Non-Jewish Members at Dorshei Tzedek

Dorshei Tzedek is a Reconstructionist congregation dedicated to creating a caring and inclusive community, and to enhancing Jewish practice in the lives of our members. Consistent with Reconstructionist philosophy, we are committed to seriously engaging with Jewish tradition, challenging that tradition where need be, and building on the tradition in creative ways. We view education for ourselves and our children as fundamental to Jewish life. We are a participatory congregation, encouraging all of our members to take an active role in some aspect of our congregational life. We value diversity in our congregation, and welcome all those who share our commitments.

These excerpts from the Dorshei Tzedek Mission Statement touch on some of the values that inform our approach to welcoming our non-Jewish members: inclusivity, diversity, commitment both to shared values and to Jewish tradition. While there are non-Jewish partners of our Jewish members who choose not to become involved in the congregation, there are also many non-Jewish members who participate actively and meaningfully in the life of the community. The purpose of this Guide is to help clarify what it means to be a non-Jewish member of a caring and inclusive congregation that is dedicated to Jewish practice and learning.

Who can be a member of Dorshei Tzedek?

Our bylaws state: “Any person age 18 or older, born of or raised by a Jewish parent, or who has converted or is in the process of converting to Judaism, and/or is the partner of a Jew or the parent of a Jew is eligible to become a full member of the Congregation.” Membership here refers to having a full vote at our membership meetings as well as other benefits (e.g. High Holydays tickets, participation in member-only events, etc.), as well as relevant obligations (e.g. paying dues and fees, Kiddush assignments, etc.).

How do non-Jewish members participate in the community?

Non-Jewish members of Dorshei Tzedek have been involved in, and taken leadership in, many aspects of our communal life, including welcoming new members, editing the newsletter, taking part in adult education classes, coordinating child care during Shabbat and High Holydays services, serving as class parents in the religious school and as members of the Education Committee, participating in Shabbat morning services and other celebrations, taking action through our Tikkun Olam committee, and more. Non-Jewish parents are often deeply involved in their children’s Jewish education, supporting their children’s Jewish journeys in many ways, from driving a Hebrew School carpool to learning Hebrew to participating in family education programs.

In the realm of chesed, the acts of lovingkindness that bind us together as a community, there is no distinction between Jewish and non-Jewish members of Dorshei Tzedek. Everyone is asked to participate as a giver - by making a meal for someone in need, or visiting someone who is ill, or attending a shivah minyan (a gathering to support a mourner so they can say Mourner’s Kaddish) or a welcoming ceremony for a child. And anyone can ask for help at a time of illness, death, or other crisis. Both the rabbi and the larger community are here to help all of our members in need. When a non-Jewish member suffers the loss of a parent or other close relative, s/he should be in touch with the Rabbi to discuss options for mourning practices.

Are there any limitations on participation by non-Jewish members?

As Reconstructionists, we understand Judaism not primarily as a set of laws or beliefs, but as the religious civilization of the Jewish people. This means that there are different aspects of connection to, and participation within, that civilization. One we might call “civic participation,” which corresponds to the rights and responsibilities of membership in Dorshei Tzedek. As noted above, people who were not raised as Jews and have not converted to Judaism are welcome to join us as members, assuming there is some tangible connection and commitment to the Jewish people (either through family ties or through an active intention to convert.) The by-laws do indicate some limitations in the realm of official leadership of the congregation. While non-Jewish members are eligible to serve as committee chairs and as at-large members of the Board of Directors, the by-laws specify that Board Officers, and the chairs of the Ritual and Education Committees, must be Jewish.

The other realm is what we might call “ritual participation,” and is where our commitment to diversity and inclusion finds itself in tension with Judaism as it traditionally understood; that is, as a covenantal relationship between and among the Jewish people and the Divine. These covenantal commitments include a whole set of responsibilities (traditionally understood as mitzvot, commandments) that devolve solely on Jews. In this understanding, Jewish status confers obligations upon a Jewish member of the community, such as the obligation to help make a minyan (quorum for prayer) for someone in mourning, to enable him/her to say Kaddish.

Understood another way, to be a Jew is to locate oneself within the mythic narrative of the Jewish people: to say, “I came out of bondage in Egypt” at the Passover seder, or to bless the Source of Life as “the One who has given us the Torah” during the Shabbat morning service. In these moments, a Jew - whether born or converted into the covenant - affirms his or her particular commitments and connections.

Given these understandings, there are certain limitations that we observe within the realm of Jewish ritual. As the Torah is the symbolic center of our understanding of ourselves as a people, a majority of these limitations have to do with the Torah service. During our services (including special celebrations like baby namings or bar/bat mitzvah ceremonies), honors having to do with the Torah - including opening the Ark, being called to the Torah for an aliyah (the blessing said before and after a portion of Torah is read), reading from the Torah, and lifting and wrapping the Torah - are reserved for Jews. At important life cycle moments - usually in the context of a bar/bat mitzvah - we invite the non-Jewish parent to accompany his/her partner (or another Jewish relative) to the bimah (the platform where we read from the Torah) for a special aliyah. While we ask that the non-Jewish partner/parent not recite the traditional blessing, we have created a blessing in English that reflects the special role and connection of a non-Jewish parent to their child’s Jewish journey, and to the Jewish community in general.

There is absolutely no limitation on a non-Jewish person coming up to the bimah for other purposes, including sharing an English reading, or giving a blessing to children as they become bar/bat mitzvah. To the extent that a non-Jewish member is comfortable participating in a Jewish worship service, we invite anyone, Jew or non- Jew, to sing along and participate in any way they feel comfortable in the service.

Conversion

We recognize that we are all on a journey, and that at some point our non-Jewish members may become interested in formally taking on Jewish status through a process of conversion. The duration and content of this process varies according to each individual situation, but generally speaking there is one-year period of study and meeting with the rabbi in preparation for immersion in the mikvah (ritual bath) and meeting with a beit din (council of three rabbis who formally welcome the convert). Please call the Rabbi if you are interested in exploring the possibility of conversion.

 

We hope that this Guide is helpful, but also recognize that these are large and complicated issues. Please feel free to call the Rabbi (617-965-0330) if you would like to discuss any of these topics in more depth.