Why I Now Officiate at Interfaith Weddings

  

WeddingWhen I was ordained as a Reform Rabbi in 2000 I was certain that I would never officiate at interfaith wedding ceremonies. I felt that as a rabbi, my role was to preside over ceremonies only for Jews. I was fully comfortable welcoming interfaith couples into the congregation where I worked and recognized that this could be beneficial for both the couple and the congregation. I accepted patrilineal descent (meaning that if the father is Jewish and the mother is not Jewish, their child is recognized as Jewish if he or she is raised as a Jew; in contrast, traditional Jewish law recognizes only matrilineal descent, insisting that the mother be Jewish in order for the child to be considered Jewish) and so I recognized the children of all interfaith marriages as Jewish.

When a couple with one Jewish partner and one partner of another faith tradition would come to me and ask me to officiate at their wedding ceremony, I would say something to the effect of: “No. But I will fully welcome you into my community after your wedding and I hope that you and any children you may have will be active participants.”

For years, I was comfortable with this position—what I now think of as my “No. But…” stance. Over time, however, I came to realize that what many of these couples heard me say was simply the “No,” and not anything that I said after the “But.” While I thought I was being welcoming, I only looked at the situation through my own eyes, rather than from the perspective of the couple that I was, in essence, turning away.

I eventually came to see that the Jewish partner, who was coming to a rabbi and asking for acceptance and for a rabbi to be part of this major event in his or her life, could feel very hurt by my stance—as if he or she was being rejected by me (and by implication by the Jewish community) for having fallen in love with someone who was not Jewish. And for the partner who was from another faith tradition (or perhaps did not feel connected to any tradition), for whom this was sometimes his or her first contact with a member of the Jewish clergy, the first thing they were told was “no.” No matter what came after my “But,” it was often the “no” that resonated most loudly.

Fortunately, I live in an area where there are many wonderful rabbis and cantors who have officiated at interfaith wedding ceremonies for years, so the couples that I turned away were able to find other Jewish clergy to officiate at their weddings. To this day, I have remained in touch with some of the couples at whose weddings I had refused to officiate, and I have seen what the power of being welcomed by other rabbis and cantors from the very beginning has meant to them. I only hope that there are not any couples I declined to marry who were so turned off by the perceived rejection that they did not seek out other Jewish clergy to officiate at their wedding, and then did not seek out further involvement in the Jewish community.

For me, there was not any great epiphany that caused me to start officiating at interfaith weddings, but rather it was a slow evolution. My evolution came about as I saw many couples where one partner was not Jewish–and families where one parent was not Jewish–being actively engaged in Jewish life and the Jewish community. It came about as I learned that things are not always “black and white” and that real life is about the “grey” areas–the complicated family dynamics, the fact that someone who practices one religion can fall deeply in love with someone who practices another religion, and so on. This is the complicated, messy–and often beautiful–reality of life. And I decided that rather than view it as a threat, I would view it as an opportunity.

About four years ago, I began for my first time to work with an interfaith couple in preparation for their wedding. I loved working with them and having the opportunity to discuss all of the challenges and blessings of their relationship. I wondered, though, how I would feel as I stood under the chuppah (wedding canopy) with this couple. After all, this would be a new experience for me–something outside of my usual comfort zone that would mean doing something that for years I had professed I would never do. And you know what? Lighting didn’t strike me as I stood under the chuppah!

In fact, when the ceremony was over and I had a chance to reflect on my emotions, I felt great. I had participated in a sacred moment with this couple. I had honored their differences and celebrated their union. And hopefully, on their journey toward marriage, I had exposed them to some of the richness and beauty of Judaism and made them feel TRULY welcome.

In the last few years, I’ve been blessed to work with a number of terrific interfaith couples as they have prepared for their weddings. In each case, I have welcomed the conversations of complex issues of identity and belonging, honoring and sharing, feelings of gain and of loss. I feel that I have grown as a rabbi and a person from my connections with these couples–from embracing the complexity of life and the beauty of their relationships. I hope that they too have grown from our working together, both as individuals and as a couple.

My stance toward interfaith couples is no longer “No. But…” Now it is “Yes. And…” In essence, I now tell couples: “Yes, I will marry you. And I hope that you and your family will feel welcome and become involved in the Jewish community.”

