Some rabbis using services to honor non-Jewish congregants

During Yom Kippur services this year, Rabbi Larry Raphael of San Francisco’s Congregation Sherith Israel will invite his non-Jewish congregants up to the pulpit and thank them for casting their lot with the Jewish people.

Using a blessing ceremony written two years ago by Rabbi Janet Marder of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, he’ll tell them, “You are the moms and dads who drive the children to Hebrew school. You take classes and read Jewish books to deepen your own understanding, so you can help to make a Jewish home.”

Offering his “deepest gratitude” for those who are raising their children as Jews — 26 percent of the parents of his religious school students — he will ask the rest of the congregation to rise and say the blessing that begins, “May God bless you and keep you.”

Last Yom Kippur, the first time Raphael did this, 50 people came forward. The congregation was “in tears,” says its executive director, Nancy Drapin.

As intermarriage rates continue to rise, and more intermarried families join congregations, increasing numbers of non-Orthodox rabbis are looking for ways to acknowledge the non-Jews in their midst.

While Conservative and Reconstructionist rabbis tend to be more low-key about it, Reform rabbis like Marder and Raphael have come up with a wide variety of ways to express gratitude ranging from festive meals to public ceremonies.

Many chose to do their honoring during Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur services, both because of the prestige conveyed by those special days, and because that’s when most of their congregation show up. Marder did her first public blessing on Yom Kippur morning in 2004.

“I’d encountered so many families through the bar and bat mitzvah process where the non-Jewish partner had been so dedicated,” she says. “I thought it was important to make a public acknowledgment.”

She was concerned that some people would not want to be singled out. But the ceremony, which took place in front of thousands of people, turned out to be “a far more moving and powerful experience” than she’d expected.

In November 2005, at the Reform movement’s biennial, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, urged Reform congregations to honor their non-Jewish members publicly, especially non-Jewish parents raising Jewish children, even as he also urged greater emphasis on conversion.

Since then, says URJ outreach director Kathy Kahn, public thanking of non-Jews in Reform congregations “has become more prevalent.”

Rabbi David Thomas of Congregation Beth El in Sudbury River Valley, Mass., thanks his non-Jewish parents on Rosh Hashanah morning, and again on Yom Kippur. But he tries to express the same gratitude throughout the year.

Beth El member Jennifer Sarni says her non-Jewish husband, Jonathan, who is helping her raise their two children as Jews, was “really touched” when Thomas singled out the non-Jewish parents, and their extended families, for a special thank you at a kindergarten event.

“My husband was there, and my in-laws, and it was a really nice part of the ceremony, totally unexpected,” she says. “My husband didn’t convert, but he’s been completely supportive.”

Rabbi Barry Block of Temple Beth El in San Antonio held a brunch in April to honor his non-Jewish members. The food was prepared and served by their Jewish spouses.

Block considered doing a public thank you from the pulpit during High Holy Days, but he got the thumbs-down from the non-Jews he asked. “They said they’d be embarrassed,” he says. “Different places have different cultures.”

That’s why the practice is not common in Reconstructionist congregations, says Rabbi Joshua Waxman, spiritual leader of Congregation Or Hadash in Fort Washington, Pa., and a faculty member of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.

Describing Yoffie’s biennial call as a “double-edged sword,” Waxman worries that “singling out someone and saying, ‘look at them, they’re special,’ sets up a ‘them’ and an ‘us.'”

That runs counter to Reconstructionism’s view of Judaism as a civilization in which non-Jews can participate fully.

Some Jewish leaders oppose the idea of publicly honoring non-Jewish spouses, saying it conveys the mistaken impression that the Jewish community approves of intermarriage.

“The fact that they’re willing to raise their children as Jews is great, but that’s only half the story,” says Martin Schneer, president of the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Philadelphia.

Emphasizing that he’s speaking as an individual, Schneer says congregations should extend a warm welcome to the non-Jews in their midst, but honoring them from the dais is inappropriate.

Schneer’s opinion is echoed by Conservative leaders. Rabbi Moshe Edelman, leadership development director for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, says he hasn’t heard of Conservative rabbis publicly thanking the non-Jews in their congregations.

Conservative outreach has deepened in other ways this year, he notes. Camp Ramah, the movement’s summer camp, has begun admitting pre-bar and bat mitzvah-age children of non-Jewish mothers, and the executive vice president of USCJ, Rabbi Jerome Epstein, urged the same policy this year at Conservative religious schools.

But these changes are aimed at bringing intermarried families closer to the community in order to encourage conversion. That’s quite different than honoring non-Jewish parents who don’t convert.

Rabbi Steven Glazer of Congregation Beth Emeth, a Conservative synagogue in Herndon, Va., is in the minority in his movement. For almost 10 years, he’s chosen four non-Jewish spouses every year to stand on the bimah during the Yom Kippur service and read the story of a Righteous Gentile, a non-Jew who saved Jews during the Holocaust.

“These are our Righteous Gentiles,” he states. “Many are more motivated than the Jewish parent, schlepping the kids back and forth all the time.”

Craig Dubois, a father of two, read one of those stories in 2002. He converted the following year. “I felt very honored,” he says. “Anything that’s given out during the holidays, I’m proud to get.”

Glazer notes that “a fair number’ of the non-Jews he honors in this way go on to convert, although he emphasizes that wasn’t his intention.

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].