A shul’s new approach to outsiders

A shul’s new approach to outsiders

Temple Emanu-El of Closter enacts series of changes to accommodate intermarried families, gay marriages

Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner
Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner
From left, Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner, Howard Lavin, Andi Wolfer, and Lee Igel
From left, Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner, Howard Lavin, Andi Wolfer, and Lee Igel

It’s one thing to pay lip service to being warm and welcoming. After all, what synagogue doesn’t? Some really are — and even the ones that offer newcomers the most frigid of greetings believe themselves paragons of hospitality.

Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner of Temple Emanu-El in Closter believes that it is no longer acceptable to act with disdain or even with disinterest to people who are not exactly like ourselves (however, that is, we define ourselves as being). Therefore, with the full support of his board and congregation, and acting entirely within the dictates of halachah — Jewish law — as determined by the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, he has decided to work to include people who often others have been content — if not actually happy — to ignore.

“The Torah and rabbinic law go to great lengths to remind us that all humans are created in God’s image,” Rabbi Kirshner wrote in the explanatory email he sent to the congregation last week.

Some of the changes he plans to institute are incremental, Rabbi Kirshner said. Those changes mainly involve the religious school and pre-bnai mitzvah programming the shul offers to non-typical learners. It has obtained additional funding and plans to continue and intensify its work with Matan, an organization that works with those learners.

Next, the shul, whose catering facilities, open to all members, frequently attract newly engaged couples and their parents, will extend itself to appeal to same-sex couples. “It’s not a change in policy,” Rabbi Kirshner said. “A wedding could have happened here before, but now we’re being openly welcoming.”

To that end, the shul’s membership forms no longer will ask for husbands’ and wives’ names. Instead, it will include space for partners 1 and 2.

The actual change, though, will come in the shul’s approach to intermarried families. “We are opening up a portal to the intermarried, so there are a lot more opportunities for them to be involved ritually,” Rabbi Kirshner said. “We have simchas almost every week, and there is almost always someone there who is not of the Jewish faith. We are allowing them to open the ark, and to offer readings in English.

“This is not compromising halacha but exercising its elasticity.”

“If there is going to be a wedding, and one of the spouses is Jewish and the other is not, and they are committing to having a Jewish home, although the rabbis here cannot officiate at the wedding, we will announce it at the shul.” There cannot be an aufruf, where the pair is called to the Torah for an aliyah, since the non-Jewish partner cannot do that — “How can someone who is not Jewish thank God for choosing us,” Rabbi Kirshner said — and no one will throw candies at the happy couple, but the wedding will be acknowledged. That will replace the stony silence that used to meet the news of a mixed marriage.

When a baby who is not halachically Jewish is born to parents who want to construct and maintain a relationship to the Jewish world, and to Emanu-El, that birth will be acknowledged with a ceremony, although that ceremony will not be the same as the one used to welcome a new Jew.

“These situations are the difference between butchers and surgeons,” Rabbi Kirshner said. “You have to be very precise, and approach everything on a case-by-case basis. There is no such thing as a blanket approach.

“There is nothing that we are doing to discourage or replace conversion,” he continued. If the parents are amenable, he will suggest a brit milah leshem gerut — a traditional circumcision ceremony, done as the first step to complete conversion. If that brit is done, a child has up until the time when he would become bar mitzvah to choose to convert without having the circumcision symbolically redone, although the goal would be to continue the conversion immediately. If not, or if the baby is a girl, there are other ways to strengthen the Jewish connection without crossing any halachic barriers.

“This is not compromising halacha but exercising its elasticity,” Rabbi Kirshner said.

The shul is instituting these changes out of strength, he said. Although it is true that many liberal synagogues are withering — as the Pew study and other commentaries have pointed out at great length and as anecdotal evidence confirms — Emanu-El is strong and growing. It now has 800 family units, and all indications show it to be flourishing. “This is not being done as a gimmick,” Rabbi Kirshner said. “It is a culture shift.”

