Why is patrilineal descent not catching on in Reform worldwide?

For three decades now, the American Jewish Reform movement has considered as Jewish the child of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother who is raised as a Jew.

But most Reform Jews in the rest of the world still do not accept “patrilineal descent.”

That makes the debate about “Who is a Jew” not just between the Orthodox-dominated Israeli Rabbinate and American Jewish liberal movements, but also between American Reform Judaism and most of the Diaspora.

That debate was on display last week at the biennial conference of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, the worldwide version of the Reform movement, in San Francisco.

“The challenge of being one people yet expressing our Reform identity is at the heart of what we’re discussing here,” said Rabbi Andrew Goldstein, chairman of the World Union’s European region and moderator of the Feb. 9 panel discussion.

Goldstein is a member of the British Liberal movement, which accepts patrilineal descent. But a second Jewish Reform movement in Britain does not. Except for one Liberal congregation each in Ireland and Holland, no other Reform movements in the Diaspora or Israel accept patrilineal descent. Patrilineal Jews are accepted as full members of Progessive congregations in the former Soviet Union but must convert for marriage.

According to traditional halachah, or Jewish law, only those born of a Jewish mother or having formally converted to Judaism are considered Jewish.

Why has the doctrine of patrilineal descent not spread farther, particularly in countries with high rates of intermarriage?

There is the need to “get along” with other Jewish movements in their countries, concerns about Jews from other denominations not being able to marry a “patrilineal Jew” and the desire to avoid the problems a patrilineal Jew might face if he or she immigrates to Israel, according to Reform leaders who were interviewed at the San Francisco conference.

Rabbi Robert Jacobs is one of six Reform rabbis in South Africa, where none of the country’s 10 congregations accepts patrilineal descent as sufficient for Jewish status even though the community there is in rapid decline.

“South African Jews live with a particular angst,” Jacobs said, noting the dwindling numbers.

Most have moved to Israel, where the Chief Rabbinate demands proof of maternal Jewish ancestry for weddings and burials. If the country’s Reform Jews count the child of a non-Jewish mother in their ranks, that could jeopardize any community member’s ability to make aliyah, Jacobs said.

“The ability to acquire a passport for Israel resounds,” he said.

Finances can be a factor. In Germany, the Reform community only recently began to receive funding from the country’s “religious tax,” which is doled out to Jewish communities by the Central Council of Jews in Germany. If German Reform congregations accepted patrilineal descent, Goldstein says, that would jeopardize the arrangement.

In France, the Liberal Jewish Movement of France, the Reform umbrella there, represents a fraction of the country’s 600,000 Jews. Most French people, Jewish or not, don’t really understand what Reform is, according to Jean-Francois Levy, a former president of that organization.

Though the movement recently reopened the question of patrilineality, Levy says he doubts it will endorse the position.

“We meet people sympathetic to us, and I’m afraid that those who might join us would not do so if we embrace patrilineality,” Levy said. “They would say, ‘Look, they don’t even know the most basic Jewish traditions.’ ”

Some Reform congregations embraced patrilineal descent only to reverse themselves later. That happened in Panama, El Salvador and Costa Rica, said Rabbi Joshua Kullock of Guadalajara, Mexico, executive director of the Union of Jewish Congregations of Latin America and the Caribbean, the umbrella body for the region’s 11 Reform communities.

El Salvador began to accept the children of non-Jewish mothers as Jews during the country’s civil war, when the congregation was lay-led and desperate for members. When the conflict ended, so did the practice.

The Reform congregations in Costa Rica and Panama stopping embracing patrilineal Jews when they hired Conservative pulpit rabbis—Costa Rica six years ago and Panama eight years ago.

“It was more important for them to have rabbinic leadership from South America, speaking Spanish, than to bring in Reform rabbis from the United States,” Kullock said.

Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus, president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Reform rabbinical body that passed the still-controversial resolution in March 1983, said her colleagues at that landmark CCAR conference “were cognizant that other movements would not adopt” the new practice and that it would be controversial even within the Reform movement.

“At the time, the Canadian rabbis made it clear they would not accept it,” she said of Reform rabbis in Canada. “So it’s not surprising that other Reform groups outside the U.S. don’t accept it.”

Dreyfus said the resolution simply codified what had been general Reform practice for decades, and had been adopted as a proposal by the CCAR back in 1947. The Reconstructionist movement adopted a similar position in 1948.

The 1983 resolution stated that the child of one Jewish parent, father or mother, was “under the presumption” of being Jewish, but that Jewish status had to be “established” through a Jewish upbringing and life-cycle markers, such as a brit milah for a boy and a bar or bat mitzvah.

In any case, Dreyfus said, the resolution is “not binding.” Reform rabbis may decide their own policies in their own congregations.

Visiting Darfur Camps Brings Home Need

It was Sukkot without a lulav or etrog, but with a vibrancy and authenticity etched into our memories.

We stood on Sukkot amid the Darfur refugee camps in eastern Chad along the Sudanese border: two prominent Reform rabbis, Rabbi David Stern of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas and Rabbi Rick Jacobs of Westchester Reform Temple in New York; John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, who is deeply knowledgeable about Africa, and Ruth Messinger, president of the American Jewish World Service (AJWS), which organized the trip and does such effective development work worldwide.

Together we traveled to assess the needs of these camps and the quarter-million refugees who fled the terror and persecution in Darfur to these camps. (Almost 2 million more people remain in camps within Darfur itself.)

Their stories were riveting and wrenching: Janjaweed terrorists sweeping down without warning, killing, raping and branding women and burning villages to the ground.

