My Historic Decision: Working with Interfaith Families in L.A.

Rabbi Wendy Spears

Rabbi Wendy Spears

In 1983, the Reform Movement made a historic decision to consider a child to be Jewish if one parent was Jewish and the child was raised as a Jew. In 1985, I started rabbinical school.

I didn’t always want to be a rabbi. I didn’t even know women could be rabbis when I was growing up. All the rabbis I knew were men, even though women were being ordained starting in 1972 with Rabbi Sally Priesand. During my time at UCLA, my eyes were opened when I met two real-live women who were rabbis: Laura Geller and Patricia Karlin-Neumann. Rabbi Geller worked at USC Hillel and Rabbi Karlin-Neuman worked at UCLA Hillel. They were down-to-earth, smart, encouraging and lovers of Judaism. They were wonderful mentors to me, as were my professors in the Jewish studies department. Suddenly being a rabbi didn’t seem so strange.

I have always loved Judaism. Growing up, my family was immersed in Reform Judaism. We would go to synagogue every Friday evening after dinner (although at the time I didn’t quite realize that we were there to pray because I was only interested in the cookies). We celebrated every Jewish holiday there, my mom was an officer on the synagogue board of directors, and all our friends were temple members. We took a family camping vacation every summer with our temple friends and even got swim lessons from the cantorial soloist who lived two blocks from my parents.

Judaism was always fun and festive for me, but when I told my parents that I wanted to be a rabbi, they thought it was kind of odd since they didn’t know any women who were rabbis. They acted supportive, though, because in my mom’s world working for Jewish Family Service, it was considered a blessing for a Jewish professional to have a child who also wanted to be a Jewish professional. They were excited that I would have a career rather than (as they always put it) “just a job.”

I decided to become a rabbi in order to share my love for the beauty and joy in Judaism with others. As rabbinical students, my classmates and I were encouraged to create a vision of our rabbinates. Most of them envisioned themselves as synagogue rabbis, but I knew this wasn’t my path even though almost all the jobs for rabbis were at synagogues at the time (as is still the case). I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to focus on until one day, Rabbi Alexander Schindler (of blessed memory) came to inspire the rabbinical students in Los Angeles.

Rabbi Schindler was the president of the Union for Reform Judaism and had a clear picture in his mind of a new mission for the movement: reaching out to interfaith couples and families to make the 1983 resolution a living reality. Rabbi Schindler told us that the future of Reform Judaism would depend on how well we welcomed and integrated interfaith couples and families into Jewish life. I felt like a fire had been lit under my butt. I suddenly had a clear vision for my rabbinate: I wanted to help Rabbi Schindler reach his goal of welcoming and integrating interfaith couples and families into Reform Judaism.

I had clarity on my rabbinic focus, but when I was ordained, there weren’t any available jobs outside of congregational work connected to interfaith work. I decided to step into congregational work and was fortunate to have the opportunity to work for a couple of years with my childhood rabbi, John Sherwood (of blessed memory). He was very active in interfaith work and trained me as his associate in this field. He was a wonderful mentor to me: light in his criticism, lavish in his praise. He encouraged me to continue his work after he retired.

For the past 20 years, I’ve been reaching and teaching interfaith couples and families as a sole rabbinic practitioner in the Los Angeles area. I’ve had the opportunity to bless new babies, guide wedding couples, comfort families in mourning, and teach about Judaism in an accessible and user-friendly way. I consistently said over the years, “I love what I do, I’d just like to do it more.” Then InterfaithFamily came calling, and I had to answer the call.

I continue to be blessed in my rabbinate to be able to help interfaith couples and families make Jewish choices and explore Jewish life. I’m grateful to be part of the IFF team as the Director of the newly launched InterfaithFamily/Los Angeles. I’m doing more of what I love doing.

If you’re in the Los Angeles area, feel free to reach out to Rabbi Wendy at wendys@interfaithfamily.com, and learn more about IFF/Los Angeles here

The Disgrace of a Nice Jewish Girl?

I am deeply distressed by the publication in Reform Judaism magazine of an article that undermines the Reform movement’s historic approach to welcoming and engaging interfaith families Jewishly.

The current issue of Reform Judaism includes the article "The Disgrace of a Nice Jewish Girl."


The article, titled The Disgrace of a Nice Jewish Girl, tells an admittedly sad story of a Jewish woman who divorced her husband who was not Jewish after he had an affair when their first child was 16 months old. Unfortunately, the back story is all about how the woman’s father was opposed to her intermarriage as a “shanda” — something that would bring shame on him, his family, and the Jewish community. She hoped to prove him wrong, but after the divorce, her father still thinks intermarriage is a shanda.

The author says that she doesn’t think intermarriage is a shanda, that “we should welcome non-Jews into our communities,” that “plenty of Jews… cheat on their spouses,” and that “I want to believe that my divorce is not related in any way to the fact that my ex was not Jewish.”

But her conclusion is, “I can’t help but think sometimes, Maybe things would have turned out differently had my husband been Jewish.” And “these days I nonetheless find myself searching again for a ‘nice Jewish boy.’”

The Reform movement pioneered the modern Jewish effort to welcome and engage interfaith families. Under the leadership of Rabbi Alexander Schindler z”l, the movement created an Outreach Department and the movement’s rabbis decided that Jewish identity is based on how a child is raised not just the mother being Jewish. Some Reform synagogues today go out of their way to thank the partners who are not Jewish for their contribution to and participation in Jewish life. Many Reform rabbis officiate at weddings of interfaith couples hoping that doing so increases the chances for a Jewish future for that couple and their family.

This article, despite all of its caveats, sends a completely contrary message to those partners who aren’t Jewish. It suggests, as the author “can’t help thinking,” that intermarriage is the cause of marital unhappiness. Worse, it suggests that the author’s father was right in thinking that intermarriage will cause “the ultimate demise of the Jewish people through assimilation.” I can’t overstate how sad it is to read that message in the official publication of the Union for Reform Judaism.