to endow non-Jewish attendees—often the non-Jewish spouse of a member—with full membership status.

The USCJ touted the move as an opportunity to give individual communities more options surrounding how they welcome non-Jewish partners and family members. USCJ’s CEO Rabbi Steven Wernick said that the decision was the natural next step for Conservative Jews interested in accommodating the growing number of interfaith families in their synagogues.

“It’s about having a set of standards that reflect reality and our values,” Wernick told The Jewish Chronicle. Allowing synagogues to open up their membership to non-Jews, he continued, will help ensure “the health of our synagogue communities, and help our sacred communities thrive.”

The extent to which individual Jewish communities will adopt the stance of welcome, however, remains unclear. Conservative Jews hold widely varying stances on the issue.

Although the March 1 vote passed 94 to 8, some rabbis fear that the USCJ is caving to cultural forces rather than upholding traditional Jewish principles.

“You’re torn between these two conflicting imperatives of upholding the values of conversion on the one hand and welcome and inclusivity on the other hand,” said Steven Bayme of the American Jewish Committee. “Those two things don’t coexist all that easily.”

“Judaism is serious business,” Rabbi George Nudell told New Jersey Jewish News. “The prohibition on interfaith marriage…begins in the Torah and continues through Jewish law to this day.”

Others fear that the new provision does not go far enough in welcoming interfaith couples. Last Wednesday’s vote was precipitated by an ongoing debate over whether or not Conservative rabbis should have the right to officiate—or even attend—their members’ interfaith weddings. In 2016, Seymour Rosenbloom—a practicing Conservative rabbi for 44 years—was unanimously dismissed by the Rabbinical Assembly for officiating the marriage of his stepdaughter to a non-Jew.

Rosenbloom worries that Conservative synagogues are losing potential new members by turning them away on one of the most important days of their lives.

“For many of these couples, once we say no to the wedding, it’s very hard for them to overcome that. The experience of rejection is far too great to even consider being part of the congregation,” Rosenbloom told Forward.

“We’re isolating ourselves from our congregants at precisely the time they need us and want us most.”

While a 2013 Pew Research Center report shows that younger generations are remaining practicing Jews at higher rates than their forebearers, intermarriage with non-Jews is on the rise. The percentage of Jews marrying a non-Jewish spouse rose from 17 percent in 1970 to 58 percent in 2013.

--by Caroline Matas

Image Source: Jenna & Shye. Photo by Jason Corey, Flickr Creative Commons.