Pictures drawn in the camps by traumatized children depict the Sudanese government helicopter gunships that flew support missions for the Janjaweed, whose goal was clear: to rid large areas of Darfur of these tribes.

It was this ethnic cleansing, and the slaughter of more than a quarter-million people, that led the U.S. Congress and President Bush to declare Darfur a genocide.

In the face of such tragedy, one would expect refugee camps of bleakness and despair. It’s a tribute to the resilient spirit of the people of Darfur, and the dedication and talents of the nongovernmental humanitarian groups serving them, that the camps aren’t bleak or desperate.

Among the tents and huts that stretch across the barren landscape for miles, the refugees have planted and built. Among the first things erected in the camps, even before the thatch huts and mud-brick homes, were freestanding, sukkah-like structures.

Topped with thatch, they provide shelter from the hot sun and a place to eat (and sometimes cook) outside. Like the ancient Israelites traveling though the wilderness, here was a modern-day people fleeing oppression, whose first act often was to erect such structures.

Standing in them on Sukkot linked these oppressed people with millennia of Jewish history.

The NGOs, coordinated through the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, do a remarkable job in providing food, water, sanitation, medical care and education.

They all work against incredible odds: Chad is one of the poorest nations on earth. Outside the capital there are no paved roads, no central electricity, no running water.

The medical facilities run by the International Medical Corps are the most basic, yet we saw skeleton-thin children being saved by emergency feeding programs, children being vaccinated and community health workers teaching people how to identify illnesses and find help.

Such steps have, remarkably, driven the infant mortality rates down below Third World norms. Still, there is never enough, and every contribution saves lives, every gift improves the quality of life for so many.

I remember vividly a group of mothers and 30 small children on blankets, playing for hours with one single elaborate dollhouse that someone had sent.

It doesn’t take much to help. If, for example, the International Medical Corps can get funding for a sterile basic operating room that allows for Caesarian sections, more infants would be saved.

Since the surrounding Chadian villages often are poorer than the camps, the corps has begun programs to benefit the camps and villages, building its new health center at a location that will benefit both, so that it will continue to serve Chadians when the refugees return to Darfur.

That type of community building is what attracted AJWS, which has made infrastructure building a hallmark of its work across the globe

But as the situation in Darfur deteriorates and violence — including attacks on aid workers — escalates, the refugees’ return home isn’t imminent. If things worsen and a new flood of refugees moves into Chad, they will quickly overrun the camps’ ability to serve them.

We returned with a clearer sense of the urgent response needed from our community. First, we must support the NGOs doing such extraordinary work.

Second, we must urge Congress and our administration to keep up pressure on the international community and the Sudanese government; Congress must pass the Darfur Peace and Accountability Act immediately.

Third, the United Nations Security Council must expand the mandate of the African Union troops in Darfur to include protection of civilian populations.

Fourth, NATO, the European Union and the United States must step up to the plate with expanded funding, air support for peacekeeping troops and provision of peacekeeping forces themselves.

Finally, we must do everything possible to urge our government and the United Nations to assist in negotiations for a real peace treaty among the Darfur parties.

The refugees dream of that day and look to us for help. If we succeed, maybe these refugees can rest, and their Sukkot will be called, in the words of our tradition, truly sukkot of peace.

Rabbi David Saperstein is director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.



"A voice from the heavens/

Carries down to the whole world/

The angel is crying above/

Lamenting his son’s image."

Israeli countertenor David D’or might be singing about himself in the ethereal song, "A Voice From the Heavens." With a three-and-a-half-octave range, the crossover pop and classical star has been compared to Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli with a Middle Eastern flavor.

This month, D’or joins the Keshet Chaim Dance Ensemble to celebrate its 20th anniversary, with "Neshama: Stories of the Soul," a multimedia production focusing on the central importance of Jerusalem as a symbol and experience of human life. "Neshama," which is funded in part by the Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership, a Jewish Federation beneficiary, uses music, song, visuals and narration spanning the time of creation until present day.

With six gold albums to his name in both the classical and popular genres, D’or is a perfect candidate to bring Jerusalem to life. Last month, the angelic singer was selected to represent Israel at the 49th Eurovision, the international song competition. Although Eurovision is often scoffed at internationally, and virtually ignored in America, a number of stars have gotten their start from the contest, like ABBA, Celine Dion and Julio Iglesias. Since it began competing in 1973, Israel has won the contest three times, most infamously with transsexual Dana International in 1998.

D’or’s upcoming performance in Los Angeles is par for the course. He has often collaborated with other artists, beginning in the army and later at Habima Theater, with such artists as Habreirah Hativ’it, Shlomo Bar and Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. But neither Los Angeles nor Eurovision should make D’or sweat, because he has performed in the Vatican for the pope since 1995.

While D’or’s eclectic performances of "Amazing Grace," "Phantom of the Opera" and original songs to classical works by Bach and Handel have brought him worldwide attention in the classical world, back home with the younger crowd, he’s become a radio star with timely tunes like this one:

"Protect the world, little boy/

There are things that should not be seen/

Protect the world, little boy/

If you see you’ll stop to be/

Hero of the world, little boy/

With the smile of angels,

Protect the world, little boy/

Because we already haven’t succeeded."

"Neshama: Stories of the Soul" with David D’or and the Kesehet Chaim Dance Ensemble, Feb. 21, 8:30 p.m. ICC, L.A. Scottish Rite Auditorium, 4357 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. For tickets, visit www.kcdancers.org or call (818) 986-7332.