Howard Lavin of Tenafly is the president of Emanu-El. “These changes are something that had been discussed with the prior executive committee as well as with the current one,” he said. “It was discussed at the board and executive board levels, and during the last year Rabbi Kirshner discussed it in some of the adult education and study groups he runs. In May and June, he invited the entire congregation to two parlor meetings.

“At the meetings, based on the questions and comments, it was clear that the overwhelming sentiment of those who attended was positive. There were some who disagreed, but I believe that any time you have change, some people will embrace and celebrate it and others will be disappointed by it.” He compared it to the Conservative movement’s 1973 decision to count women in the minyan. “I assume that at that time, too, there were individuals who embraced it and others who opposed it vociferously, and others who just shrugged it off,” he said.

All the responses he’s gotten since the decision was announced have been positive, some of them exuberantly so, he added.

“What was fascinating was that the people who embraced this most were people who have skin in the game,” Mr. Lavin said. “People who were incredibly affiliated, led Jewish lives, and then had a child who married a non-Jew. You could see and feel the angst they felt. On the other hand, people who had no skin in the game, people whose children had married Jews and lived very affiliated lives — they were supportive, too.

“That isn’t to say that there weren’t some who made the slippery slope argument — that if you do this, if you make this easy, then what’s next?”

Mr. Lavin is 58. Andi Wolfer of Cresskill, the shul’s first vice president and chair of its board of education, is in her 40s. She, too, was struck by how many older people approved of the shul’s decision. “I was very concerned that they would be against it, based on tradition, but it was the opposite, and it makes sense,” she said.

“They have had so much life experience — they have a cousin, a niece or nephew, a grandchild — they all know someone who has married outside the Jewish faith, so for them, the concept is based on reality.

“It’s what the 21st century looks like. I very much recall my father saying ‘If you marry someone who is not Jewish, I will not come to your wedding.’ I very much want my children to marry Jews — and so does Rabbi Kirshner; he paid for so many people in the shul to go on JDate. I don’t want anyone to misconstrue this as his condoning intermarriage.

“It’s just that this is based on the reality of the 21st century.”

Lee Igel of Haworth, in his 30s, also sits on the shul’s board. “I think that history shows us that the Jewish people are enlightened and evolving,” he said. “Values always matter. The strong things about the Jewish people really are all about this sense of values and awareness and knowledge of the world. People evolve based on this.

“This decision is an evolution,” he added.

That might be — but the question is not new. Rabbi Kirshner unearthed a letter that Dr. Milton Steinberg, the Conservative rabbi who went on to lead the Park Avenue Synagogue and wrote the popular historical novel “As a Driven Leaf,” wrote to his teacher, Mordecai Kaplan — who grew up Orthodox, held a professorship at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and went on to found the Reconstructionist movement. Rabbi Steinberg then held a pulpit in Indiana. The letter was dated 1929.

Rabbi Kaplan’s response is lost to us, but the questions posed to him remain vital. “As it happens, my congregation is growing rather rapidly, and while the phenomenon as a whole is a pleasing one it has created a rather difficult situation,” Rabbi Steinberg wrote. “Among our applicants for membership are several who have married Gentile women.” There were two basic responses to that fact, he continued.

“One group argued that to refuse membership to men who have intermarried is to quarantine their complete assimilation as well as that of their children.” Keeping them out is punishing them forever for one mistake; accepting them might lead to their wives’ and children’s eventual conversion.

On the other hand, Rabbi Steinberg went on, others say that “while all of this is quite true, should we admit such men to membership, we permanently remove the opprobation [sic] and ostracism associated with intermarriage.” With that gone, why would anyone think twice about intermarrying?

Although he was asking for an opinion from his teacher, Rabbi Steinberg’s own view — which his board had accepted “at once” — was to allow those men to join his shul.

We don’t know what Rabbi Kaplan would have said — and in fact, intermarried Jews are allowed to join Conservative shuls, although their spouses are not — but now Temple Emanu-El has joined the only-slightly-changed debate. Moreover, its vote is clear.

The congregation has decided that in order to be warm and welcoming, it is necessary actually to welcome strangers. It will try to do so.

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