I think that after hearing “Yes” from me, they are a lot more likely to hear what comes after the “And…” I believe with all my heart that if a couple sees the door to Judaism as wide open and welcoming, they are more likely to cross over the threshold. Rather than shut that very first door in the face of an interfaith couple, I now hold it open for them and accompany them as they walk through.

Congratulations Washington

  

Yesterday Ari Moffic and I had the privilege of participating in the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington’s Welcoming Interfaith Families: A Community Conversation with more than one hundred professionals and interested individuals. It was very affirming to hear the top leadership of the Washington Federation – Steve Rakitt, CEO, and Stuart Kurlander, President – express their commitment to engaging interfaith families in Jewish life in the DC Jewish community. Ann Bennett, the Chair of the program, and Marci Harris-Blumenthal, the Federation’s Director of Community & Global Impact, put together a great program. Our friend Marion Usher played a key role helping to design and facilitate the program.

The program started with an interfaith couple telling about their Jewish journey, starting with Marion’s Love and Religion workshop and continuing to membership in Adas Israel, a leading Conservative synagogue. Several organizations gave brief presentations about their programs and resources, including our own InterfaithFamily/Your Community, the DC JCC, 6th & I Historic Synagogue, JOI and its Mother’s Circle program, the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, and PJ Library.

Next came breakout sessions on various topics – I attended one Ari Moffic facilitated on preparing for bar/bat mitzvah. It was a great discussion – the mother who started the program said she had recently received the date for her son’s bar mitzvah, I believe four years in advance; not having had a bat mitzvah herself, and with a husband who is not Jewish, she was already wondering how she would include her husband’s family. One participant pointed out the opportunity for parents who had not experienced bar or bat mitzvah to learn along with their child if they wanted to, including learning how to read Torah. We got some great ideas for additional resources to put on our Bar and Bat Mitzvah Resource Page that would help interfaith families prepare, ranging from lists of questions synagogue members should ask their synagogue professionals, to tips for parents thinking about whether or not to have a bar or bat mitzvah.

After a presentation about the play Love, Faith and Other Dirty Words created by the New Center for Arts and Culture, a panel described in Ari’s blog post shared their interfaith experiences. Like Ari, I was struck by how much of the concluding conversation concerned rabbinic officiation at weddings of interfaith couples after an interfaith couple told of their difficult experience. It reinforced to me how important it is for communities to make it easy for interfaith couples to find officiating clergy.

All in all it was a great conversation and we are very much looking forward to the next steps the Washington community takes. The Federation is making some of the presentations available on a new page on its website: be sure to check out shalom.dc.org/interfaithresources.

Rabbi Reverses Interfaith Marriage Policy

  

The Jewish Journal of Los Angeles has a powerful article today, Rabbi reverses interfaith marriage policy. The article details how Rabbi John Rosove, senior rabbi of Temple Israel of Hollywood, explained in a Rosh Hashanah sermon why he was changing his long-held position and would now officiate at interfaith weddings.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that based upon the new reality in which we find ourselves and the fact that many intermarried families are seemingly successful in raising their children as Jews here at Temple Israel, I now believe that I can better serve the Jewish people by officiating at their weddings, and that it’s time for me to change my policy,” he said.

Rosove said he would officiate where the couple is connected to his synagogue, the partner who is not Jewish is not active in another religion, and the couple is committed to creating a Jewish home and to providing children with a Jewish education.

“I want to say to every interfaith couple who may want to be married by me under the chuppah with the intentions I have noted, ‘Yes, come in. Judaism and this community at Temple Israel want to elevate your sense of belonging here in a new and deeper way. We want to be able to love you, your spouse and your children, and for you all to be able to love us and give to us of your hearts and souls as you desire.’”

The article also quotes Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, explaining her similar change of position:

“I came to understand that my role as a rabbi is to facilitate the creation of Jewish families, not Jewish marriages. I have discovered since that decision that when a rabbi takes planning a wedding very seriously, spending a lot of time with a couple, it becomes an opportunity to open a door that really can deepen a commitment to create a Jewish home,” she said.

The complete article, with Rabbi Rosove’s explanation of his previous reasoning and how and why it changed, is well worth reading.

October 1, 2012 Update: With Rabbi Rosove’s permission you can now read the sermon, with a postscript, on our site.

Why We Help Interfaith Couples Find Rabbis

  

InterfaithFamily.com has a Clergy Officiation Referral Service. Here’s why.

