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Reprinted with permission of The [Connecticut] Jewish Ledger. Visit www.jewishledger.com.
WEST HARTFORD--On a frigid Friday night in mid-February, Rabbi Stephen Fuchs stood before worshippers at Congregation Beth Israel to welcome in the Shabbat. As spiritual leader of the Reform synagogue for the past seven and a half years, that is what Rabbi Fuchs does every Friday night.
On this particular Friday night, however, Rabbi Fuchs had a special sermon to deliver. He began with the words of the prophet Isaiah, delivered almost 2,500 years ago:
As for the foreigners
Who attach themselves to the Lord…
I will bring them to My sacred mount
And let them rejoice in My house of prayer…
For My House shall be called
A house of prayer for all peoples!
"What a wonderful ideal!" exclaimed the rabbi. And what an appropriate way, he continued, to introduce congregants to a new synagogue initiative aimed at making intermarried couples feel what Fuchs calls "the welcoming embrace" of the Beth Israel community, without compromising his long-held position not to officiate at marriage ceremonies where both partners are not Jewish.
The initiative empowers Jewish judges and Justices of the Peace who are members of Beth Israel to perform wedding ceremonies between Jewish and non-Jewish partners in the synagogue sanctuary. The judges and Justices of the Peace will take part in a two-session training course at Beth Israel in which, says Fuchs, "They will discuss appropriate and meaningful ways to add Jewish content to the civil ceremony that [they] would normally perform." Couples who wish to be married in such ceremonies must be counseled by the rabbi and must express a desire to establish a Jewish household and raise their children as Jews.
"I've always wanted to make people feel as welcome as possible in any synagogue I am associated with and allow every opportunity for families to experience and hopefully transmit to their children the beauty and richness of Jewish tradition and Jewish living," says Fuchs.
Unfortunately, he adds, "non-Jews have often not felt as welcome at Beth Israel as I would like them to feel. Part of the reason is that I don't perform intermarriage ceremonies."
Reaching out to the interfaith
Fuchs' position not to officiate at a marriage ceremony between a Jew and non-Jew dates back to his earliest days as a rabbinical student. The Union for Reform Judaism (URJ)--the movement's national body--allows each individual rabbi to follow his or her conscience. And, while the organization has two resolutions on the books--one dating back to 1909 and the other released in 1973--both discouraging rabbis from performing interfaith marriages, it has, notes Fuchs, "consciously and conscientiously avoided making the issue a subject for debate at conventions because it would become very contentious. The prevailing attitude is that this is something we will leave to each individual rabbi."
Given that leeway, Fuchs arrived at his position not to perform ceremonies between Jews and non-Jews, "after much introspective thought, study, discussion, and prayer."
"My intensive struggles with this issue led me to a position which I re-examine all the time, but which I still hold today… I still believe that the nature of the Jewish marriage ceremony precludes my officiating at the marriage of a Jew and a non-Jew. For me, the crucial moment in the ceremony is when the bride and the groom in turn say to each other in Hebrew and English, 'With this ring be consecrated unto me as my wife (or as my husband), according to the religion of Moses and Israel.' To me, it is simply not appropriate for one who is not a member of the religion of Moses and Israel--either through birth or through formal conversion--to say those words."
Nonetheless, Fuchs continued to wrestle with the question of how to reach out to interfaith couples at the time of their marriage while preserving what Fuchs describes as "the integrity of this sacred ceremony." His quest led him to devise the innovative solution that he first broached to members of the synagogue's outreach committee several months ago. The committee discussed it, then took it to the ritual committee... after which it headed to the executive board and, ultimately, landed on the agenda of the full synagogue board.
With leadership taking ownership of the idea, it was decided to introduce the initiative via the Friday evening sermon.
"People were overwhelmingly supportive," reports Fuchs.
Nonetheless, the rabbi has little illusions that the new policy will quiet all concerns or criticism.
"Of course, there are people who still feel they don't want any interfaith marriage ceremonies in our sanctuary…and those who feel that this initiative doesn't go far enough. But people are beginning to consider the idea and many who think it's still not the ideal solution are now saying that it is worth a try."
While the synagogue has issued an open invitation to members who are Jewish judges or Justices of the Peace to attend its first training session in a few weeks, one Justice of the Peace is already scheduled to officiate at just such a marriage ceremony that will be held in the near future in the Beth Israel sanctuary.
"The word Israel means 'one who struggles with God'," concludes Fuchs, "and I think that, whatever our position is on this issue, our congregation should be struggling with it in a very direct way--taking into account what is best for our congregation and asking what would God want? That's the nexus of the struggle. It doesn't mean everyone will come up with the same answers when they go through the process, but the process is the most significant part n the struggle."