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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.



7 Comments

  1. I support Rabbi Olitzky’s position on this issue. If you are going to allow Gentiles to be members of congregations they should have the right to vote. I disagree on the halachaic question (of course Halacha prohibits intermarriage), and I disagree that Gentiles should be members of a Jewish congregation. But if they are members I don’t get how you can object to them voting.

    Comment by Dave — October 14, 2007 @ 10:00 am

  2. I think it depends on the goal. If, as Paul states, the goal is for them ultimately to convert, then it seems more effective to deny them certain rights as a psychological incentive to conversion (this worked decently well when done to the Jews by both Christians and Muslims over the years…and actually worked far better than trying to force us to convert). To give them 100% full rights prior to conversion actually creates a disincentive to convert…it seems like an awful lot of work with no ultimate benefit. For instance, who would apply for US citizenship if there was no benefit to it for work or social security travel, etc.???

    Of course, I also agree with Dave that intermarriage remains forbidden and Gentiles should not be made members in the first place, but am willing to addres the question on its own terms.

    Comment by marc — October 15, 2007 @ 10:16 am

  3. The synagogue is a Jewish institution….for Jewish people. I have no problem ” welcoming ” a non- Jewsih spouse and including them wherever we can to make them feel comfortable. To take the voting issue to an extreme scenario - in theory if non-Jews are allowed to vote then conceivable the local synagogue could have a President & board made up of non-Jews. I can’t join a Catholic church and sit on their board - I’m not Catholic- makes sense to me. I wouldn’t feel excluded if my wife was Catholic. I think being inclusive is wonderful but doing away with the requiremnet of being Jewish to belong to a synagogue is beyond the point of inclusiveness.

    Comment by Ell — October 15, 2007 @ 1:50 pm

  4. Personally, I believe that if a person wishes to vote in a religious organization, s/he should be of that faith. If you believe that the non-Jewish spouse should be able to vote in the congregation, I presume you believe that the non-Catholic spouse of a Catholic should be able to vote in the next election of the parish church? At least that would be consistent, although I think both are wrong. If one is not interested in begin Jewish, one should not vote on who the next rabbi will be, what the priorities of that synagogue are, etc.. In some congregations your proposal would lead to half of the voters being not Jewish. I guess this is “a non-Jew by choice” as opposed to a “Jew by choice.” The latter deserves the vote; the former does not.

    Comment by Samuel A. Oppenheim — October 16, 2007 @ 8:13 pm

  5. Could a congregation that allow Gentiles to vote have a Gentile President? Sure. But if you allow membership to Gentiles that’s a possibility. But its allowing Gentiles membership that’s the problem. Allowing them membership but not the vote will just create justifiable resentment. Just do as other religions do and forbid membership to people who are not members of that religion.

    Comment by Dave — October 21, 2007 @ 9:04 am

  6. I found this article by searching for articles on use of the bima by non-jewish members of a Bar Mitzvah family. Thank you for your comments. How right you are. The exclusion from this makes the non-jewish person feel like a “non-person” preventing them from sharing the jewish experience and putting undue stress on the jewish child that they have to feel for the sensitivity of their non-jewish parent.

    Comment by Eric Schlossman — January 17, 2008 @ 1:56 pm

  7. Thanks Eric. Interesting you should bring up the bima because I just blogged about an article discussing challenges faced by the Conservative movement in welcoming intermarried families, and a rabbi in the article claimed that it “has become pretty much standard among Conservative synagogues” to invite the “non-Jewish parent of a bar or bat mitzvah to participate in the service, usually by reciting an English, nonsectarian prayer.” If that has not been your experience, you may want to comment on that article as well, here.

    Comment by Paul Golin — January 17, 2008 @ 2:05 pm

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