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The debate in Jewish communities about interfaith marriage is heating up. Rabbis and Jewish professionals are arguing both sides and predicting the future of Judaism based on whether or not they will officiate at interfaith marriages. I’ve seen articles that talk about “caving on intermarriage” and “coming to terms with it” and “addressing the problem.” This kind of language infuriates me because it makes interfaith marriage about the rabbis, and not about the people getting married.
By telling someone we will not marry them, we are not stopping them from marrying someone of another faith background. What we’re stopping them from (and I have heard this time and time again) is engaging in Judaism and being part of the Jewish community.
We need to change the way we talk about interfaith marriage. It’s not a disease. It’s not a shameful act. It’s a beautiful reflection of the world in which we live. It’s about people who have strong identities and familial connections, who are secure enough in who they are that they can love someone with a different background. Interfaith marriage is an amazing example of people with different experiences coming together and finding common ground.
When I took the job as director of InterfaithFamily/LA I was terrified that my rabbinic colleagues would turn their backs on me and lose respect for me. What actually happened is beautiful. My colleagues have said, “Thanks for doing the work that I’m not allowed to do.”
So many of my rabbinic colleagues come to me for advice on working with an interfaith couple who has approached them for a lifecycle event, usually a wedding. These colleagues don’t deal with this scenario frequently, but know that I work with interfaith couples every day. The couples who are told by rabbis and communities that “We accept you and your partner” and also, “I cannot officiate your wedding, but you can still buy High Holy Day tickets.” These couples often come to me dejected and confused and wondering how to fill their desire for Jewish engagement. During my first meeting with an interfaith couple who has been turned away by another rabbi, I spend most of the session repairing the hurt and rejection they are feeling.
One such couple came to me through our officiation referral service at InterfaithFamily, looking for a rabbi to talk to about marriage. In my first meeting with this couple—a Jewish woman and a man who was raised mostly agnostic—they said, “We never even imagined we could have a Jewish ceremony. We were planning on having a friend do our ceremony, but now we’re excited to have a rabbi.” I hear this refrain over and over from interfaith couples as they are searching for a way to engage Jewishly and are hearing “No, you’re not welcome here” either explicitly or by liberal rabbis who mean well but whose boundaries are so tight that they do not allow them to see the people sitting on the couch in their office.
Just this morning I had a conversation with Becky Herring, a Jewish professional and the new associate director of our Atlanta office. She recently got engaged and this was her experience: “My fiancé is not Jewish and when we talked about who would officiate our wedding, he didn’t want a rabbi because he was worried he’d feel uncomfortable. I totally get it. The thought never dawned on me; I just thought rabbis were rabbis. And then I met Rabbi Malka [director of InterfaithFamily/Atlanta] and it was amazing to see that she would work with us.”
I do this work every day. And I love it. I feel that working with interfaith families makes a true impact not only in their lives, but in the larger Jewish community.
I hear a lot of people say that interfaith marriage is always bad for Judaism and always leads to disengagement and the decline of Jews. But the truth is, life is not that simple.
Families are complicated and most people’s religious experience lives somewhere in that gray area between full observance and secular identity. To flat out deny someone the possibility of Jewish engagement at the beginning of their union ignores the real life experiences of people in our communities.
Whether or not we (the rabbis) decide interfaith marriage is OK, doesn’t matter. People are not choosing to end relationships and find Jewish partners just because a rabbi has told them she won’t marry them. While we rabbis are sitting in our offices behind the walls of synagogues and institutions, people are falling in love, getting married and trying to find their place in Jewish communities.
