Several years ago, a sex offender contacted me about becoming a member of the congregation where I serve as the rabbi. Having been convicted of soliciting a teenage boy over the Internet, he had spent time in jail and he now wished to reconnect with a Jewish community.
The congregation’s board appointed an ad hoc committee to review the case, make a recommendation about whether to accept or reject his membership, and develop a framework to guide the congregation in such situations in the future.
Our conversations never left the committee. External events caused the man’s application to be withdrawn, and I do not know how this matter would have unfolded had we brought it to the membership. Nevertheless, the committee did create a “supervised participation policy” for people convicted of crimes who were currently members or who sought membership in the congregation.
During this process, a colleague shared his concern about the fact that I had been forced to deal with a sex offender. “What a distraction this must be from your work,” he observed. I could not have disagreed more. If we are committed to creating Jewish communities that embrace Jewish teachings and applying them to our lived experiences, then we have a responsibility to enter into difficult conversations and to formulate policies — what we might see as covenantal relationships — that both protect our members and allow for the participation of people who have criminal histories.
The committee’s discussions were authentic and earnest. We studied Jewish texts and asked difficult questions: If every individual is created b’tzelem Elokim (in the image of God), what is our responsibility to support someone with a criminal record on a path toward teshuvah (repentance)? What are the limits to hachnasat orchim (hospitality), and when are we obligated to create communal barriers for the sake of safety? What does it mean to give someone the benefit of the doubt but also not to place a stumbling block before the blind? How can we create sacred, welcoming Jewish communities that take reasonable precautions to protect its members?
Our questions became personal: Could we welcome a man into our synagogue who was a convicted sex offender? Could we pray standing next to him? Would we feel comfortable bringing our children to synagogue? Is our community really inclusive if we don’t welcome him?
Though the topic is uncomfortable, it provided a stimulus for the most complex and deep discussions I’ve had with community members in the ten years that I have served this congregation. Through our deliberations, we addressed our fears, our values, and our sense of safety. We talked about the meaning of community, the challenges of parenting, and the purpose of belonging to a synagogue.
Our “supervised participation policy” provides the foundation for a covenant between a person convicted of a crime and the congregation. Congregational leaders will develop a plan that outlines the behavioral expectations that a person who has been convicted of a crime must follow, and it establishes the level of supervision that he or she must accept in order to participate in the congregation’s services and programs. A person convicted of embezzlement should not be a member of the finance committee, for example, and a person convicted of soliciting a teenage boy should not be allowed to have contact with the congregation’s children. The congregation, in turn, provides a spiritual home for the person, who may very well need to rebuild his or her life.
Unfortunately, few congregations have addressed this sort of issue. We may not like to think about it, but some sex offenders are Jewish, or they are married to Jews, and they seek membership in our congregations. They want to find a Jewish community that can support them in doing the difficult work of teshuvah. Of course, not all sex offenders are remorseful, and some pose too much of a threat for a community to accept. I believe, however, that we have an obligation to our communities to confront this issue, and, if appropriate, to accept sex offenders as members while taking reasonable precautions. Our “covenant” is one attempt at creating a path toward greater exploration of this issue.email print