I am honoured to have the opportunity again as President to speak to you for a few moments on this holy day. Last year I spoke to you about three important initiatives before us: (1) the role of the non-Jew at Temple, specifically the work of the Task Force on Interfaith Marriage, (2) acting on the eight year old recommendations of Debra Viner’s committee on education, and (3) the on-going search for a new home for Temple. I predicted that all three would come to a successful conclusion in the coming year. As the rabbi might say, I am batting close to 0.700. Let me bring you up to date.
First a little background. Just as the rites and traditions of Judaism have evolved over the millennia, Reform Judaism has changed over the past two centuries, including recognizing patrilineal descent, and we at Temple Israel have been refining our practices over the past four decades.
There are approximately 16,000 people in Ottawa who identify themselves as Jews. This is a shrinking percentage of the total Ottawa population. And of these Jews, fewer than half have membership in a synagogue. This is a typical pattern in cities across North America, where half of marriages by Jews are to non-Jews and many of these are lost to Judaism. Nevertheless, Temple’s numbers continue to be solid. We are the second largest synagogue in Ottawa, the only one with a supplementary religious school, and the only one with a full-time director of congregational learning.
This relates directly to Temple’s relationship with its interfaith couples. We continue to reach out to the non-affiliated in our community and we welcome the non-Jewish spouses and partners of our members. Of our 375 families, one-third are led by interfaith couples; of the 100 children in our religious school, one-half are from interfaith couples. We are the most significant Jewish institution in Ottawa providing an opportunity for continuity of religious faith for the children of interfaith couples.
Important work was undertaken 10 years ago by our Task Force on the Role of the Non-Jew at Temple Israel led by A. C. Dolgin and Michael Walsh. The Task Force reviewed worship and life cycle practices at Temple as they relate to a non-Jewish spouse or partner and found that they were consistent with Union of Reform Judaism practices. These practices are and continue to be: A non-Jewish spouse or partner may participate in prayer, readings and song, from the bima and from the sanctuary; but may not be counted in a minyan and may not recite covenantal prayers or blessings.
Nine years ago, the Temple Board of Directors approved recommendations from that task force regarding the burial of a non-Jewish spouse in the congregational cemetery: non-Jewish spouses of members may be buried within our portion of the cemetery in an area referred to as New Tradition; and there are to be no symbols or inscriptions of another religious faith and no officiating by clergy of other religions. Our primary focus is on compassion for mourners; therefore the interment of a non-Jewish spouse is conducted in accordance with all Jewish practices that afford comfort to the Jewish mourner so may include reciting Psalms, Mourner’s Kaddish, but do not include prayers and customs relating to the deceased.
With respect to governance, the Task Force reported: non-Jewish spouses/partners are encouraged to participate in synagogue committee work. However, Ritual, Cemetery, and Religious School committees, which require a covenantal commitment, are available only to members, and according to our constitution only Jews can be members of Temple Israel. Furthermore, only members can serve as committee chairs or sit on the Board. Voting at general or special meetings of the congregation is reserved for members. And that is still the situation.
Last year we formed a Task Force on Interfaith Marriage, chaired by Nora Sobalov. Based on input from congregants, in May the Board approved a statement of values on the marriage of a Jew and a non-Jew. The report noted that refusing to conduct a marriage between a genuinely interested Jew and non-Jew often results in the loss of that couple and any children they may have to Jewish life.
The key points of the statement of values are: An interfaith wedding may take place in the Temple; only the Rabbi may officiate; couples wishing to be married by the Rabbi are committing themselves to supporting Jewish continuity and the preservation of Jewish institutional life and they must complete a Jewish information program as determined by the Rabbi; and any wedding ceremony conducted by the Rabbi will clearly show respect for Jewish tradition. It is clearly understood that the Rabbi will act in a manner consistent with her or his own beliefs and values. Rabbi Garten has recently written the procedures so that such weddings can now take place.
As you may recall, there was a constitutional amendment related to Temple governance on the agenda of last November’s General Meeting to give the right to vote on matters of sale, purchase or extended lease of property to a non-Jewish spouse or partner. Although many speakers supported the motion, it was pointed out that the amendment as submitted contradicted other parts of the constitution. The motion was referred back. The Constitution Committee, now chaired by Stephen Morris, has been discussing this proposal.
A change in the constitution to confer this specific privilege of membership (i.e., voting at a special meeting on matters of property) to a non-Jewish spouse or partner would be the first change to Temple’s governance model that extends a membership right to a non-Jew. This is a significant proposal, but not without precedent. At temples across North America, this question of governance is being debated and decided at individual temples. The report of the Constitution Committee is expected at the Temple Board of Directors on Thursday. If the Board wishes to proceed, there will be a facilitated meeting in the next few weeks for congregants to discuss the role of non-Jewish partners and spouses in Temple governance. Based on this input, the Constitution Committee is willing to draft a constitutional amendment for the Board to review. Congregational approval would be sought at the annual general meeting in late November.
I will now refer briefly to the other two predictions I made last year. Education, learning, is a key pillar of Temple. Many valuable learning opportunities exist at Temple, but we have not been able to coordinate our efforts and sometimes opportunities are lost. Four years ago, Rabbi Garten took on responsibility for the religious school as a short term measure. Now, four years later and eight years after the recommendation of Debra Viner’s committee, in June the Board engaged Andrea Lobel as Temple’s director of congregational learning. Her task is to integrate learning into all aspects of Temple life. We welcome Andrea to our small but vital team of senior professional staff.
And finally, a few words about our building renewal project. Paul Lyons and Debra Viner, co-chairs of the building renewal committee, wrote to you on Friday to describe a potential building partnership with Tamir whereby we would together purchase a property on the north side of Kerr Avenue across from the Jewish Community Centre which is currently being used as a parking lot. It is the last remaining relocation option in front of the committee. The Jewish Federation of Ottawa is accepting proposals from Jewish institutions for development of the site until the end of this month, and it has undertaken to respond within 60 days. If our proposal is acceptable to the JFO, we will hold public meetings, begin a fundraising campaign, and hold a congregational vote on the sale of 1301 Prince of Wales and relocation to the Kerr site as early as next spring.
To Paul and Debra, and committee members David Delicate, Michael Parkin, Reg Angel and Richard Garber, and to active project supporters Brian Gold, Rabbi Garten and Heather Cohen, we owe a sincere thank you for three years of hard work and dedication. Their three year saga will be detailed in the committee’s final report.
If the partnership proposal is not acceptable to the JFO, and we will know by the end of November, we as a congregation will next consider what we want done in our current location.
So: (1) the evolving role of non-Jewish spouses in Temple life; (2) after 10 years of planning we have our full-time director of congregational learning; and, of course, (3) the continuing efforts for Temple renewal. Thank you for your patience and your attention.
Louise and I wish you and your family a happy and healthy year.