Photo credit: Tom The Photographer
In March Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky, a Conservative rabbi at Ansche Chesed in Manhattan, explaining “Why I Will Not Simply Accept Intermarriage,” wrote for the Forward that “Celebrating interfaith weddings… [would] diminish a sacred covenantal tradition, and risk making liberal Judaism into a jumble of traditional gestures that might please individuals but demand nothing from them.” I wrote a letter to the editor which appeared in the March 20 print issue of the Forward (it’s not on the Forward’s website):
Today another Conservative rabbi, Michael Knopf from Temple Beth-El in Richmond VA, had a very important response published in Ha’aretz, “Getting over intermarriage: Judaism’s guide to finding the right partner.” Rabbi Knopf says that “Jewish leaders’ obsession with discussing intermarriage through the prism of permissibility risks trivializing Judaism as a religion of policies, rather than as a fountain of relevant and enduring wisdom and values.” Stating that Jewish tradition has much wisdom to offer about finding a partner that is just as relevant to those who intermarry, he says “What if, instead of trying to finger-wag Jews into endogamous relationships, we offered compassionate and nonjudgmental support to people, drawing from the riches of our tradition, as they seek to couple?” Among his many refreshing comments are, “Judaism teaches that marrying Jewish is not a guarantee of a successful relationship” and “people of different backgrounds can be oriented to faith in harmonious ways” and “two people of different backgrounds can sharpen each other in myriad ways.” Rabbi Knopf concludes,
We applaud Rabbi Knopf’s novel approach and the welcoming attitude he expresses. But what happens when interfaith couples are brought closer to Judaism, specifically to Conservative synagogues? In March, Rabbi David Lerner of Temple Emunah in Lexington, MA, wrote a blot post for The Times of Israel describing a New Conservative/Masorti ceremony for interfaith couples, which is described in greater length on the website of the Rabbinical Assembly (the association of Conservative rabbis).
Rabbi Lerner was a co-chair of the Rabbinical Assembly’s Commission on Keruv (Outreach), Conversion, and Jewish Peoplehood and he concentrated on creating a ceremony to welcome interfaith couples, “a ritual through which a couple could celebrate their love and the Jewish choices they were making, while including family and friends… within our understanding of halakhah (Jewish law).” The core of the Hanukkat Habayit ceremony is putting up a mezuzah; the ceremony is described at length in the blog post and on the RA website and it does appear to offer a lovely and meaningful ritual and celebrate the Jewish choices the couple has made. It also comes with a three- to six-month learning period with the rabbi before the ceremony and continuing conversations with the rabbi afterwards, all aimed as supporting the couple’s Jewish growth.
We applaud this effort to support and recognize interfaith couples who make Jewish choices in a Conservative context, but it’s important to note that very clear Jewish choices are required for the ceremony: It is “for interfaith couples who have decided to build an exclusively Jewish home and family together;” “if the mother is not Jewish, the children would undergo a halakhic conversion;” “There should also be the clear expectation that non-Jewish symbols and observances would not be a part of the couple’s home, such as a Christmas tree.” Many interfaith couples who might want to make Jewish choices in a Conservative context may note be quite as far along in terms of their decision making as is required for the ceremony. And there is continuing tension with those coming from the perspective of tradition – as Rabbi Lerner says, “some” in the movement may be uncomfortable with the ceremony, even with its requirements, “as we seek to straddle the space between our tradition and keruv.”
This will surely be a continuing discussion worth following.
There was an important JTA article yesterday about a prominent Conservative rabbi who reportedly floated the idea of officiating at weddings of interfaith couples – something Conservative rabbis are prohibited from doing by their association, the Rabbinical Assembly – and then reportedly reversed course.
Since InterfaithFamily started operating thirteen years ago, we have always taken the position that Jewish clergy officiating at weddings of interfaith couples is a potential “door opener” to future Jewish engagement by the couple, while refusals to officiate or difficulties finding an officiant are potential “door closers.” We have always tried to be respectful of rabbis who chose not to officiate, while encouraging some rabbis in all communities to officiate in order to minimize the “door closing” effect.
