• Site Search
  • Search Local Business Listings
Home News Weather Sports Entertainment Travel Interact Jobs Autos Real Estate Classifieds Shop
Latest Posts
Categories
Favorite Links
Archived Posts

Mobile synagogue allowing non-Jewish spouses to join

Posted by Kristen Campbell June 06, 2009 4:55 AM

Categories: Religion

Josh Briskman is Jewish.

His wife, Sheridan, is Methodist.

The couple, as well as their son Williams, cq are all members of Congregation Ahavas Chesed in Mobile.

In December of 2008, Rabbi Steven Silberman said, the congregation decided to welcome non-Jewish spouses to become members of the synagogue. While prohibited from participating in some ritualistic portions of worship, non-Jewish members may play a part in the life of the congregation. Non-Jewish singles are not eligible to become members of the approximately 175-member congregation.

 

"Our goal with these outreach efforts is not to offer a spiritual home to people who practice a variety of religious traditions -- Christianity or Islam or Hinduism or whatever it might be," Silberman said. "Our goal is to offer a warm and welcoming traditional Jewish home for households that are interested in a Jewish life."

According to the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism's standards for congregational practice, "Only persons of the Jewish faith, as determined by the rabbi, may be admitted to membership in the congregation." Congregation Ahavas Chesed is affiliated with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

Rabbi Moshe Edelman, director of the committee on congregational standards of the United Synagogue, cited "Al Ha-Derekh: On the Path," a "roadmap of approaches, suggestions, and expectations offering a sincere concern for and encouragement of non-Jews to become part of Conservative Judaism." The document addresses issues raised by interfaith marriage, and suggests ways in which non-Jewish spouses might participate in congregational life.

"We need people to respect themselves," Edelman said. "We also respect people who say 'I don't want to be Jewish.'"

But, Edelman said, "You can't have the responsibilities and the benefits if you don't want to be part of the tribe, if you will."

Silberman acknowledged that Ahavas Chesed has, on some level, taken an action that is in conflict with the national body. But, he said, it was a necessary step.

"Ultimately, on a daily basis I need to deal with the practical life experiences here in Mobile," he said. "I wish that every aspect of our congregational life could be in accord with our national body. It cannot. I recognize that. And so I am making decisions here for the purposes of strengthening our synagogue and I accept the spiritual responsibility of that."

Silberman said he did not anticipate "any conflict between ourselves and our national body."

"Many Conservative synagogues throughout the country are contending with these same issues that are confronting us," he said. "Our national body will ultimately have to make a choice as to how it views synagogues that are out in the community and contending with increased interfaith marriage and decreasing synagogue affiliation."

Ken Bloch, president of Ahavas Chesed, called the congregation's action "bold" and "long overdue."

"Nowadays there (are) so many intermarriages among the Jewish faith that it's troublesome in my mind if you have a couple and you said that only part of the couple could really be a member," he said. "This thing really basically says we respect the sanctity of your marriage and that if one of y'all is a member, both of y'all are members."

Two years ago, Silberman said, he attended a conference sponsored by the Jewish Outreach Institute.

As a result of attending those sessions, as well as listening to stories of families and organizations affected by outreach efforts, Silberman said he decided to embrace "a new outlook."

"It may be that to somebody from a typical church atmosphere or background this doesn't seem dramatic, but take it from me, from a Conservative synagogue, this is very big. It's innovative," he said. "Some people would say it's radical."

Spiritually, making the changes was challenging, Silberman said.

"I grew up in a very traditional home and my training of six years of seminary was within a traditional mindset. So I had to put a lot of my prior views somewhat off to the side and it was a struggle," he said. "That's why these changes did not happen overnight."

Silberman said he "progressed from welcoming couples into our cemetery, which is starting at the end of a life, if you will, to an element of welcoming couples who are marrying by offering a prayer of blessing over them before or after the wedding ceremony."

Conservative rabbis are prohibited from officiating at interfaith weddings.

But Silberman said he now offers to say a prayer with the family before or after a wedding. A new policy also allows non-Jewish spouses to be buried in a section of its cemetery, so long as all parties adhere to particular ritual constraints.

Traditionally, Judaism frowns upon embalming, for example, so that's forbidden. Caskets must be simple, in-ground burial is maintained and cremation is unacceptable, according to Silberman.

As for worship services, Silberman said that certain parts are appropriate only for Jewish people.

"An analogy would be that if I were to attend a Catholic service then I would certainly understand that it would be inappropriate for me to take Communion, obviously, because I don't espouse the faith which is represented by that act," he said. "So a non-Jewish person would hopefully understand that he or she would not be called to the Torah, would not be 

called to chant certain specific Hebrew prayers because it makes sense that somebody would want to espouse that faith in order to participate on that level."

Silberman noted that some in the congregation were very concerned and wondered about the changes. He told them, he said, that he believed it was the right way to go.

"Having families make up our synagogue is necessary for our synagogue to grow and prosper," Silberman said. "Having singles and couples is also essential for our synagogue to flourish. I decided that our having a future was as important as our having a past and a present."


Still, Silberman sought to emphasize that the congregation is "only doing this for people that would be inclined to have a Jewish life experience or a Jewish household."

He said: "I and other members of the synagogue want to make it very clear that we're not out pounding the pavement to save people's souls or to bring them into a community if they already belong to a faith tradition. That is no-way, no-how -- that's not part of what we're doing. We're opening our doors to people that may not know about us."


Bert Meisler, ritual committee chairman, noted the prevalence of interfaith marriages as well as "a great exodus of our young children to go to the cities."

"We just have to face up to realities. If we're going to stay as a synagogue or as a functional operation we have to get membership, and when you're restricted as to who you could take or how you could take or who would want to join," Meisler said, "it becomes a problem."


Briskman, who grew up at Ahavas Chesed, moved back to Mobile several months ago.

"We were concerned, of course with having a child especially, how all this would work, and the fact that they had made these changes made it very comfortable for us -- my wife, myself and my child -- to feel that we would be at home there," he said. "I enjoyed knowing that my wife not being Jewish would not be an issue. That was great."

Sheridan Briskman said she grew up in the church and was "there every time the door opened." Now, she said she believes in Christ; for that reason, she said she probably won't convert to Judaism. But she also doesn't plan to join a church. The couple plans to raise their son in the Jewish faith.

Being able to join Ahavas Chesed was "a really big deal because it's just a sign of the openness and that everyone's welcome," she said.

Josh Briskman put it this way: "Our God is the God of everybody. He's not just the God for Jews or Christians or anybody like that. ... He welcomes everybody. And so I think that's what the synagogue is doing."

COMMENTS (0)Post a comment