Group votes to broaden concept of Jewish women

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B'nai B'rith Women became Jewish Women International last July — and last week the 100-year-old organization changed more than a name: JWI redefined its definition of Jewish women.

At JWI's convention in San Francisco, delegates from 235 chapters unanimously passed an amendment to the group's constitution, opening membership to "any woman of the Jewish faith by birth or choice and/or any woman who has/had a life partner or parent of the Jewish faith."

Formerly, the 60,000-strong group was limited to "women of Jewish faith by birth or conversion or any woman who has married a man of the Jewish faith."

By welcoming daughters of all interfaith couples, same-sex couples and female "life partners" of Jewish men and women, JWI is hoping to "be as inclusive as possible," said executive director Gail Rubinson.

"Women who lead alternative lifestyles and those who intermarry don't identify as Jewish. We lose them," said Rubinson. "Now, we'll have a chance" to involve them in Jewish life. "They'll feel positive about their relationship to the Jewish community."

The JWI vote comes as other American Jewish organizations grapple with the question of Jewish identity. The Reform movement's Central Conference of American Rabbis last week approved a longtime unofficial policy of supporting same-sex civil marriages, and remains divided over whether to officiate at interfaith marriages.

In 1983, the Reform movement took an even more controversial stance, defining a Jew as anyone who has received a Jewish education and has one Jewish parent. This was a radical departure from the millenia-old rule defining Jewish identity through matrilineal descent.

In an interview from JWI's Washington, D.C., headquarters, Rubinson said last week's San Francisco convention and landslide vote signals "a real big change in attitude and the way we do business. We would like to be perceived as an organization that's open."

For Bay Area chapters, that perception has already taken root, according to former regional director and Marin County delegate Emily Weinger. For example, Weinger points to the San Mateo chapter of JWI, in which more than half of the 100 members are intermarried.

Weinger, like other delegates to the convention, said her constituents were overwhelmingly supportive of the new measures.

"We did not hear from one person who was against this," Weinger said. "It'll just be a plus to our group. We don't want anyone in the community to feel left out."

JWI programs have been reaching out to an increasingly diverse array of Jewish women. In addition to its long-standing support of a residential treatment center for emotionally disturbed children in Israel, JWI has been working locally on the issue of domestic violence in the heterosexual and gay communities.

This year, the group will be educating junior high school students about racism with the Prejudice Awareness Summit. The project, which began in Houston and will debut in other cities in the fall, provides students with a day of seminars on diversity. Students are expected to return to their schools and educate peers.

"The project is now consistent with our constitution," said Rubinson. "There's a whole new openness and awareness. The younger women [in JWI] are having a pretty good influence."