Since InterfaithFamily got started we also have consistently tried to be helpful to the Conservative movement in its response to interfaith couples. Back in 2009 I wrote about how we were trying to recruit Conservative synagogues and professionals to list on our Network and thereby indicate that they welcomed interfaith families, and that we always publicized the Keruv initiative of the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs. At the time, we applauded a softening of the movement’s previous approach to aggressively promote conversion. In early 2013 we wrote about a prominent Conservative rabbi in New York who proposed a “fast track” conversion, in which a person who was not Jewish would convert first, and then study later, in order to enable Conservative rabbis to officiate at that person’s wedding.
Many observers have said that the Conservative movement has lost many members because the Reform movement is perceived to be more welcoming to interfaith couples. Promoting conversion – which appeared to be getting renewed emphasis just this past summer from Arnold Eisen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary – continues to be a potential obstacle to a more welcoming stance. The inability of Conservative rabbis to officiate for interfaith couples is another obstacle.
A year or two ago, a highly-regarded Conservative rabbi told me that within five to ten years, Conservative rabbis would be officiating. I know another highly-regarded Conservative rabbi who is trying to figure out a way to be involved with interfaith couples along with another rabbi who would ultimately officiate at the wedding. And on Yom Kippur this year, Rabbi Adina Lewittes, a Conservative rabbi who had served as assistant dean of the Jewish Theological Seminary, delivered a sermon in which she revealed that she would officiate at intermarriages and had resigned from the Rabbinical Assembly.
According to yesterday’s JTA article, Rabbi Wesley Gardenswartz of Temple Emanuel in Newton, MA, one of the largest Conservative synagogues in the country, had sent an email to congregants seeking support for a policy that would enable him to officiate at interfaith weddings where the couple had committed to a “Covenant to Raise Jewish Children.” Apparently there were significant reservations about the proposed “Covenant,” so the proposed policy was withdrawn, although Rabbi Gardenwartz said the congregation would “explore ways to be more welcoming to interfaith families both before and after the wedding.”
I agree with Rabbi Chuck Simon of the Federation of Jewish Men’s clubs who is quoted in the JTA article as describing “the move by someone of Gardenswartz’s stature to review policy on interfaith unions” as a potential “game changer for the movement” and “the beginning of a huge paradigm shift.” Although the head of the Rabbinical Assembly is quoted in the article as saying “we don’t see the performance of intermarriage as something rabbis can do,” we expect that as more and more Conservative leaders see officiation as a potential “door opener” and their existing policy as a potential “door closer,” we will see more moves like Rabbi Gardenswartz’s toward a change in that approach.
In the recent article in The Forward, a Rabbi in Los Angeles explains that he will officiate for an interfaith couple at their wedding if they commit to a Jewish future, Jewish education for their children and a Jewish home. A Conservative Rabbi who left his rabbinical union over being able to officiate at interfaith weddings quotes Israeli President Shimon Peres saying: “It’s not important if your grandparents are Jewish. What is important is if your grandchildren are.” The only condition he has is that an interfaith couple getting married “should commit to running a Jewish household, raising Jewish children and to learn with me what that means.”
Some rabbis may make all couples (whether they are both Jewish or only one is Jewish) promise to raise Jewish children in order to marry them, but many only speak about this test for interfaith couples. It makes sense for rabbis to speak about how the couple will raise their children. Couples often sit with the rabbi who will perform their wedding for several meetings which gives them ample time to plan the ceremony and usually also time to discuss where they are with religion, extended family issues and what they are thinking their home will look like in the years to come. If a couple wants a rabbi at their wedding, they care about Judaism in some ways. Certainly a conversation can be had about how they plan to live Jewishly and raise their children.
However, I think that too much focus, as is clear from this Forward article, is placed on having a premarital couple talk about Judaism only in terms of how it will affect their children. I for one care more about what the adults who will stand under the chuppah with me think about their own Judaism.
Do they know anything about the religion that they think they don’t want in their lives? Do they know what Judaism says about the major questions of life such as the meaning of sin or suffering or ideas about afterlife and heaven? Do they understand who is Israeli (and for that matter when, why and how Israel exists)? Do they search for calm, anecdotes to stress, balance, order, meaning, peace, love and purpose? Judaism addresses these areas of our lives.
