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Congregation B’nai in Northampton now grants membership to non-Jewish partners

  • Eric Roth and his wife, Anne Werry, and their children, Nathaniel Roth, 17, and Isla Roth, 14, stand for a portrait on July 13, 2017, at Congregation B'nai Israel in Northampton. Werry, an Anglican, can now be a member of the synagogue. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Eric Roth and his wife, Anne Werry, and their children, Nathaniel Roth, 17, and Isla Roth, 14, stand for a portrait on July 13, 2017, at Congregation B'nai Israel in Northampton. Werry, an Anglican, can now be a member of the synagogue. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Eric Roth and his wife, Anne Werry, and their children, Nathaniel Roth, 17, and Isla Roth, 14, stand for a portrait on July 13, 2017, at Congregation B'nai Israel in Northampton. Werry, an Anglican, can now be a member of the synagogue. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY



For the Gazette
Sunday, July 16, 2017

NORTHAMPTON — In a move its supporters said would have been unthinkable a generation ago, Congregation B’nai Israel now allows spouses and partners who are not Jewish to become full voting members of the conservative synagogue.

The change, approved at Congregation B’nai’s annual meeting in June, allows non-Jewish people in the synagogue’s families to vote on certain issues, like bylaw changes and board members, as well as serve on several of the synagogue’s committees.

“Over the years we’ve done many things to try to welcome all people to our community,” Rabbi Justin David said. “But if we really wanted to be inclusive, we needed a structural change.”

Membership chairwoman Naomi Tannen said she began working on the bylaw change about two years ago. She organized several community meetings and created an 11-person task force to consider the issue.

“My daughter is married to a non-Jewish man, and he is very interested in Judaism,” Tannen said. “I worried that under the current regulations, he wouldn’t be welcomed, and I was unhappy about that.”

The number of interfaith marriages has risen over the last two decades, while synagogue membership in many places has decreased, Tannen said. According to a Pew Research Center study from 2013, 58 percent of Jewish people who married between the years 2000 and 2013 have a non-Jewish spouse.

Eric Roth, 59, and his family have been involved at Congregation B’nai for 17 years, but he said he never realized his wife, who is Anglican, wasn’t a full member.

Roth’s two children, now teenagers, were both enrolled in religious schools and celebrated their bat mitzvah and bar mitzvah. The whole family celebrates Jewish holidays, he said.

“It’s not exactly that she felt unwelcome, but it’s really more of a respect thing,” Roth said. “It just didn’t seem right that she couldn’t be a member or help make decisions, since we’re just as involved as the all-Jewish families here.”

Other members of the synagogue originally feared for the loss of certain Jewish traditions and rituals. Tannen said many of the meetings for the change to the bylaws focused on creating compromises to satisfy more traditional members of the community.

Ron Ackerman, 72, was concerned that non-Jewish members would be able to participate in honors such as reading from the Torah at services.

“It’s a very special honor to be called up to read from the scroll,” Ackerman said. “It would be like if I went up to receive communion at a Catholic service, and as a non-Catholic, that’s clearly inappropriate for me to take part in.”

The ritual life of the congregation will remain the same, Rabbi David said. And certain committee positions are reserved for Jewish members. Among those positions are president and co-president; vice presidents of the board; and chairpersons, co-chairpersons and vice chairpersons of both the Education and Cemetery committees. Additionally, only members can serve on the Ritual Committee.

Just as Congregation B’nai was drafting its change to membership requirements, its national governing body — the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism — was doing the same thing, Tannen said.

It ruled that each synagogue should decide for themselves whether interfaith spouses could be members, which allowed the Northampton synagogue to move forward with its plans.

Even some members of interfaith families, like Larry Hott, 66, said they were not sure at first whether it was a good idea. Hott, whose wife was raised Catholic, said he eventually began to realize it would be a positive change for the community.

“Nothing can or should be rushed in a religion that’s been around for more than 3,000 years,” Hott said. “It can’t happen overnight. But the world is changing rapidly, so we can’t wait around another thousand to figure it out.”