SWAMPSCOTT – It’s been quite a journey. When Bob Powell joined Temple Israel – the former Swampscott synagogue that merged with Temple Bethel to become Shirat Hayam – in the early ‘90s, non-Jews were not members.
Even though Powell, who grew up Catholic, attended with his Jewish wife Amy, Amy paid for a single, rather than a family, membership. Subsequently, non-Jews were granted membership and asked to pay dues, but were still not allowed to vote at annual meetings.
“It was like taxation without representation,” said Powell.
At Congregation Shirat Hayam’s annual meeting on May 24, congregants voted 119-12 to change temple bylaws to allow non-Jews to become full members who can serve on boards and vote in annual meetings.
“I think that it really reflected a degree of compromise within the congregation to advance something that’s really important to us,” said Rabbi Michael Ragozin. “In the bylaws of our congregation, in terms of the membership and the definition and the privileges associated with it, we say that everyone’s equal.”
Last fall, Shirat Hayam’s board of directors voted to allow the congregation to decide whether or not non-Jewish members could vote. Approval failed by just two votes. Powell, who was the first and only non-Jewish president of the Jewish Journal Board of Overseers, was confident that the congregation was ready to accept non-Jews as active community participants. Rabbi Ragozin formed an interfaith committee to determine the best way to move forward.
The committee spoke with neighboring synagogues that had successfully instituted similar changes, and studied their amended bylaws. With the help of Combined Jewish Philanthropies, the committee moderated two community listening sessions that resulted in an outpouring of emotional testimony.
“The intent wasn’t necessarily for it to lead to the bylaw change, but to give a venue to people who were grappling with this interfaith issue,” said Powell.
As interfaith marriage rates continue to increase, every North Shore synagogue has had to make decisions about how to welcome non-Jewish members. Although many still apply varying degrees of restrictions, non-Jewish members everywhere said they feel welcome as full members of the community. Some have even assumed senior leadership positions.
“There’s never been a time when I felt people at the temple were treating me as an ‘other,’” said Tim Averill, who was raised in both Catholic and Protestant traditions, and now attends Temple B’nai Abraham in Beverly. Last year, B’nai Abraham also voted to allow non-Jews to become voting members. “Our Elijah’s cup is very big, and no one can’t sit at our temple,” Averill added.
“It’s very naturally inclusive … it’s just a non-issue,” said Luisa Boverini, a member of Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead who was raised Catholic. This past year, Boverini filled in as the interim head of Emanu-El’s religious school. “I don’t feel like there’s anything that I wouldn’t be able to do,” said Boverini. “The only thing I can’t do is play mah-jongg.”
Yet at Emanu-El – just like at B’nai Abraham and Shirat Hayam – there are still certain things that non-Jews are not allowed to do, much of it relating to Jewish ritual. At Emanu-El, a non-Jew cannot serve as president of the temple or be counted in a minyan. Shirat Hayam’s recent vote included an amendment that three-quarters of the board remain Jewish, and the temple president and ritual committee chairperson must be Jewish as well. At B’nai Abraham, non-Jews cannot serve on the ritual committee at all, although Rabbi Alison Adler noted that if anyone were to express interest in doing so, she’d be open to working together to find a way forward.
Though all the congregations allow non-Jews to stand on the bimah, many still do not allow Jewish members to chant an aliyah.
Some feel that these religious-based restrictions are fair. “I see it like I see my current status in the U.S. – I’ve been here many years, and I can do many, many things,” said Panamanian expat Rabbi David Cohen-Henriquez of Temple Sinai in Marblehead. “But I can’t do certain other things: I cannot vote, I cannot choose my representative, until I get those papers.”
Similarly, Rabbi Richard Perlman of Temple Ner Tamid in Peabody pointed out that a Jew could not walk into a Catholic church and take communion.
Yet other current practices are up for debate. For many Conservative synagogues, including Ner Tamid, Sinai, B’nai Abraham, and Shirat Hayam, one must have a Jewish mother in order to be counted as Jewish, as according to traditional law. That means that a child with only a Jewish father cannot have a bar or bat mitzvah at a Conservative synagogue unless there is some form of conversion. While the Reform Jewish Movement has accepted a father’s Jewishness since 1983 (provided the child is brought up exclusively Jewish), the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism is still debating it.
“We don’t do that yet, but notice I put the word ‘yet’ in there,” said Perlman. “I truly believe the Conservative movement is addressing that; they’re debating it … but when that issue comes up, we do have to talk to the parent about being Jewish.” At the same time, Perlman noted that he would accept a child who is not technically Jewish into Ner Tamid’s Hebrew school, giving the child a chance to live a Jewish life.
“If I say ‘no,’ they’re gone,” said Perlman. “If I say ‘yes, but,’ the chances of them staying are better.”
Several people echoed Perlman’s sentiment that accommodating interfaith families into Jewish life is ultimately a smarter tactic for ensuring Jewish continuity. “This is an unavoidable trend – you can’t stop interfaith marriages – they’re happening,” said Powell. “One of the defining moments for me was when someone in the community described interfaith marriages as ‘bloodless genocide.’ I used to say in response to it, ‘For what it’s worth, you could either have four more Jews in this world, or four less Jews.’ If you treat me well, there’ll be four more Jews.”