Did they once attend religious school at a congregation and even celebrate becoming a bar or bat mitzvah by reading Torah, but have not gone into a synagogue since (maybe except for some High Holiday services as a passive participant?) I hope that by developing a relationship with the couple as we plan their wedding that the couple will think about exploring Judaism in new ways. I hope that the Judaism they find is open, accessible, relevant, realistic, challenging, inspiring, uplifting, beautiful, joyful and sophisticated. If adults are turned on by Judaism; if they are called to action, supported by community, filled with pride at Jewish accomplishments…if they cook the food, live the values of tzedakah and menschlekeit (being a good person), if they visit Israel, find the words of the prayers to resonate, they will want their children to experience Judaism.
Are there congregations where one can experience Judaism like this? There are. Are there study groups, trips, volunteer opportunities and cultural events that have this kind of Jewish vibe? There are.
If we ignore the Jewish life of adults and simultaneously try to get them to follow the patterns of their parents in joining congregations so that children can have a bar or bat mitzvah, that experiment is over. We can’t infuse guilt or a sense of responsibility or obligation as the vehicle to promulgate Judaism to the next generation. People getting married aren’t swayed by that. Instead, we need to ask these adults getting married to give Judaism a second chance for the sake of their own souls.
I recently had the honor of working with an interfaith family as their son, Jonah, prepared for his Bar Mitzvah. Here are his powerful words which describe what the study, process and ceremony meant to him. His family is part of a Jewish community that gathers for the holidays, and Jonah is excited to be able to read Torah again.
The ceremony began with his grandfather putting a tallit (a prayer shawl) on Jonah’s shoulders. His grandfather explained to him that this tallit had been bought in Israel by his great grandfather. This tallit had been worn by Jonah’s grandfather and father. Now Jonah, as a Bar Mitzvah, wore the tallit with pride. His grandfather said that his hope is that Jonah would give the tallit to his son one day. Continuity.
Here is what Jonah had to say:
“Shabbat Shalom! Thank you for supporting me and being with me and my family as I take on the role of becoming a Bar Mitzvah. Bar Mitzvah means son of the commandments. A child becomes a Bar Mitzvah whenever he chooses as long as he is 13 or older. Part of this rite of passage means that I am honored with more responsibility within the Jewish religion and among the Jewish people. I can now wear a prayer shawl called a tallit. I can now say the blessings before and after the Torah. I can now be counted in a prayer group. I can now take on mitzvot. I should also be doing more ethical and moral deeds such as honoring my parents and the elderly, helping the weak and vulnerable, visiting the sick and doing acts to help the hungry and poor.
This is my Bar Mitzvah because it is the first time that I will have the opportunity to read aloud from the Torah. To do this, I had to learn to read Hebrew and even harder, learn to read without vowels and with the fancy Torah script. This took much time to study and practice. To me learning about my Jewish heritage is very important because it shows the other side of my religion that has not been so clear to me. Since I’m neither fully Jewish nor a full catholic, I declare myself a “cashew.” No, I’m not the nut cashew but the cashew that means I have grasped both of my religions and wish to continue both of them in the future. This is very important to me.
My Torah portion is from the book of Deuteronomy. It is part of the Torah that is also read on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the calendar, because this narrative is so powerful. It is about God saying to the people to never give up. Even if it is so far out of your reach you must never give up because one day you will reach it. Also, I will be reading a part of the book of Jonah, not me, the prophet. It is traditional on Shabbat morning to read from the Torah and from the Prophets. I picked Jonah for obvious reasons. He has a cool name! What I learned from the story of Jonah is to trust God no matter what the circumstances. For example, Jonah was sent to Nineveh by God, but chose to go somewhere else because Nineveh is so outrageously uncivilized. Jonah was then swallowed by a whale and then spit out after three days of prayer and regretting his decision to disobey God. He was spat out onto the land of Nineveh where he brought forth God’s warning to change or bare the wrath of annihilation. Jonah waited patiently for the annihilation of the people but it never came. The moral is that you should never lose trust in God and that God has forgiveness and caring.”
