UPDATE: We are pleased to announce that this Constitutional Amendment passed at the Annual Meeting of the Congregation held Monday evening, May 14, 2018.
Below you will find links to a proposed amendment to our Constitution to allow individuals who are not Jewish, but are part of Jewish families, to join B’nai Israel. This proposal is the result of a long and deliberative process that began last April with a policy change of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
Please join us at the Annual Meeting on Monday, May 14 to vote on this amendment. The doors will open at 6:45 p.m. for check-in and voting, the meeting will begin at 7:15 p.m. and the voting will close at 7:45.
To view the summary proposed amendment, click here.
To view the complete proposed amendment, click here.
Why is this change being proposed? Why is it important?
With the rates of intermarriage continuing to rise, the time has come for a new approach to membership that supports all families in their efforts to make Jewish choices in a congregational context. The benefits of belonging are even greater for a non-Jewish individual who has made the commitment to create a Jewish home. Families who do not feel welcome by their community – a sentiment expressed by many interfaith families about Conservative synagogues – are less likely to provide Jewish education and other experiences that are critical for Jewish continuity. We want to help those families who wish to practice Judaism in a traditional environment to make the choice to join our synagogue.
What exactly are the studies showing?
The 2017 Greater Washington Jewish Community Demographic Study reports that 67% of Jewish households include a couple who is married or partnered. Of these couples, 61% are intermarried and 39% are inmarried. While 52% of households (with Jewish age-eligible children) in which the parents are inmarried report at least one child enrolled in any type of K-12 formal Jewish education program, that number is only 15% when the parents are intermarried. Children of inmarried parents are more than twice as likely to be enrolled in Jewish preschool programs as well. We hope that a more welcoming membership policy will help us to raise the percentage of children of intermarriage who are enrolled in formal Jewish education. This is important not just for B’nai Israel, but for the Jewish future.
What prompted this change now?
In March, 2017, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ) changed its constitution to allow each synagogue to define its own membership criteria. Previous to that change, USCJ required that all members of affiliated synagogues be of the Jewish faith. Even before that standard change, many Conservative synagogues were stretching their membership policies to be more welcoming of interfaith families. The number of congregations reporting or anticipating policy change has increased dramatically in the past year.
By making this change, is B’nai Israel condoning intermarriage?
No. B’nai Israel will continue to abide by and support the Conservative movement’s position on interfaith marriage. The new membership policy is directed towards families who are looking to join a congregation, provide Jewish education for their children, and participate in Jewish life. For many families, that decision to affiliate with the Jewish community takes place several years after marriage.
What will change if the proposed amendment is adopted by our congregation?
Instead of interfaith partners joining the synagogue as an Individual Member, whereby only the person of the Jewish faith in the couple is welcomed as a member, such partners will join as a Couple Membership. This means that both partners will be welcomed and enjoy the privileges of membership, which include the right to vote and receive free High Holiday tickets. Additionally, a single parent who is not of the Jewish faith, but is raising children Jewish – as might happen in the case of death or divorce – will be eligible to be a member.
What is the status of a child with a Jewish father and a mother who is of another religion?
Jewish law as interpreted by the Standards of the Conservative Movement defines a child’s Jewish status by that of the mother. The child of a Jewish father and a mother who is not Jewish requires immersion in a kosher mikvah. Boys must also be circumcised on the eighth day. Our rabbis work with families to construct personalized rituals to add joy and meaning to the mikvah experience.
Can a child with a Jewish father and a mother of another religion enroll in B’nai Israel’s Talmud Torah?
The standards of the Conservative movement require that a child whose mother is not Jewish be immersed in a kosher mikvah. Our Talmud Torah policy requires that this process be completed before enrolling in 3rd grade.
What is the congregation’s approach toward interfaith families who have chosen to raise their children with two religions?
Our mission is to support families in their quest to create Jewish homes and immerse themselves in Jewish life. We believe that families who choose to raise their children with one religion will have an easier time making the commitments that Jewish living entails.
