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Interfaith Wedding Is Temple's First: Congregation Beth Israel Responds to Growing Incidence of Jews Marrying Non-Jews

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. Visit www.courant.com.

July 27, 2005

Pam Levy, who is Jewish, and Alec Nelson, who is not, were married last month at Congregation Beth Israel in West Hartford. But Rabbi Stephen Fuchs didn't perform the ceremony. As Fuchs sat with the other guests in the sanctuary, a justice of the peace whom he had trained did the honors.

While Orthodox and Conservative rabbis are forbidden to perform interfaith marriage ceremonies, Reform rabbis are given the choice. But many Reform rabbis, including Fuchs, aren't comfortable conducting interfaith weddings.

As many as 50 percent of American Jews who marry today are choosing non-Jewish partners. Interfaith couples and families account for an increasingly greater percentage of the membership in many synagogues, including Beth Israel.

Fuch says he has wrestled with a question that goes to the heart of Judaism: "How do we welcome people into our midst without compromising Jewish sacraments?"

"For me, the crucial moment in the ceremony is when the bride and the groom say to each other in Hebrew and in English, `With this ring be consecrated unto me according to the religion of Moses and Israel.'"

These words can appropriately be said only by those who are Jewish from birth or have converted to Judaism, Fuchs said, because an interfaith marriage may not result in a Jewish household.

But Fuchs says he knew that his qualms were denying a first welcome to non-Jewish spouses, whose children might one day have a bar or bat mitzvah at the synagogue.

"And what do I say to a family who has been here for generations, whose child may have grown up here [but is marrying outside the faith]?" he said.

After a year of discussions, Fuchs came up with an unusual compromise. He has been training Jewish justices of the peace to conduct interfaith marriage ceremonies in the synagogue for couples the rabbi has approved.

While some members of Beth Israel oppose the idea, synagogue members have generally been supportive. The program will be re-evaluated after 18 months.

"I think it's great," said Ruth Rutt, 84, a synagogue member for 50 years. Several members of her family are in interfaith marriages, including her brother and her son. "When my son got married, we had the wedding elsewhere. We didn't even think about going to synagogue. I wish that would have been possible then."

Levy and Nelson's wedding in June was the first interfaith marriage ceremony at Congregation Beth Israel.

"I had always wanted to be married in the temple," said Levy, 46, who attended the synagogue as a child growing up in West Hartford. "I was kind of sure I would be turned down. I didn't expect that they would ever say yes."

Other synagogues in the Hartford area have tackled the issue of interfaith marriage in different ways. Rabbi Howard Herman of Farmington Valley Jewish Congregation in Simsbury conducts interfaith marriage ceremonies, but only outside the synagogue.

"Our sanctuary is reserved for people who are Jewish," Herman said, adding that he agrees to marry interfaith couples only if they have decided to raise their children in the Jewish faith.

About a third of the Farmington Valley members are interfaith families, and many non-Jewish spouses are active in synagogue life, Herman said, so much so that a special service recently was held to honor them.

"They are raising their children as Jews, listening to them learning Hebrew," Herman said. "They deserve to be applauded. They are an integral part of this synagogue, and all too often that gets lost sometimes."

Rabbi Jeffrey Glickman of Temple Beth Hillel in South Windsor has married interfaith couples in his synagogue for the past 10 years. He does not require non-Jewish spouses to convert before they marry.

"I view converting to Judaism to be as important a decision as whom you choose to marry," Glickman said. "For some people, the time is right for them to marry, but not yet for them to convert to Judaism."

Interfaith families are a significant percentage of the membership at Beth Hillel, Glickman said, adding that nearly half of the non-Jews in interfaith couples who seek to be married by him end up converting to Judaism before the ceremony, and just as many convert afterward.

"When you come to them with a sense of love and openness, people are really taken by that," he said. "We've had some amazing and deeply spiritual things happen here at our synagogue."

Interfaith marriage remains a highly charged issue in the Jewish community, "because we are a tiny minority and getting tinier, [and] people attribute that to interfaith marriage," said Paul Golin, associate executive of Jewish Outreach Institute in New York. Half of Jews marry non-Jews, Golin added.

The center has also found that across the country there's not much variation in the extent of Reform rabbis' willingness to conduct interfaith ceremonies, by either their region or age.

Stemming the tide of interfaith marriage would mean turning back the clock, Golin said, trying to reverse a trend that began three decades ago.

"Realistically, there is no way to stop that," he said. "High intermarriage is the result of the unprecedented freedom Jews have in America. Intermarriage is an American phenomenon, not a Jewish phenomenon. Any population that is a third or fourth generation in this country has a higher intermarriage rate than previous generations. This notion that we could somehow stop it is very unrealistic."

Instead, Golin said, "we should welcome intermarried families."

Jennifer Kaplan, an independent filmmaker who lives in West Hartford, said that for many interfaith couples, having a rabbi turn down their request to be married is a painful rejection that is difficult to overcome. Kaplan was the Jewish partner in an interfaith relationship. She is the producer of "Mixed Blessings," a film about interfaith marriage.

"People are not turning their backs on their faith just because they marry someone of a different faith. It's not a statement--it's much more complicated than that," Kaplan said. "For some couples, once they get pushed out the [synagogue] door, they don't come back in. ... It's important that people feel welcomed for who they are."

Kaplan said the justice of the peace program at Beth Israel seems like a way for the rabbi to acknowledge his personal views without turning people away from the Jewish faith.

"You can't tell what a person's faith means to them just because they have made a choice about whom they love," Kaplan said. "It's a matter of love and trying to work that into your faith."

InterfaithFamily.com, a website devoted to issues confronting Jewish-Christian couples, devoted its two June issues to interfaith weddings and ceremonies. Edmund Case, the website's executive director, said 33 percent of interfaith families were raising their children as Jews in 2000, an increase of 5 percentage points since 1990, indicating that greater acceptance of interfaith marriage could be making a difference.

"Our mission is to encourage families to make Jewish choices," said Case. "I think for the long-term health of the Jewish community we have to increase the number of interfaith families who raise their children as Jews."

The Levy-Nelson wedding was performed by Heidi Lewis, a justice of the peace who belongs to Beth Israel synagogue. The couple agreed to raise their children, if they have any, as Jews. During the rehearsal, Lewis called the wedding "a historic event for the synagogue. I feel happy and proud to be a part of it."

The couple stood under a huppah, a brocade canopy symbolizing the home they would create together. A blessing was said over the wine, and the couple exchanged rings, placing them on one another's forefinger, in accordance with tradition. At the end of the ceremony, Nelson stamped a wine glass wrapped in a white napkin. "The belief is that it symbolizes the couple breaking with the past and entering a new life together," Lewis said.

Later on, Levy said she was delighted that Fuchs was one of her 90 wedding guests.

"Everything went well," she said. "It was just right. It was exactly what I wanted."

Hebrew for "daughter of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish girls come of age at 12 or 13. When a girl comes of age, she is officially a bat mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bat mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The male equivalent is "bar mitzvah." A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "canopy" or "covering," the structure (open on all four sides) under which a Jewish wedding ceremony takes place. In its simplest for, it consists of a cloth, sheet, or tallit stretched or supported over four poles. Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.
Frances Grandy Taylor

Frances Grandy Taylor is a staff writer for the Hartford Courant.

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