There is a debate in the Jewish world about whether families who want both religions in their lives can find a place within the organized community for learning and fellowship. I hope that by sharing this experience of a family who has sought out Jewish learning and living in real and meaningful ways, can help us think about how we might be able to open our gates a little more.
I wish you all a happy and healthy new year. May this be a year of getting to know the individuals who call us for information, or stop in for programming. It is through hearing each other’s stories and intentions, struggles, questions and yearnings that assumptions can be dropped and judgment held so that sharing can ensue.
There is a pretty offensive article on the Forward today, Why Intermarriage Poses Threat to Jewish Life – But Gay Marriage Doesn’t. It’s by Yoel Finkelman, a lecturer at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, and like most Israeli commentators, he doesn’t understand liberal Jewish life and community in the US.
Finkelman says that liberal American Jewry has a lot to gain from embracing LGBT married Jews, but that embracing intermarried Jews is an “uphill climb” that will “depend on a huge investment” that he clearly thinks is not worth making.
This analysis is misguided on many levels, but what immediately comes to mind is the very small numbers of people who would be impacted by embracing LGBT married Jews. Please don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favor of including LGBT Jews – and their partners – in Jewish life and community. But it is well known (perhaps not to Finkelman) that the rate of interfaith relationships is much higher among LGBT Jews than among straight Jews. The 2011 New York community study, for example, found (at 249) that while 22% of married Jews there were intermarried, 44% of LGBT married Jews were intermarried.
These wedge-driving arguments are really troublesome; many lay Jews are already upset with rabbis who will not officiate for interfaith couples but will officiate for LGBT couples if both partners are Jewish. I can’t imagine that advocates of Jewish LGBT inclusion would agree with Finkelman’s analysis and encourage more attention to the LGBT community at the expense of efforts to engage the intermarried. There has to be room in our communal efforts to do both.
Mom: Did you hear that Adam Levine just got engaged to a shiksa?*
Son: He’s Jewish ** and she’s not…that’s a sin. It’s a disgrace to HaShem (God).
Mom: That’s right. I’m so proud of you for knowing that. And since she’s not Jewish, his kids will be goyim.*
Son: Really? That’s so awful.
Compare that conversation with the following, which I read just a few hours later on Jewishjournal.com:
Mazel Tov to Adam Levine and his brand-new fiancé, Victoria’s Secret Angel Behati Prinsloo….We wish them well!
Now, I have never met Adam Levine or Behati Prinsloo, and I don’t know much about either of them. But I do know that all too often when interfaith couples get engaged I hear conversations like the one I quoted above between the mother and her son—conversations disparaging the couple and their relationship.
I think that if we in the Jewish community continue to speak like that—to insult people who marry out of the faith by using derogatory terms and referring to their marriage as a sin—then it’s unlikely that they will want to become part of the Jewish community and to raise children that they may have as Jews. Like the Jewish Journal, I would rather wish these couples well. Rather than treating interfaith marriage as a threat, isn’t it better to treat it as an opportunity for the Jewish people to grow, evolve and thrive?
Would I like to see Adam Levine and every other Jewish man out there marry a Jewish woman? Sure I would. But that’s not always the way things work. And the fact is that Adam Levine didn’t ask me who he should marry—nor have any of the Jewish men at whose interfaith wedding ceremonies I have officiated. Instead, they’ve come to me already in love, asking me to officiate at their wedding ceremonies—asking me, in essence, to accept their choices and to be welcoming toward the women with whom they have fallen in love and chosen to spend the rest of their lives. I’m honored to be approached by these couples, and I embrace the opportunity not just to bless their unions but also to teach them about Judaism and to serve as a welcoming representative of the Jewish religion and the Jewish people.