Can a person who is not of the Jewish faith become President of the Congregation?
No. Per the proposed amendment persons not of the Jewish faith cannot hold any of the eleven officer positions of the congregation or serve as one of the four Trustees.
Can people not of the Jewish faith be on committees?
Yes. All members are welcome to participate and contribute to committee discussions. While committees deliberate on matters of import to the congregation, synagogue governance requires that all recommendations regarding synagogue policy must be approved by the Executive Committee and Board of Governors.
Are persons not of the Jewish faith permitted burial in B’nai Israel’s cemeteries?
Only Jews are permitted burial in the B’nai Israel Cemetery in Oxon Hill, or in the B’nai Israel sections at Judean Memorial Gardens and Garden of Remembrance. Judean Memorial Gardens and Garden of Remembrance each have other sections within the cemetery grounds where individuals who are not Jewish may be buried. These policies will not change.
Will members who are not of the Jewish faith be able to participate in all ritual aspects of the synagogue?
No. Individuals who are not of the Jewish faith, whether members or not, may participate in non-ritual roles during the service. These include leading the Prayer for Our Country, closing the ark doors during Aleinu, and addressing the congregation during the service. Parents of babies who are being named or children becoming bar or bat mitzvah are invited to accompany their spouses while the Jewish partner recites the Torah or parental blessings. These longstanding practices will not change.
What is B’nai Israel’s policy regarding intermarriage?
Following the Standard of Rabbinic Practice of the Conservative movement, B’nai Israel Rabbis can only officiate at marriages between two people of the Jewish faith. Intermarriages may not be performed at B’nai Israel, and clergy who officiate at intermarriages are not permitted to officiate at any lifecycle event at B’nai Israel.
What impact will this change have on the future of B’nai Israel and the Conservative Movement?
The ideals of our congregation as a traditional Conservative synagogue are not changing. Our affiliation, worship, life-cycle practices and programming will not change. In fact, there will be no noticeable change to the experience of being a B’nai Israel member. By creating a more welcoming environment, we hope that more families who are looking for the kind of experience that only a Conservative congregation can provide will choose to join B’nai Israel. Over time, the entire Jewish world will feel the positive impact of increased enrollment in Jewish education and participation in immersive Jewish youth and teen experiences.
Will people who are opposed to this change leave the synagogue?
We hope that nobody will see this effort to welcome all families who want to be part of our Conservative Jewish Community as an indication that we are leaving people behind.
In its 90+ year history, B’nai Israel has changed and adapted in many ways. Significant examples include changes in location, granting full and equal ritual participation rights to women, and welcoming same-sex couples as Household Members. In contrast to these other changes, the impact of our new membership policy – while significant for those families who will now be welcomed – will be minimal for the congregation.
Will a more welcoming approach to synagogue membership become a disincentive to convert to Judaism?
Conversion is one of the most exciting features of the modern Jewish community. Individuals who choose to become part of the Jewish community find the process rewarding for themselves and for their Jewish partners who, in many cases, have not had the privilege of studying Judaism as an adult. While some people choose the conversion process before marriage, others spend time living with their Jewish families for several years before choosing Judaism for themselves. When a person chooses to explore the conversion process, we welcome them with open arms. We also support the decisions of those who wish to raise Jewish children while not choosing Judaism for themselves.
Can B’nai Israel and the Conservative movement do more to encourage conversion and/or reduce the number of intermarriages?
We can – and must – do more to encourage more people to explore the option of conversion. When individuals make that choice, we promise to make the process meaningful and rewarding for the prospective convert and his/her entire family.
Regarding intermarriage, the Conservative movement’s generations-long approach – asking couples to choose between their relationship and their community – has not worked. Intermarriage rates have increased while connections to our community have decreased. Our new approach will support all families, inmarried and intermarried, in their efforts to make Jewish choices in a community context.