Educate kids in just one faith, say leaders of Reform movement

ATLANTA — Taking a bold stand against educating children in two faiths, the umbrella organization of Reform Jews last week urged its member congregations not to enroll children who also are being educated in another religion.

After ardent debate, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations passed its resolution at the UAHC biennial convention here.

The UAHC vote could only take the form of a recommendation to member congregations; it has no power to enforce it.

Many rabbis, such as Raphael Asher of Congregation B'nai Tikvah in Walnut Creek, couldn't be more pleased the resolution passed. His own policy has long been in line with the UAHC vote.

"I'm happy to be able to point to a resolution that will back up my own decision of not trying to be all things to all people," he said.

A vocal minority of prominent Reform rabbis in the Bay Area and elsewhere disagreed with the vote, however. At a time when Jewish observance is waning and leadership is reaching out to the community, some say they hesitate to close any doors.

Rabbi Michael Barenbaum of Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael, for example, said that although he's never been confronted with the specific situation in question, he'd be "somewhat reluctant to turn someone away completely.

"The reality is, about half the weddings now are between Jews and non-Jews. These people have families. And unfortunately, they don't always sit down and decide these issues before the wedding.

"I think the synagogue should be available to help them explore what they need."

Most spiritual leaders — Jewish and non-Jewish — agree that raising a child with more than one religion can confuse the child and possibly be destructive. But some, like Barenbaum, argue that the Reform movement, which has been at the forefront of outreach to interfaith families, cannot shut its doors to the small but significant population rearing their children with two faiths.

"In the Reform movement, the religious professionals are on the front line. Interfaith couples probably won't show up at a Conservative or Orthodox congregation. So how do we welcome them?" asked Rabbi Stephen Pearce of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco.

Still, the Reform movement's new policy — adopted in a clear but close vote Friday of last week — encourages congregations to "establish a clearly articulated policy that offers enrollment in Reform religious schools and day schools only to children who are not receiving formal religious education in any other religion."

Leaders of the movement said this is the first time since adopting the principle of patrilineal descent that the UAHC has drawn a clear line excluding children from a central communal activity.

Patrilineal descent, formally adopted as a policy in 1983, regards a child born to a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother as Jewish if the child is reared and educated as a Jew.

That decision was a watershed break with Jewish tradition and Jewish law (halachah), which only regarded children Jews who were born to a Jewish mother.

Meanwhile, the murky question of whether children educated as Reform Jews as well as in another faith are regarded as Jewish by the Reform movement was left unaddressed by the resolution, as well as by movement leaders interviewed after the vote.

Because autonomy — for congregations and individuals — is a fundamental tenet of Reform Judaism, the UAHC will now encourage its congregations to adhere to the new policy. But it cannot force them to implement it.

During a debate before the vote, Rabbi Sheldon Ezrick told the 4,000 delegates about a recent experience with one student in his Syracuse, N.Y., congregation's Hebrew school.

The boy was six weeks away from his bar mitzvah when the rabbi discovered that he was also preparing to receive his first communion in a Catholic Church.

"So what am I supposed to do?" said the rabbi.

"I decided to let him go ahead with the bar mitzvah. A week afterward I invited the Jewish father in to talk with me and asked him about it.

"He told me that `we baptized our children because we want to give them the protection of both religions,'" related the rabbi, shaking his head in disbelief.

Ezrick said rabbis need the UAHC "to give us strong boundaries, so people can know whether they are in or out of Judaism."

Barenbaum encountered a similar situation when an interfaith family approached him to conduct their son's bar mitzvah. Although the family leaned toward Christianity, they thought a bar mitzvah "would be a great cultural experience."

Barenbaum denied the request, explaining a bar mitzvah "is about commitment and identity."

Jewish education, he said, "isn't about expressing pluralistic experimentation."

Nonetheless, Barenbaum added, "if a child is raised in a mostly Christian environment and the Jewish parent wants their child exposed to Judaism, how can you say no?"

According to Dru Greenwood, director of the UAHC's Commission on Outreach, the resolution will affect very few families because only a tiny percentage of Reform temple members are raising their children in two faiths.

But other speakers during the debate indicated the problem may be more common.

"Rabbis and educators around the country are dealing with children who are questioning one God, who are asking, `What about the Trinity?…Why aren't you praying in Jesus' name?"' said Harris Gilbert, chairman of his Westfield, N.J., temple's outreach committee.

Rabbi Martin Weiner of Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco added, "Our teachers have a sufficiently tough challenge to convey Jewish history, traditions and values to our students. They shouldn't be burdened by having to deal with strongly held views of other religions in a classroom setting."

Although Weiner supports interfaith education and holiday programs, he also backs the resolution.

"In our American society, there are countless opportunities for our families to assimilate into the general culture. At least in the few hours of religious school and Hebrew instruction, there should be a strong commitment to Jewish tradition and values," he said.

Besides, many Reform rabbis said, denying a child enrollment in Sunday school is not equal to denying a child knowledge of his or her heritage.

For example, Asher helps families build up their Jewish libraries, and a number of rabbis encourage exposing children to Jewish holiday traditions. But they discourage imbuing children with the tenets and practices of two religions.

Even Pearce, who would not deny a Jewish education to a child reared with two religions, tries to "tell parents why [teaching both faiths] is a destructive approach to spiritual and personal growth."

The debate at the convention over the religious school issue made it clear some congregations will continue to allow children who are also being educated in another faith to be enrolled in their Hebrew schools.

But UAHC outreach coordinator Greenwood was visibly relieved by the policy change.

"Outreach is not interfaith dialogue," she said. "In the past we assumed that members intended to raise their children as Jews.

"It became clear we were making an assumption that wasn't true."