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American synagogues to vote on admitting non-Jews as members

Next month, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, an umbrella organisation that includes 577 Conservative synagogues in North America, will ask its members to vote on a resolution that would allow non-Jews to become synagogue members. 

Until now, the USCJ—to which 80 per cent of Conservative synagogues in North America belong—restricts shul membership to Jews only. 

With the resolution, the group’s Standards for Congregational Practice would be updated to say: “USCJ supports every affiliated kehillah in developing its own criteria for membership.” 

It is part of a push to engage with the growing number of interfaith families and ensure that they do not feel left out of the community. 

“It’s about having a set of standards that reflect reality and our values… it needs to be updated,” Rabbi Steven Wernick, USCJ’s CEO, told the JC. 

The main mission of the USCJ is to ensure “the health of our synagogue communities, and helping our sacred communities thrive”, said Rabbi Wernick. “One of the ways we do that is by looking at the challenges they’re facing.” 

The resolution passed the USCJ’s board and is expected to pass the general assembly in March, too, he said. 

Adir Yolkut, an assistant rabbi at Westchester Jewish Centre in the New York City suburbs, said that while they were certainly not the majority, there were already members of his Conservative synagogue with immediate family who were not Jewish. 

Rabbi Yolkut was therefore not surprised to hear of the pending resolution. “This falls in line with the ideology of the Conservative movement— they’re going to give you options and synagogues can make individual decisions.” And inclusion, he said, was of utmost importance. “There’s been a shift in thinking in the past few years — both in becoming aware that there are non-Jewish people in our communities and a push in letting people in.” 

“This is not about issues of Jewish identity, and issues of intermarriage,” stressed Rabbi Wernick. “This is about people who are connected to the Jewish community through marriage that already belong or want to belong to our synagogues. We want to be able to say, ‘yes, you’re members of our community’. Synagogues will still have to individually deal with issues of who can sit on their boards, and who can participate in religious services. But what we’re doing here is trying to build a distinction between being a member of the community instead of a member of the covenant,” he said.