Kol Nidre and Inclusivity
Something unusual happened on Friday night during Kol Nidre services at Beth El Synagogue in Omaha, Nebraska.
Addressing the entire congregation — since it’s one of the rare times that virtually every member is in attendance — our rabbi, Steven Abraham, spoke for about fifteen minutes about a decision made by the clergy, the Religious Life committee, and the Board of Directors to make ours a more inclusive community.
He talked about intermarriage, which Conservative Judaism does not support, and about how encouraging Jews to marry other Jews is different from ostracizing Jews who marry non-Jews. In particular, he talked about making changes to long-standing rules in our congregation about programming, committee membership, and even some aspects of our worship to make them open to non-Jews. Given the rate of intermarriage and given the number of children who grow up in such households, it seems incredibly important to be welcoming and encouraging to non-Jews who want to raise their children as Jews and to participate in a meaningful way in their spiritual upbringing.
Our congregation has always talked about being open and welcoming, but our actions haven’t seemed so welcoming. There are lots of examples, but one that stands out is not allowing non-Jewish fathers to participate meaningfully in the b’nai mitvah celebrations of their Jewish children; while it would be problematic for them to be called to the Torah, for example, it wouldn’t be at all problematic for them to read the “Prayer for our Country" that we say in English each week or to participate in placing the tallit on their children.
But the topic of the rabbi’s short speech wasn’t the unusual part.
The unusual part was that, when Rabbi Abraham finished speaking, a sizeable part of the congregation spontaneously applauded.
There is never applause when the rabbi or the cantor finish speaking, or when a member of the congregation speaks on some topic during the weekly service. It’s simply not done. And on Yom Kippur, the holiest and most solemn day of the Jewish calendar, it’s certainly not done.
I suspect the applause made some people uncomfortable. But it made me incredibly proud. I was proud of Rabbi Abraham for addressing a topic that many might find controversial when he might have talked very generally about atonement or about setting goals for the new year. But most of all I was proud to be a member of a congregation that felt so strongly about being inclusive toward others that people couldn’t really contain their emotions, even though it was the Kol Nidre service. The congregation had clearly been waiting a long time to hear Friday evening’s message.
It’s a privilege to be a part of such a community, one that is actively working to be open and welcoming to others. And it was a really fantastic thing about which to be reminded on Yom Kippur.