So here’s what I have to say to Adam and Behati, and to all newly engaged interfaith couples: Mazel Tov on your engagement! I hope that the two of you will be blessed with a long and happy marriage. Adam (and all of the partners in interfaith couples who grew up Jewish): I hope that you will explore your Jewish heritage and incorporate Judaism into your home and into your life in a way that is meaningful for you. Behati (and all of the partners in interfaith couples who did not grow up Jewish): I hope that you will learn about the Jewish heritage of your fiancé, and that you will feel embraced by the Jewish people.
I hope that the two of you will have honest conversations about the role religion plays in your lives, even if it isn’t always easy. And if you have children, I hope that you will seriously explore the option of raising them as Jews. For now, know that we here at InterfaithFamily, and many people in the Jewish community, are happy for you and we would love to welcome both of you into our midst.
*The terms shiksa (woman who is not Jewish) and goyim (people who are not Jewish) are sometimes, as in the case of this conversation, used by Jews in a pejorative manner.
** After I came home and Googled Adam Levine, I learned that his father and maternal grandfather were Jewish and he considers himself Jewish, but his mother is not Jewish. This means that according to traditional Jewish law, which requires that the mother be Jewish in order for the child to be Jewish, Adam isn’t Jewish. So while I, as a Reform Jew, accept the idea of patrilineal descent and I recognize him as Jewish, ironically, the woman having the conversation with her son would not even consider Adam to be Jewish if she were aware of his lineage.
Recently, a good of friend of mine suggested to an interfaith couple who was looking for a rabbi for their wedding ceremony that they be in touch with me. I met with the couple for about an hour and we had a great conversation, at the end of which they asked me to officiate at their wedding. I told them that I’d be honored, and over the next year we would get together several more times so that I could get to know them as individuals and as a couple before standing with them under their chuppah (wedding canopy) next July to unite them in marriage.
The other day, I saw my friend who referred this couple to me. “I’m so excited!” she exclaimed. “The rabbi of the bride’s congregation wouldn’t marry them because her fiancé isn’t Jewish. They were going to hire a ‘rent-a-rabbi.’ I’m so happy that they are going to be married by YOU instead!” While my friend meant to give me a compliment, instead I felt offended by her pejorative term “rent-a-rabbi.” I felt that she was implying that non-congregational rabbis who perform wedding ceremonies (or baby namings, B’nai Mitzvah, funerals or other life-cycle events) were simply doing so to “make a quick buck” and were of inferior quality to congregational rabbis. According to her logic, the only thing that separated me from the “rent-a-rabbis” that she disparaged was that she personally knows and respects me.
For the past ten years, since leaving my position as assistant rabbi at a large synagogue in order to spend more time with my family, I have officiated privately at life-cycle events – what some would refer to as a “rent-a-rabbi.” I’ve continued to do so over the past five years even as I’ve worked part-time at a small congregation. (My congregation, which I absolutely love, is made up mostly of members in their 70s and 80s, so it would not be an ideal “fit” for many of the young couples and families with whom I’ve worked privately. Plus, many of them do not live near the synagogue.)
The fact is that I’ve gotten to know the wedding couples I’ve worked with who are not congregants of mine just as well as I knew couples who were congregants that I married; and I’ve gotten to know the parents and siblings of the babies that I’ve named just as well as I knew the parents and siblings of babies that I named in my congregation. And whereas when I served over ten years ago as a congregational rabbi at a synagogue in which there were as many as a hundred B’nai Mitzvah each year, now that I only work with a handful of B’nai Mitzvah students a year I get to know them MUCH better than I ever could as a rabbi at a large congregation. When I work privately with B’nai Mitzvah students, I meet with them on a regular basis so that by the time of the Bar or Bat Mitzvah I know the student – and usually the parents and any siblings – very well.
This serves in contrast to when I was at a large synagogue and I was only scheduled to have two or three half-hour sessions with each B’nai Mitzvah student. At the congregation (which was often referred to as a “Bar Mitzvah mill,” another term I dislike), if the Bar or Bat Mitzvah student and his/her family were not “regulars” at Shabbat services or other synagogue activities, I did not know them nearly as well as I know the students with whom I now work privately.
