By Center for Radically Inclusive Judaism
The Center for Radically Inclusive Judaism has released the findings of its survey of Reform synagogue interfaith inclusion policies and practices, after sharing the findings at a learning session at the recent URJ Biennial.
The survey was conducted by the Center and was not authorized by the URJ. The Center sent invitations to take the survey to a list it compiled of rabbis and presidents of Reform synagogues by searching the websites of congregations listed in the online URJ Congregation Directory.
Of the movement’s 843 congregations, responses were received from 418, or 49.6%. Key findings include:
Leadership Roles. Congregational by-laws permit partners from different faith traditions to serve as members of the board in 43%, and serve as officers (not necessarily including president) in 21%.
Ritual Participation. In 68% of congregations, members of a different faith are permitted to lead the lighting of Shabbat and holiday candles during services (but not necessarily on their own). In 77% of congregations, a b’nai mitzvah child’s parent of a different faith is allowed to have or join in an Aliyah (but not necessarily alone, or to say the words of the Torah blessing).
Dual Education. In the religious schools of 20% of congregations, some children are receiving formal religious education in another religion; in 80%, they are not (as far as survey respondents said they knew).
Lifecycle Officiation. In 10% of congregations, the clergy neither officiate nor co-officiate at weddings of interfaith couples; in 22% some or all of the clergy co-officiate, and in 88% some or all officiate, figures consistent with InterfaithFamily’s 2017 Survey on Rabbinic Officiation for Interfaith Couples.
Messaging, Programming and Training. Only 18% of congregations publish their policies and practices with regard to interfaith families in terms of leadership and ritual participation on their websites.In 40% of congregations, programs are offered that address issues that relate particularly to interfaith families. Only 13% of congregations provide training for professional staff, and 10% for lay leaders, on how to serve the specific needs of interfaith families.
Whether or not it is appropriate or advisable to permit or not permit a partner from a different faith background to hold a leadership position or participate in a ritual depends on one’s fundamental views: about Judaism – whether it is a system for those who are Jewish or also those who do Jewish; about the relative importance of maintaining boundaries, on the one hand, and engaging interfaith families in Jewish life, on the other; and about whether restriction or permission will lead to more interfaith family engagement.
Leadership positions continue to be largely restricted to Jews. In only 21% of congregations can partners from different faith backgrounds serve as officers; that figure overstates by some degree the percentage who can serve as president, a question which future research could clarify.
In 1999 the then-head of the Reform movement wrote in Reform Judaism Magazine that “We all understand that those who have not converted cannot participate in certain rituals.” The survey data reveal erosion in that understanding, with 70% of congregations allowing parents from different faith traditions to have or join in an Aliyah at the b’nai mitzvah of their children. However, further research is needed to clarify how many congregations allow partners from a different faith tradition to have an Aliyah and recite the words of the Torah blessings by themselves, or only with a Jewish partner, and even then, only present and not reciting the blessing.
The survey finding that 20% of congregations have children in their religious school who are receiving formal religious education in another religion could be viewed as consistent with a finding of the 2013 Pew Report, A Portrait of American Jews, that 25% of interfaith families were raising their children partly Jewish and partly something else. It could also raise a question about re-evaluation of the URJ’s policy that Reform religious schools should offer enrollment only to children who are not receiving other formal religious education.
In 32 instances where more than one representative of a congregation responded to the survey, the multiple responses were so inconsistent, in significant ways, that they were not included in the data analyzed in the report. A key survey finding is that only 18% of congregations publish on their websites their policies and practices with regard to leadership and ritual participation by interfaith families; one open-ended response said, “while we do not publish our policies, they are available for any congregant to see in a special binder in our Temple office.” This suggests that congregations may not be talking explicitly and effectively enough about their interfaith inclusion policies, either among their leadership or with their congregants.
Finally, responses to open-ended questions suggest a divide between congregations that feel that they are very welcoming and no longer need to make programming or training efforts, even if they have in the past, and those who feel that they could do better and are wanting to address interfaith inclusion more effectively.
The complete report on the survey results is available at http://www.cfrij.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/URJ-Survey-Report.pdf. The Center will provide a link and a password to the underlying survey data (without information identifying the respondents) upon request; emails requesting access can be sent to [email protected].