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Rabbi Ziona Zelazo (left) moderated the discussion on diversity with Rabbi David Bockman, Rabbi Ellen Bernhardt, Rabbi Kenneth Emert, and Rabbi Lawrence Zierler. Larry Yudelson

Even the most contentious problems of defining Jewish status can be dealt with without rancor, a panel of rabbis from across the streams agreed.

“We can’t minimize differences,” said Rabbi Lawrence Zierler, of the Jewish Center of Teaneck, which is Orthodox, “but we can maximize connections.”

Zierler was speaking at a panel last Thursday night entitled “I Respectfully Disagree: Fostering Tolerance & Acceptance in Our Diverse Jewish Community.” The panel, at the YM-YWHA of North Jersey in Wayne, was also sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey and the North Jersey Board of Rabbis. The third and final in a series of panels on civility and diversity, it drew about 25 people.

Perhaps the most contentious issue dividing the Judaic streams is the question of “Who is a Jew” – or, perhaps more bluntly, “Are you Jewish?”

It is a question that cuts to the soul of the individuals concerned, as well as to the heart of the disagreements concerning the primacy of traditional Jewish law between Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism on one side, and Conservative and Orthodox Judaism on the other.

And it is a question brought to the fore by patrilineal descent: the policy of Reform Judaism, dating back to 1983, of accepting as Jews the children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers. (All streams accept the children of Jewish mothers as Jewish.)

On the whole, the rabbis said, they were able to resolve the issues raised by conflicting standards through mutual respect and sensitivity to the people affected.

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Rabbi David Bockman: “You don’t tell a kid – or an adult – that ‘you’re not Jewish.'”

Rabbi David Bockman of Cong. Beth Shalom in Pompton Lakes said that from his perspective, as a Conservative rabbi, children of patrilineal descent are not Jewish.

“And if a person is not Jewish, he can’t have a bar mitzvah ceremony,” he said. “I would have to insist on conversion.”

Nonetheless, he said, “I very much believe you don’t tell a kid – or an adult – that ‘you’re not Jewish.’ Even if they’re not a Jew.”

“I wouldn’t say ‘your child is going from being a non-Jew to being a Jew.’ I would want to validate their Jewishness while at the same time saying that in order to be acceptable to everybody in the Jewish world, we have to go through this ceremony. It’s not a bad thing, it’s not punitive.”

Similarly, even though his congregation accepts patrilineal descent, Rabbi Kenneth Emert of Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff advises parents where the mother is not Jewish to consider having their child formally convert. Temple Beth Rishon is an unaffiliated liberal congregation. Emert is a member of both the Reform and Conservative rabbinical associations.

“Probably a year before the bar or bat mitzvah,” he said, “I would speak to the parents and explain to them that at Beth Rishon we accept patrilineal descent, but this is only [recognized] in Reform and Reconstructionist congregations.

“I speak to the parents about this, only the parents. Never to the children. It’s very important.

“I follow the dictums of the congregation, but I certainly can make the family aware of what conditions the child may face later on.”

Emert told of a girl from his congregation, whose mother wasn’t Jewish, who came back from college saying that “half the guys at Hillel won’t date me. I want to go to the mikveh,” and converted.

Rabbi Ellen Bernhardt is head of school at Gerrard Berman Solomon Schechter Day School in Oakland. As a Conservative institution, the school does not recognize patrilineal descent. But it will accept children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers on two conditions, she said. The parents must intend to raise the children as Jews. And they must plan to have them converted.

Bernhardt told of discovering before a bar mitzvah that a child she thought was Jewish in fact was not: He had been adopted but never converted.

“The key is that I had a relationship with the parents where I could sit down with them. I brought in the rabbi of their synagogue to begin a discussion of what to do.

“Through a series of discussions and educating the parents, we were able to reach the agreement that the child would have a hatafat dam brit [a symbolic circumcision], go to the mikveh, and have a bar mitzvah,” she said.

“A lot of this has to do with the kind of relationship a rabbi or a teacher or principal has with the child, so when these tough issues come up, they can be addressed in a manner that will meet the halachic obligations,” she added.

The local dispute over patrilineality does not always end happily, however, according to Emert. He said that was one of the issues that prevented the Bergen Academy for Reform Judaism from merging with the Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies.

“How do you deal with the many students where the father is Jewish and the mother is not? How do you merge those students together? That creates a real problem for some of the rabbis in the community,” he said.

Zierler said that even though he, an Orthodox rabbi, does not accept patrilineal descent, conflicts over it have no place in a school that serves the entire community.

“A school is an empowerment zone, not a playground for poor rabbinic behavior, when the casualty will be the education of children,” he said.

“The issue is touchy, but if you have children that are growing up in the framework of Jewish homes, you have to create frameworks for them,” he said.

“Why should we get sidetracked on the issue of patrilineal descent? It doesn’t belong in the classroom, it belongs in the synagogue. It’s for the rabbi’s study. If joint schooling does lead to marriage, problems of Jewish status can be rectified – in most cases – quietly and sensitively.”