Just because many of the wedding couples, baby naming parents and B’nai Mitzvah students that I have worked with over the past decade do not belong to the congregation that I serve, their life-cycle events are no less important, meaningful and sacred to me as a rabbi – or to them. And I am certain that this is true of the vast majority of my colleagues who privately officiate at lifecycle events. Yes, we charge a fee for what we do, since we do not receive a salary to be available for these services as full-time congregational rabbis do. But just because we are paid directly for our services does not make the experience any less meaningful for anyone involved.
Over the years I have paid doctors, therapists, yoga teachers and a vast array of others for their services. They have almost without exception been caring and committed to helping and healing, often getting to know me on a deeply personal level – yet there is no doubt that they are entitled to compensation for their work.
I have heard people claim that when rabbis officiate privately at lifecycle events this makes it easier for people not to join congregations. Personally, I would love it if every Jewish person and family (whether every member is Jewish or the family is interfaith) would join a synagogue, but that is simply not the reality in which we live, and it is not the fault of so-called “rent-a-rabbis.” The fact is that in this day and age congregational life just isn’t for everyone – at least not at every moment of their lives.
There are a multitude of reasons why people don’t join synagogues, ranging from financial reasons (while the vast majority of synagogues will “work with” potential congregants to make membership financially feasible, this sometimes requires submitting tax returns and other personal information, which many people are not comfortable doing) to not feeling welcome to the fact that they simply are not interested. I cannot imagine that that the availability of non-congregational rabbis to officiate at their lifecycle events has very much to do with their decision not to affiliate.
When a wedding couple comes to me – either because a congregational rabbi with whom one of them is connected (usually his or her parents are members of the congregation) will not marry them because their partner is not Jewish or because they are not connected to a congregation – I strongly believe that the best thing I can do to increase the odds that they will become more involved in the Jewish community, and hopefully join a synagogue at some point, is to work with them and make them feel welcome. After all, they have many options besides going to a rabbi (such as hiring a celebrant or a justice of the peace) and by working with them I have the opportunity to expose them to the beauty of Judaism.
I feel the same way about the baby naming and B’nai Mitzvah families that come to me. I would much rather work with them and enable the parents of the baby or the Bar or Bat Mitzvah student to have a positive, meaningful experience than to turn them away. And when I am approached about officiating at the funeral of a Jewish person who was not affiliated with a congregation, I feel privileged to be able to help his or her family to mourn the deceased according to Jewish tradition and to bring honor to his or her memory through Jewish ritual. Is this really something to be looked down upon?
Ironically, when congregational rabbis officiate – for compensation – at lifecycle events for non-congregants (some rabbis’ contracts with their synagogues allow for them to do this, while others do not) they are rarely referred to as “rent-a-rabbis.” I think that the fact that I serve as a part-time congregational rabbi is another reason why the friend I mentioned at the beginning of this blog, the one who had referred a wedding couple to me, did not view me as one of the “rent-a-rabbis” that she disparaged. But the reality is that congregational rabbis officiating for non-congregants who do not join their synagogues is really no different than non-congregational rabbis officiating.
There are many fantastic rabbis who do not work in congregations, perhaps because they work at other jobs within or outside of the Jewish community or perhaps because they currently are not employed, either by choice or by circumstance. Just because they earn money by officiating privately at life-cycle events does not mean that they are not talented, committed and sincere. So please, don’t call them “rent-a-rabbis.” Just call them “rabbis.”
What has your experience been? If you are married, were you married by the rabbi or cantor of a congregation to which you and/or your partner belonged, or the rabbi or cantor of a congregation in which one of you grew up?
Were you married by a rabbi or cantor (as a sole officiant or co-officiant) that you found outside of a synagogue setting? If so, how did you find this rabbi or cantor? And what was your experience with him or her like?
Have you ever used the term “rent-a-rabbi?” How do you feel about this term?
