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Inclusiveness 29-June-11


At our last annual meeting, Beth David adopted changes to our by-laws, including changing the membership category from “family” to “household” membership. This was done in keeping with our interest in keruv—drawing near—reaching out beyond our walls to attract people to Judaism and synagogue life. This involves many factors, but one of them is removing obstacles to membership, consistent with our principles. Rabbi Joel Rembaum has written:

“We have become sensitive to the needs of Jews who heretofore have felt alienated by congregations that have catered strictly to the ‘traditional family’ (a Jewish woman and a Jewish man who are married to each other and who are the parents of children who live with them in their home).  Less than 20% of today’s Jewish households, however, conform to this norm; therefore, developing effective keruv policies is a matter of considerable importance. This was a striking statistic. It causes me to ask, do we only want to serve 1/5 of the Jewish population?”

What does keruv mean in practice? Here are some of my thoughts, offered in hopes of sparking an ongoing discussion. One aspect is welcoming intermarried couples that are committed to raising children as Jews. There are halakhic [Jewish law] boundaries that we cannot cross. Non-Jews are always welcome at services, but can’t serve in any leadership role. We can’t support dual faith upbringing. But we should welcome intermarried couples where the non-Jewish partner participates whole-heartedly in the children’s Jewish upbringing. We already have a number of such households. We could help more on their Jewish journey. We know that there are intermarried couples who would like to join a Conservative synagogue, but think that they won’t be accepted. The by-law revisions are an important step toward changing that stereotype.

Keruv also means aligning ourselves with changing attitudes and recent halakhic decisions of Conservative Judaism regarding gays and lesbians. One example is the recent decision to accept of openly gay students at our Rabbinical Schools. Our own members who are gay and lesbian have told us that the by-law change has helped them to feel more fully included. And surely there are other gay Jews in our community who would like to be part of a Conservative synagogue. If this welcoming posture seems like a  radical change, consider the recent “Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews with a Homosexual Orientation in our Community,” by a group of Orthodox rabbis which recommends: “Jews with homosexual orientations or same sex-attractions should be welcomed as full members of the synagogue and school community. As appropriate with regard to gender and lineage, they should participate and count ritually, be eligible for ritual synagogue honors, and generally be treated in the same fashion and under the same halakhic [Jewish law] and hashkafic [philosophical] framework as any other member of the synagogue they join.”

If this surprises you, it shouldn’t. Because Judaism is based around peoplehood as well as belief, we learned over time to live as communities. In the book Life is with People: The Culture of the Shtetl, authors Mark Zborowski and Elizabeth Herzog see the covenant as the foundation of shtetl life, and they write, “The community, a whole made up of many closely welded parts, is felt as an extension of the family.” Beth David strives to be a kehillah kedoshah, a holy community, and a family. Many of us have family members who are intermarried, or who are gay or lesbian, sitting around the table. The Beth David family can be equally inclusive.

As I said at the annual meeting, “We are not talking about strangers or people out on the fringe. We are talking about our children and members of our families—people who grew up in Conservative Judaism or who are drawn toward our message of tradition and egalitarianism. They want to be welcomed in what they see as their natural home.”

I invite you to an informal discussion about these issues on Tuesday night, July 12th at 7:30 p.m. (following minyan) in the sanctuary.

Some useful links on inclusiveness:

The Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs has developed a keruv initiative:

The Jewish Outreach Institute promotes what it calls Big Tent Judaism:

A list of Jewish inclusiveness values prepared by Keshet, an organization that works for the full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) Jews in Jewish life: