Breaking boundaries

On Friday nights, Charley Lerrigo heads for Chochmat HaLev, a Jewish Renewal congregation in Berkeley, to recite the Sh’ma and welcome the Shabbos Queen. Thirty-six hours later he’s praying in the pews of the First Congregational Church of Oakland.

Lerrigo is bi-textual: He reveres both the Torah and the Christian Bible. He is comfortable worshipping in either Jewish or Christian settings, and easily transitions from praising HaShem to praising Jesus.

No one would argue that Lerrigo, 68, is free to do whatever he likes when it comes to his personal religious choices. But are they kosher?

While Orthodox Jews would say, “Absolutely not,” for a small but determined segment of Bay Area Judaism, non-Jews are more than just tolerated, more than just welcomed: They are invited to participate fully in Jewish ritual and congregational life.

Says Lerrigo, “I need to stand with the community on Sabbath. On Simchat Torah, when I take [the Torah] and dance with it, that scroll burns my chest.”

There are those who would prefer he found a different dance. When it comes to participation in ritual, tradition-minded Jews draw a line beyond which non-Jews may not go. It’s not personal. The law is the law.

“As I understand it,” says Rabbi Lavey Derby of Tiburon’s Conservative Congregation Kol Shofar, “non-Jews are not allowed to be synagogue members. They can participate in [Jewish] life but they are not allowed to vote, not allowed on committees or the board. In terms of ritual life, they are not allowed to be called to the Torah for an aliyah, to lead services or to be in any ritual whatsoever. That is the policy.”

He’s referring to Conservative policy, which is similar to, if not as stringent as, Orthodox policy. In Reform Judaism, the lines are less distinct. But there are lines.

“In our congregation, there has been a great desire to see non-Jewish members participate actively in our services, and also be consistent in our teachings,” says Rabbi Melanie Aron of Congregation Shir Chadash in Los Gatos. “The Reform movement has grappled over what is the appropriate role of a non-Jew. We’ve struggled in both directions.”

Conflicts often arise surrounding life cycle events. At Aron’s synagogue, non-Jewish family members do participate in bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies — up to a point. “The non-Jewish grandparents may read from Psalms on the bimah,” says Aron. “But a non-Jew who has not taken responsibility for the commandments would not come up for an aliyah. Sometimes a non-Jewish spouse may come up with a spouse, stand there, and read some alternative prayer.”

The balance between inclusion and tradition has shifted over time in Reform settings. Today non-Jews at Shir Chadash are allowed to light Shabbat candles from the bimah, and stand on the bimah for their children’s b’nai mitzvahs. Taking the Torah from the ark, however, is proscribed for non-Jews.

But not at Congregation Shir Neshama, a close-knit group of chavurahs in Contra Costa County. There, the basic rule of thumb is: There are no rules of thumb.

“We always try to include everybody,” says David Stier, a Lutheran member of Shir Neshama. “Whatever role needs to be played, whether opening the ark or removing the scroll. At our Shavuot service, I was the gabbai [synagogue official]. I would call up people to the bimah.”

Stier thinks there is too much exclusivity in Judaism, preferring the welcoming approach of his congregation. “It makes it easier to understand and connect with Judaism if you can actually participate,” he maintains. “Anyone who has an issue with a non-Jew coming up to the bimah would have an issue with Shir Neshama as a whole. It’s a very limiting mindset, and I think it has turned people off to Judaism.”

Says Shalom Groesberg, Shir Neshama’s soon-to-retire rabbi, “I always took the position that any [congregant], regardless of religious background, or lack of same, who wishes to honor Judaism’s central symbol, is welcome to do so. Any person interested in the welfare and the functioning of the chavurah is welcome to participate in the process. No restrictions on anyone of any sort. That’s as liberal as you can get.”

Arguably, Congregation Kol Chadash in El Cerrito/Albany, is even more liberal. As a humanistic congregation, along with no restrictions, there isn’t even a Torah.

“One of the things we’re happiest about is our inclusivity,” says member Marcia Grossman, who is Jewish. “I can appreciate that a non-Jewish spouse might feel less welcome [at other synagogues]. Kol Hadash doesn’t do that. Here it doesn’t matter. There is no litmus test.”

For tradition-minded rabbis like Derby, that’s a problem, though he is quick to acknowledge that there are many ways to practice Judaism.

“I give thanks every day there is more that one way to be a Jew in this world,” he says. “But I don’t think the principle ‘anything goes’ is a legitimate spiritual or religious principle. Philosophically speaking, everything has a container. I don’t think there is a boundary-less community. It’s a blessing to have a variety of ways to be Jewish. I can tell you some are right or wrong, but I’m sure some think the same way about me.”

According to Derby, halachah states clearly that non-Jews may not say a blessing over the Torah because that is part of the covenant of the community. The blessing states that God chose the Jews from among all the peoples of the world to bear the Torah.

“That’s a particularistic message,” adds Derby. “Since the Torah is the central religious artifact and vessel in the synagogue service, by and large it’s inappropriate for non-Jews to be involved with the Torah, opening the ark or anything else.”

He is personally conflicted about whether a non-Jew should be able to come up to the bimah with a Jewish partner. “I see the value of it,” he adds, “and I applaud the inclusivity of it. But it has the possibility of blurring boundaries, which isn’t necessarily a good thing.”

That’s not how Tracy Lutz sees things. The 37-year-old was raised a Methodist in Washington, D.C., but as an adult chose not to align with any religion or denomination. Still, her spirit cried out for something.

“When my mother was dying of pancreatic cancer, I had spiritual beliefs but I didn’t have a practice to deal with dying and grieving,” she recalls. “The notion of ritual has been stripped out of Christianity so much. But Judaism has it down: shiva, Kaddish, the unveiling, yahrzeit.”

When she discovered Chochmat HaLev a year ago, she felt she had found the right spiritual home. She became a member, and today says Kaddish for her mother, though neither she nor her late mom ever converted.

“All are welcome [at Chochmat HaLev], and that includes ritual,” says the Oakland Hills resident. “If the intent is to increase awareness and build community, then inviting people to participate in ritual is key.”

That’s not just Lutz’s opinion. It’s congregational policy. At Chochmat HaLev, non-Jews may come up to the bimah, handle the Torah, recite blessings and wear tallits.

“All religions try to lead us to be people with free hearts, who are loving and who do the right thing at any given moment,” says Rabbi Sara Shendelman, a rabbi at Chochmat HaLev. “If halachah is not going to be a cage for you, then you look at tradition and you look at halachah, but you’re not a hamster on a wheel. You make a decision on your own.”

Which is precisely the road more traveled by Charley Lerrigo, a spiritual sojourner who grew up in the South, became an ordained United Methodist minister, and later worked as a religion journalist/

publicist (he was religion editor at the Boston Herald).

“In college,” he recalls, “I had an experience with the living God, HaShem, however you want to name God, and I wanted to do something with that. It was more a mystical experience than a born-again experience.”

Though he hadn’t known any Jews during his upbringing, Lerrigo says Judaism was always important to him, initially because of the inconvenient truth that Jesus happened to be Jewish.

“In seminary I had a really good professor,” he recalls. “He opened my mind to what the ancient Hebrew path was, which I thought was a fantastic route. It spoke to me in a way I could understand God, how people want to mold their lives with one another.”

But it wasn’t until he relocated to the East Bay in 1988 that he had the chance to walk down a Jewish path in earnest.

“Ten years ago I walked into Afikomen [the Judaica shop] in Berkeley, and I said, ‘Do you know anyone in town who’s doing anything Jewish that is spiritual?’ They said I should check out Chochmat HaLev. I walked in the door and was greeted as a holy brother. For the first time in my life, when I said the Sh’ma I could say, ‘This is home.'”

Though he doesn’t keep kosher and still struggles with Hebrew, in many ways Lerrigo leads a Jewish life. Every morning he dons a tallit and says the Sh’ma, and he makes an effort to say 100 blessings a day, as is common with some Orthodox Jews. “I may not meet all the requirements some people set for me as Jewish,” he says, “but I’m there in the spirit, and when I study Torah with my Jewish brothers and sisters we become one in discovery.”

Lerrigo sees himself as a human bridge between the Jewish and Christian traditions, and he has had countless conversations with fellow Christians about the fundamental role of Judaism in the faith. He says his foray into Judaism has had a profound impact on his understanding of Christianity.

“I sometimes get in arguments when somebody says Jesus is the only way,” says Lerrigo. “Jesus represented a diverse rabbinical movement. Is Jesus God? That is the party line. But there are people who do not like the imperial theology that has been attached to Jesus.”

So why not convert to Judaism? For Lerrigo, it’s not an option, both because his Christianity is too central to his religious life and because he doesn’t see it as necessary. “I’m here on the Jewish side of the fence not to convert,” he affirms. “I’m here to connect. I’m more interested in authentic engagement. I can’t have that unless there’s a spiritual connection.”

As for his fellow congregant Lutz, conversion is an idea whose time may nearly have come. “Initially I didn’t see the need to convert,” she says. “Lately, the sheer sense of community, as well as the resonance with the people, the culture and the rituals, have started me thinking, ‘What if?’ I did not expect that.”

Shir Neshama’s Stier has also decided to take the plunge. “I consider myself Jewish,” he says, “but as with any kind of public commitment ceremony, like a wedding, there’s something about declaring to the community ‘This is who I am.’ It’s a powerful statement.”

Until that day, he will continue participating in every aspect of Jewish worship along with his fellow non-Jews. So will Lutz, Lerrigo and other non-Jews for whom Judaism remains a source of spiritual sustenance, whether others approve or not.

“Halachah is supposed to be flexible to accommodate time and place,” says Rabbi Groesberg of Shir Neshama. “This is a different time. The Shulchan Aruch [a compendium of Jewish law] is — what? — 500 years old.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.