According to the last National Jewish Population Survey, about 47% of Jewish people getting married in the United States are marrying people who aren’t Jewish. Before 1970, only about 17% of US Jews married non-Jews. In the past, when Jews married non-Jews, the Jewish community interpreted this as an expression of lack of interest in Judaism. In the present, this is not a valid assumption. Many Jews enter interfaith marriage with the wish to retain their Jewish identity and religious practice, and to raise Jewish children, with the person they love. The non-Jewish partner is very often on board with this goal.

[float=left][/float]A 2008 study by sociologist Arnold Dashefsky and the National Center for Jewish Policy Studies found that 87 percent of those intermarried couples who were married by Jewish clergy later raised their children as “Jewish only,” compared to 63 percent of the couples married by co-officiants, non-Jewish clergy or in secular ceremonies. Also, 50 percent said it was very important that their grandchildren be Jewish, compared to 18 percent of the second group.

Traditional Jewish law doesn’t have a category for  interfaith marriage. In past societies where Jewish family law was only binding on Jews and there was no civil marriage, an interfaith relationship had to be unequal and to leave the female partner unprotected by any one legal system. But we don’t live in such a society any longer. It’s ironic that civil marriage makes interfaith marriage possible, but as more Jews enter  interfaith marriages, more want those marriages to be  Jewish. Many (at one time, it was most!) rabbis want to keep Jewish law and don’t perform marriages between Jews and non-Jews.

A wedding is only the beginning of a marriage, and many rabbis and Jewish leaders who don’t believe in officiating at interfaith weddings do a lot of other work to engage interfaith couples and their children in Jewish life. We aren’t pushing every rabbi to officiate at interfaith weddings. We just don’t want potentially interested couples to be pushed away from Jewish life by the traumatic experience of being rejected at the point of marriage.

According to one study, about 50 percent of Reform rabbis are willing to officiate at interfaith weddings. The question is, can every interfaith couple find a rabbi to marry them where they live? For many, the answer is no.

InterfaithFamily.com’s clergy referral service can link interfaith couples with fantastic rabbis and cantors who will help them have deeply meaningful weddings. If we match them up just right, they’ll want Jewish clergy at all their lifecycle events. It could be, as Humphrey Bogart said in Casablanca, the start of a beautiful friendship.

So if you have a friend in an interfaith couple and they are trying to find a rabbi, send them the link to our Clergy Officiation Referral Service. We can find your perfect match.

Happy Shrove Tuesday! Happy Mardi Gras!

  

It’s no secret around my office that I’m in the middle of rewriting a quickie guide to Jewish food. I have to pare down an encyclopedic 3,000 word monster of an anthropological study into something people can use. We are still discussing whether anyone needs to know about calves’ NOLA image by Ben Greenbergfoot jelly.

So I took a little internet research side-trip to learn about the foods associated with today’s holiday. No, it’s not a Jewish holiday as far as I know! Today is Fat Tuesday, also known as Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday or Pancake Day. It’s a day on which Roman Catholics have traditionally eaten a lot of goodies in anticipation of a solemn season of prayer and self-deprivation before Easter. Some called it Carnival because it was the last day they ate meat before not having any for 40 days. Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, which starts Lent. 

One traditional food in the United States is the King Cake that people in New Orleans share as part of Mardi Gras. Back in France they make a gallete de rois that’s frangipane (almond paste) and puff pastry, but here in the US it’s more like a giant cinnamon roll with colored sugar on top. I’ve never had this cake and now I really want to make one! Like a lot of Americans, I have a place in my heart for New Orleans because it’s the cradle of jazz and because of the terrible damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina. I’ve never been there, but my husband has been several times and took amazing photographs, some of which are on his Flickr page. (He took the one at right, too.) Continue reading

A Wedding on Planet Obama

  
Rachel Getting Married
From L-R: Anne Hathaway, Tunde Adebimpe, Rosemarie DeWitt and Mather Zickel in Rachel Getting Married.

As a ravenous consumer of film (insert shameless plug here), I make it a point to see as many of the Oscar contenders before the show as I can. Given that the Oscars are in less than three weeks–and nominations only came out a week-and-a-half ago–I’m in a bit of a film frenzy. Last night, I saw Rachel Getting Married.

