Accepting non-Jews into shuls will benefit the whole community

Lowering the barriers to community is part and parcel of the reality of intermarriage


Close up image depicting the Jewish religious symbol of the star of David inside a synagogue. The star is in silhouette, while in the background stained glass windows are blurred out of focus. Horizontal colour image with copy space.

October 04, 2022 10:20

Congratulations to SWESRS (South West Essex and Settlement Reform Synagogue) on voting to allow non-Jews to become associate members. They may not be the first synagogue to do so, but they have stood out for publicising it as a major change of policy.

They have also effectively challenged the rest of British Jewry as to whether they should follow suit. I suspect that some other synagogues who had been considering it privately, but who had been nervous of proceeding, may now go ahead after this very public example.

Of course, there will be some who are horrified by this act and see it as a weakening of religious boundaries or even condemn it for giving encouragement to the already high rate of intermarriage, estimated to be around the one in three mark.

In reality, though, such objections are nonsense: nobody decides whether or not to marry someone non-Jewish on the basis of if the latter can pay annual dues to a local shul. They make their decisions based on whether they're in love or not, if they want a future together, and they will go ahead whether the rabbi scowls at them ferociously or smiles benignly.

We have long had to recognise that the ‘penalty’ of an open, tolerant society is that people fall in love across religious divides. Those who study or work together during the day will play together in the evening. The only antidote is to live in a ghetto, physically and mentally.

Yes, we can attempt to instill a love of Jewish life through schools or summer camps or trips to Israel, but experience has shown that this does not stop Jews from marrying non-Jews. What it does do is affect whether they wish to continue their Jewish life after the marriage.

That is why this move is so significant. It is saying to the Jewish partners: “look, the Jewish community does prefer same-faith marriages, but we recognise that we cannot legislate as to with whom you fall in love; what is more, you are still Jewish and we want you to still be involved, and we would be happy for your partner to join in too if they so wish”.

That makes the world of difference. Even if the non-Jewish partner has no intention of stepping inside the synagogue, it means that the Jewish partner feels more at ease about coming, and will do so more regularly, than if shul was a no-go area for their spouse. It helps keep the Jewish partners Jewish.

This move also recognises that the attitudes of the non-Jewish partners to Judaism vary and so must our response: many do not wish to have contact - they do not go to a place of worship of their own, so why go to someone else’s? – while there are those who want to convert and can pursue the classes on offer.

But there is a middle ground of those who are philosemites, and which the Talmud long ago recognised as the ger toshav: non-Jews who go along with Jewish life. In our context today, they are happy to join in home ceremonies, drop off the children at Religion School, come along to various events and even join the security team. Why not tap into that reservoir of goodwill?

It is time to accept that intermarriage is not a one-way traffic out of Judaism, but that it can go both ways, with either the Jewish partner marrying out (and dropping out), or the non-Jewish partner marrying in (and participating).

What influences which way the traffic flows? It is the message we give out, putting up the barbed wire or erecting the welcome sign. Offering associate membership to non-Jews - whether or not it is taken up - is a massive indication of the latter, and can only be for the good.

Jonathan Romain is rabbi of Maidenhead Synagogue and author of The Naked Rabbi.

October 04, 2022 10:20

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