Debatable: Should Clergy Be Able to Officiate for Non-Members?
YES Liz Hirsch
When members of our clergy officiate at non-member events, it benefits both our congregation and the larger Jewish community.
In serving Jews beyond the synagogue walls, our clergy bring honor to our congregation, our faith, and to klal Yisrael, the Jewish people as a whole. When they are welcoming a baby into the covenant of Israel, rejoicing at a wedding, visiting the sick, or consoling a bereaved family at a funeral—some of the “obligations without measure” cited in the Talmud—they model our tradition’s core values.
And, not surprisingly, leaving the gates of our Jewish community “wide open” has increased our temple’s visibility and membership. A positive interaction with a clergy member who officiates at a lifecycle event has often been the impetus for non-affiliated families to become a part of our congregational community. This has happened when our rabbis officiate at a funeral and invite the grieving non-member families to attend services and recite Kaddish for their loved ones. Non-members have joined after our clergy officiated at their wedding, or during the months preceding the wedding, as a result of meeting with our clergy. Many families joined after our clergy officiated at brit milah (circumcision) or baby naming ceremonies—such as the mother of an intermarried child who’d asked our clergy to perform a baby naming for her new grandchild; she later joined our congregation because of the welcoming way in which her family was received. Other non-members who participated in early childhood programs and lifelong learning classes, including adult confirmation, have also become members as a result.
When congregational rabbis or cantors serve the larger Jewish community, it sends the message that the synagogue is not an exclusive club, but a sacred community dedicated to Torah, tradition, and tikkun olam, repairing the world.
Liz Hirsch, FTA, has been executive director of Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen, Pennsylvania for 20 years.
NO Randi Jaffe
As executive director of a URJ congregation, I regularly field calls from unaffiliated Jews who want to engage our clergy. Sometimes we help, such as when new parents wish to name their daughter at a Shabbat service and reach out to our congregation over others in the neighborhood; more often than not, they eventually join us. And of course we make special financial arrangements and extend full privileges to those who demonstrate commitment to our synagogue—regularly attending services and adult education programs, for example—but cannot afford regular membership dues.
But when our rabbi is perceived as a commodity for hire, we are not afraid to say no. A caller who has never set foot in our space but requests the rabbi to preside at a family funeral is politely directed to a funeral home. And our rabbi will only officiate at a wedding if the engaged couple first joins the congregation and connects with the community.
Our congregation needs its clergy to be with us fully for lifecycle events, worship services, personal crises, synagogue social events, and teaching—in short, to be available virtually always. Jews often expect our clergy to have infinite stores of time and energy, but they don’t. So when a clergy member performs the lifecycle event of a person unconnected to our congregation, that someone is expropriating resources we depend upon.
Some Jews propose that we dissolve the congregational structure and institute a fee-for-service menu in its place. That may work for weddings, Hebrew lessons, or funerals. But what happens when Jews need a Jewish community for other reasons? What happens when someone needs to say kaddishand no community exists to create a minyan? What happens to those who cannot afford the fees?
Full-time congregational clergy who routinely offer their services to Jews unwilling to affiliate may be dooming the synagogue as an institution. Yes, the synagogue needs to adapt to survive. But first it has to survive.
Randi Jaffe is executive director of Brooklyn Heights Synagogue, Brooklyn, New York.