Imagine the scene. You are a dedicated and traditional Episcopal Christian committed to your faith and observant of all of the tenets accepted by that particular stream of Christianity. You go to church regularly, you tithe, you bring up your children to believe as you believe and urge them to at the very least marry other Christians even if they are not Episcopalians. And you tell them that the church in your community is the very center of religious life and whose leadership is, like you, committed to keeping the faith.
But one day one of your children has a crisis of faith and you are desperate to connect with someone in the church who can help you with this problem. You call the church office (yes, in America churches and synagogues have paid professional staffs) and are told that the pastor is away for a week on a religious retreat but that the congregation’s president is available to see you if you wish.
Desperate to speak with someone who can identify with your issues, speak to your challenges and frame the response within the confines of Christian doctrine you make an appointment to see the lay leader of the congregation that evening. You walk into the church offices and meet the chairman of the church’s board of directors, Jacob Cohen, a Jewish member of the congregation whose wife is Episcopalian. At that point you have no idea what to do. Married to an Episcopalian or not, how could this born-Jewish man relate on any level to crises of faith that your offspring is facing? And why would you expect him to be able to do so?
Sound far-fetched? For sure. In fact it would probably never ever happen in a church in America. But we Jews, always in the forefront of those movements that are inimical to our survival, somehow or other think that this scenario is, well, ok.
So this past week, for the first time ever, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ), the umbrella organization of congregations affiliated with the movement in the United States is now encouraging the acceptance of non-Jewish members in their congregations. The decision, which is not binding and still allows every congregation to follow an independent policy, was passed in an internet vote among member congregations. The USCJ serves a total of almost 600 congregations in North America.
The official statement released by the USCJ reads: “We celebrate the diversity among and within our kehillot [congregations] and encourage the engagement of all those who seek a spiritual and communal home in an authentic and dynamic Jewish setting. We call on all of our kehillot to open their doors wide to all who want to enter. Let us strive to make the words of Isaiah a reality in our time: My house will be called a house of prayer for all people (Isaiah 56:7).”
Lordy! While welcoming everyone into the congregational setting is certainly in keeping with our tradition, going to the next step and permitting non-Jews to be members and serve as officers actually is the last nail in the coffin of Jewish continuity in the United States. Reality forces American Jews to confront the non-Orthodox intermarriage rate of close to 70% and deal with it but taking this step does more than acknowledge the reality, it says in no uncertain terms that intermarriage is OK.
The result of this decision is that Conservative congregations will now be able to accept as rank-and-file members worshippers and family members who are not Jews according to halakha. They will be able to pay membership fees, vote on various issues, be elected to office at their congregation, and even to influence the appointment of rabbis and cantors. The only thing that will be prohibited (hopefully) is that those who are not Jewish will not be allowed to assume spiritual positions, receive an Aliyah or lead prayers…or will they?
I am all for inclusiveness and welcoming everyone into congregational life. But synagogues are, by definition, Jewish institutions where, at a minimum, one should be able to assume that the leadership is Jewish as well. Creating an alternative totally in conflict with centuries of Jewish religious practice makes a mockery of the Conservative movement’s stated commitment to tradition. If I were dealing with a child’s faith crisis, the last person I would want to turn to for advice in the absence of rabbinic leadership, is a shul president named O’Malley.
Cicero’s words in his first oration against Cataline ring as true today as they did when they were first uttered in ancient Rome, “O tempora, O mores,” shame on the times and their customs. And shame on the Conservative movement for forgetting the covenant at Sinai.