Should Non-Jewish Spouses of Synagogue Members Get the Vote?

It’s fitting that on the verge of our third annual conference, to be held in Washington DC beginning this Sunday, JOI’s executive director Rabbi Kerry Olitzky has an op-ed in the most recent edition of the Washington Jewish Week. And it’s a controversial one. Entitled “Non-Jewish Partners Deserve a Vote,” Rabbi Olitzky recommends that synagogues find a way to include intermarried spouses in the voting process on synagogue issues, arguing:

We know that intermarried households who have taken on the responsibilities (and expense) of synagogue membership are not interested in changing Judaism or infusing it with other religions. They are there for the same reasons as in-married and single Jewish households: primarily to educate their children Jewishly and also to find a spiritual home and a welcoming community. How can we make sure they are fully welcomed?

The paper’s editor took the fairly unusual step of replying directly to the piece through a counter-piece in the same edition, called “Citizenship Requires Conversion.” In it, the editor argues that:

We support the rabbi’s impulse that we should do all we can to make non-Jews—and anyone for that matter—feel welcome in our synagogues and Jewish institutions. Yet, full voting rights strikes us as something that, like full voting rights in the United States, should come with citizenship. In the case of Judaism, citizenship requires conversion.

We certainly understand the editor’s argument. And yet, she misses a couple of key points. The most prominent is the line in Rabbi Olitzky’s piece in which he writes, “There are no halachic (Jewish law) prohibitions here. It is only the institutional culture of fear that is preventing Jewish institutions, particularly synagogues, from granting full voting rights to intermarried families.” In other words, he is not arguing for the total removal of distinctions in synagogue life between those who are Jewish and those who are not (the way there are in theory no distinctions between one American citizen or another). Barriers still exist, and conversion may be necessary to fully remove those barriers. But the argument Rabbi Olitzky and we at JOI make is that there are many barriers that are not dictated by Jewish law but rather by the culture of the institution, and those can change to be more inclusive.

For example, there is no Jewish law at all about who can stand on a bima, the riser in front of the synagogue, because that’s an invention synagogues began borrowing from churches only a few hundred years ago. And yet, the culture within some individual institutions about who can and cannot stand on the bima during prayer services has inadvertently offended and pushed away many non-Jewish members of Jewish families—the very people who one day may want to take on “full” citizenship through conversion! Voting rights are a similar issue. It’s a point of culture where we can either include or exclude, and we vote for inclusion.

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