Rachel Getting Married is about a recovering addict/bulimic/human grenade, Kim (Anne Hathaway), who is released from rehab for a few days to attend her sister Rachel’s (Blake DeWitt) wedding. Kim is a narcissistic mess of a human being who proves that the only person more tiresome than an addict is a recovering addict.

But this post isn’t about Kim. It’s about Rachel and her husband, Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe), and their cross-cultural mishmash of a wedding.

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Pope Lifts Excommunication of Anti-Semitic Bishop

  

On Friday, Pope Benedict XVI announced that the Catholic Church would reintegrate four bishops that the church had excommunicated in 1988 because they were ordained by Archbishop Michel Lefebvre, the founder of a breakaway Traditionalist Catholic sect, Society of St. Pius X. Jewish groups around the world have protested the reinstatement of Richard Williamson, a Briton who denies the historical truth of the Holocaust. Liberal Catholics in the US are also waking up to the fact that Williamson apparently denies that terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. It’s one of the many anti-Semitic conspiracy theories to which Williamson subscribes. For a comprehensive run-down on Williamson’s anti-Semitism, see Professor Rebecca Lesses’ blog, which has a translation an article from the German newspaper Der Spiegel on some of the scary things that Williamson has said, including suggesting that conservative Catholics arm to fight other Catholics.

Though Williamson is the most colorfully, scarily anti-Semitic (and also anti-gay and apparently just generally prone to saying wildly offensive things) of these four bishops, it’s not surprising that followers of Archbishop Lefebvre hold extreme right-wing positions. The Catholic Church is not a monolithic body, any more than Judaism is a monolithic body. Even within a single country, leaders in the Church can take left, right or centrist positions. Lefebvre supported the Vichy collaboration with the Nazis, the right-wing neo-fascist politician Jean-Marie Le Pen and right-wing dictatorships in other countries as well. His Society of St. Pius X has long been a source of anti-Semitic rhetoric.

It’s difficult for me as a Jew to figure out why this Pope, who is the first to visit a US synagogue and only the second to visit a synagogue at all, would make such a decision. One would think that he would be eager to distance himself from his past, apparently forced, membership in the Hitler Youth. My guess is that he decided that it was more important to have unity within the Church, and possibly to have support for other traditionalist positions on gender and sexuality, than it was to maintain the positive relations with the Jewish community that he and his predecessor had so carefully fostered.

One Catholic blogger points out that though the bishops’ excommunication was reversed, the Pope has not reinstated them to “exercise their ministry,” and also has not said that the original excommunication was wrong. Still, it looks to those of us outside the Church like the Pope is throwing his relationships with Jews under a bus in order to promote Church unity.

I don’t regard this position as reflecting anything about the Catholic leaders here in the United States who have reached out to the Jewish community, nor indeed does it have anything to do with centrist Catholic clergy in other countries. I’m going to continue to forge alliances and build friendships with the devout Catholics in my life who have consistently reached out to me as a Jew.

Sometimes when something feels familiar, it’s not good

  

When I heard that there was a shooting at a Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee, I thought about the shooting at the Seattle Jewish Federation. I didn’t consider for a second that this was something random–I thought that the shooter must be targetting these people because of what he thinks they believe. It’s scary to think about people being unsafe practicing religion in the United States, where we take pride in our freedom to speak and to worship. My heart goes out to the survivors.  

No Longer Greek to Me

  

I always thought that Tom Hanks’ wife, Rita Wilson, was a charming woman and a good actress. She met Tom when she played an idealistic Jewish Peace Corps member in the 1985 film, Volunteers. Hanks starred as a WASP playboy who joined the Peace Corps to get out of the country just ahead of some gangsters who wanted to kill him because he could not pay some gambling debts. Of course, the playboy and the Jewish idealist fall in love.

Wilson, who is the daughter of Greek Orthodox immigrants, recently wrote a piece on the joys of Greek Orthodox Easter for the Huffington Post. This year the Greek Orthodox celebrate Easter on April 27.

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A Catholic Controversy

  
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The Latin prayer that includes a call for the conversion of the Jews continues its controversial revitalization, reports the New York Times.

Since I know next to nothing about Catholic liturgy, I won’t presume to have a firm opinion on the issue. For two informed takes on the controversy, read (Catholic) James Carroll’s call to bury the prayer in the Boston Globe and (Jewish) Hillel Halkin’s call to accept it in the New York Sun.