Non-Jewish Board Members

Dr. Barbara Davis

Ignoring the perturbing context in which these questions were raised, it is not unreasonable to note that these same doubts might be on the minds of those who wonder whether non-Jews should serve on the Boards of Jewish institutions, particularly Jewish schools.

Many Jewish organizations specify that leadership positions and Board membership are open only to Jews. Others permit non-Jewish spouses to participate in non-religious leadership positions. With the recent decision by the Conservative movement to allow children of non-Jewish mothers to attend Schechter schools, and with the Reform movement’s acceptance of patrilineal descent, it is clear that a significant number of non-Jewish parents will be part of community day school families for the foreseeable future. As involved and active parents, eager to play meaningful roles in their children’s education, it is also clear that the issue of non-Jewish membership in Board and leadership positions of Jewish day schools needs to be addressed.

The Jewish Reconstructionist Federation dealt with similar issues in its 1998 report entitled, “Boundaries and Opportunities - The Role of Non-Jews in Jewish Reconstructionist Federation Congregations.” That report noted that “Jews in North America have intermarried with non-Jews at an accelerating rate over the past 30 years. More and more non-Jews – partners/spouses, grandparents, children, in-laws and siblings - are involved in the life of synagogues in some way, whether for specific events (like a baby naming or bar/bat mitzvah), or through longer term commitments (such as attending services, supporting religious education, or participating in social action activities).

“The reality of non-Jews in congregational life presents Jewish Reconstructionist Federation congregations with both an opportunity and a dilemma. While valuing an inclusive and welcoming atmosphere, Reconstructionists also value the integrity of Jewish ritual and community. Many congregations are grappling with the issues raised by non-Jews in community life; Reconstructionist congregations care about the definition of who is a Jew and the perpetuation of Jews as a distinct and unique people. It is therefore important to maintain the distinction between Jew and non-Jew.”

Do these same distinctions apply in other areas of Jewish life? Is there a difference for those areas that do not involve ritual observance, such as day schools? Is it appropriate for the non-Jewish parent of a child enrolled in a community day school – who has clearly made a commitment to his or her Jewish partner, and to raising a child Jewishly – to sit on the governing Board of the school? Should there be a “quota” or “tipping point” for the number of non-Jewish Board members?

There are 3 main issues to be considered in this regard: 1. The ability of non-Jews to understand and fully commit to the mission of the Jewish day school; 2. The role of non-Jews as representatives of the Jewish educational community; 3. The comfort of the non-Jewish Board members within the context of the Jewish day school.

The topic is a broad one, and research needs to be done to address the issues. As Dean Goldfein, head of school at the Contra Costa Jewish Community Day School in Lafayette, California, points out in an online article, “Interfaith families find themselves at home in Jewish community day schools. Community day schools are a segment of the broader Jewish day school world committed to welcoming a wide range of Jewish perspectives and lifestyles into a pluralistic setting. They are bound by the common commitment to Jewish literacy and emphasize doing Jewish things rather than debating questions of Jewish definition. The challenge is for the non-Jewish parent to share in the universal values of Judaism that are taught at a day school.”

How can this latter challenge be addressed? For the answer to that narrower question, we spoke with Brian Jones, a non-Jewish Board member of the Syracuse Hebrew Day School in Dewitt, New York. He is the parent of a graduate and a current student in the school and has sat on its Board of Directors for two years.

Q. Is the fact that you are not Jewish an issue?

A. Not at all. In fact, I think that it is very important to have a diverse Board as long as the members are all committed to the same mission of the school. I have worked with other Boards in a professional capacity and the best ones are constantly looking for fresh perspectives and ideas. As a relatively small Jewish community, there are only so many individuals Jewish-based organizations in Syracuse can gain support from.

Q. Are you ever uncomfortable? If so, when?

A. Not in a religious context but the same way that any parent of multilingual children may feel discomfort at not being able to share that with them if they don’t know the language themselves.

Q. Do you feel that not being Jewish gives you a different perspective?

A. I don’t view my membership as helping the Board to identify with a broader community or as a representative of day school families with non-Jewish children, although these should have some importance. The perspective is helpful because I get to ask questions that perhaps other Board members feel they should already know the answer to, but may not have fully known the answer themselves.

Q. Does it matter that you are not Jewish?

A. Absolutely. I get to experience many things I would not otherwise have exposure to.

Q. Are there times when you would not speak/vote on an issue because you are not Jewish?

A. No. Board issues for the school pretty much transcend the idea of any one individual’s faith so why would it. We are entrusted to provide a degree of direction and support to the school’s staff and my children attend the school so I have the same personal stake as any other Board members that have children currently attending the school.

Q. Would it bother you if/that Board meetings began with a d’var Torah or other overtly religious act?

A. We are a private school and should take advantage of the privileges that being one provides us. Celebrating the Jewish faith is a very important part of the school’s mission. The Board needs to identify with that mission and Board meetings provide only a brief opportunity to reinforce that.

The conversation that community day schools have begun with interfaith families and non-Jewish Board members is a profound and meaningful one, that can positively impact all those involved in Jewish education. Keeping the lines of communication open on this issue will only benefit all involved. ♦

Dr. Barbara Davis is the Secretary of RAVSAK, Editor of HaYidion and Head of School at the Syracuse Hebrew Day School in Dewitt, NY. Barbara can be reached at [email protected]
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HaYidion Board Leadership Winter 2007
Board Leadership
Winter 2007