When 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.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington sponsored Welcoming Interfaith Families: A Community Conversation on April 28. Ed Case and I attended along with other representatives from fellow interfaith engagement organizations. Clergy and professionals from area organizations shared the work they are doing to welcome and engage interfaith families. Interfaith couples came to discuss their journey of Jewish involvement. Here are three points that I took away:
Language is Still a Challenge: For most of the conference almost every presenter and speaker referred to people who aren’t Jewish who are partnered with a Jew as “non-Jews.” Finally, Kathy Bloomfield, a local Jewish professional, asked them to re-think this term as it can be offensive and hurtful to be described as a “non-anything.” She suggested using the phrase, “person from a different faith,” which speakers immediately adopted, one saying to Kathy “you had real impact!” An alternative I use, given that some people grow up with no specific faith or are not practicing another faith, is to just describe that partner as a “person who is not Jewish.”
It is Important that Couples Be Able to Find Wedding Officiants: One panel included a college student (himself from an interfaith home) who works for Hillel, an interfaith couple, and three rabbis (one Conservative, one Reform and one at a non-denominational synagogue). The college student talked about his work trying to engage students from interfaith homes in Jewish life on campus, the couple told their personal story, and the rabbis discussed how they work to reach out to interfaith couples. However, the conversation ended up centered on rabbinic officiation at weddings. The couple explained how painful and confusing it was when the groom’s brother, a Reform rabbi, did not feel he could officiate at their interfaith wedding. One rabbi spoke about how when his brother intermarried in the 1960s his father disapproved, resulting in severe damage to the family’s relationships; in fact he said the first time his brother said something nice about this father was when he gave a eulogy at his funeral. Rabbi Gil Steinlauf from Adas Israel, a major Conservative synagogue, described his new “keruv aliyah.” Keruv, a Hebrew word which means to draw near, is the Conservative movement’s term for reaching out to interfaith couples and families. Aliyah means “going up” and can refer either to moving to Israel or coming to the Torah during worship for an honor. In his keruv aliyah, Rabbi Steinlauf has interfaith couples come up at a Shabbat morning service before their wedding for a blessing. Because Conservative rabbis are not allowed by their association to officiate for interfaith couples, this is a creative, bold and meaningful way to publicly honor in their community the unions of interfaith couples religiously and spiritually.
JCCs Can Be A Meaningful Address for Interfaith Couples: Several Jewish Community Centers in the Washington DC area are thinking creatively about how to engage interfaith couples and families in Jewish life. Many interfaith families do not “affiliate” in the sense that they do not officially join a congregation. There are many reasons for this: Cost, fear/uncertainty about what to expect, apprehension about ever “belonging” fully with a partner who isn’t Jewish, wondering about whether the partner who isn’t Jewish will be able to participate meaningfully in rituals and synagogue communal life, thinking that children will be treated as “less than” if they have a parent who isn’t Jewish, and more. Synagogues need to become cognizant of the concerns these couples could have and be able to address these concerns visibly and clearly so that barriers can come down and all can enter with ease and less anxiety. JCCs may be a comfortable first step to later synagogue membership, or they may be a long-term Jewish organizational home for interfaith couples and families to find community, programs of interest and learning. JCCs in Washington are now offering more ways for families to experience religious learning for children and ways to mark life cycle events. Because Jewish Community Centers can sometimes be more open with more flexible ways to engage, it seems a natural setting for interfaith couples and families to explore.
In the breakout session I led about preparing for a bar or bat mitzvah, one of the participants was a grandparent who said that he would be helped by talking points for grandparents like him to communicate respectfully and informatively to their adult children about why different parts of Jewish life, including bar/bat mitzvah, are important to them. Sometimes we feel things in our hearts but have trouble articulating their importance.
It was inspiring to be part of a communal conversation aimed at hearing what is happening already and which will set the stage to determine next steps and figuring out the most effective ways to reach interfaith couples and families around Washington DC. It was affirming to see interfaith couples and families regarded as precious to the Jewish community, as present and future links to add to the chain of Jewish tradition.