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Star Crossed: Rabbis facing loaded question of intermarriage

December 14, 2008

Reprinted by permission from the Baltimore Jewish Times.

Sunlight streams through the windows into the rabbi's study. On a weekday afternoon, it is quiet, very quiet, in Owings Mills, Md., as Rabbi Bradd Boxman, of Har Sinai Congregation, settles himself onto a sofa.

Last Yom Kippur, Rabbi Boxman handed his Reform congregation a triple whammy. The High Holidays are a time for rousing sermons and the rabbi did not disappoint. He tore into three controversial topics--the Iraq war, universal health care and homosexuality. Congregants at the Reform temple are still talking about it.

As heated as those are, there is one topic that surpasses them all, perhaps because it hits closer to home. In his 22-year career, Rabbi Boxman has yet to give a sermon on interfaith marriage.

"That's how loaded it is," he sighs.

doorsNationally, the Jewish community is struggling to deal with a fact of life that threatens to overwhelm it. The current intermarriage rate hovers at 50 percent, although in small, outlying communities it may be as high as 85 percent. In San Francisco, interfaith families outnumber infaith (Jew to Jew) families. In Boston, a more parochial city, interfaith is approaching infaith numbers.

By comparison, Baltimore's current 37 percent intermarriage rate seems admirably low, although not unexpected in an urban setting with a large, concentrated Jewish population that includes a sizable Orthodox presence. That's still almost four out of 10 people, say the experts, and the trend is clear.

"No one can tell you that the high rate of intermarriage isn't changing the Jewish community," says Rabbi Steven Schwartz of Beth El Congregation and president of the Baltimore Board of Rabbis, an interdenominational group.

Given Reform Judaism's long-standing policy of outreach to the intermarried, it is not surprising to find higher numbers in those congregations than in other denominations.

Of Har Sinai's 530 household-members, for example, Rabbi Boxman figures 20 to 22 percent are interfaith. At the Reform Temple Oheb Shalom, Rabbi Steven Fink can't give a figure for its approximately 800 family-members but, he says, in the religious school 40 percent are from interfaith families.

At the Conservative Beth Am Synagogue, Rabbi Jon Konheim puts the number of interfaith at almost 7 percent of his 450 family-units. Rabbi Jay Goldstein, of Beth Israel Congregation, also Conservative, has a comparable figure, about 5 percent of his 875 family-units.

A dozen years ago, when Rabbi Goldstein was the rabbi at a Conservative congregation in the small town of Meriden, Conn., 40 percent of the members were intermarried. "We were it, the only shul in town. Baltimore has a lot more choices," he says in explaining the difference.

Unlike the Conservative movement, which prohibits its rabbis from officiating at interfaith marriage ceremonies, the Reform and Reconstructionist movements discourage but permit it, at the discretion of the rabbi and his/her congregation. Cantors have their own protocol.

There are often restrictions. The rabbi may be prohibited from co-officiating with Christian clergy. The rabbi may officiate only for members or children of members. The rabbi may tweak the wording and the ritual, to make it appropriate. On the other hand, some congregations make officiating at such ceremonies a contingency for employment.

"There's been tremendous pressure every place I've served," Rabbi Fink says of Philadelphia and Des Moines, Iowa. Temple Oheb Shalom allows its clergy to officiate at interfaith weddings. Currently, none do, including Rabbi Fink, who once turned down a cruise to Europe if he would officiate on board the ship.

Rabbi Boxman arrived at Har Sinai in 2003. Up until then, he had not officiated at a single interfaith ceremony. He had been thinking about it and, he felt, if he were going to make a change, this would be a good time.

Even now, though, he hasn't done that many and, he admits, he still isn't totally comfortable with the idea. He has devised six "qualifications," his term, to which couples must agree in advance, such as joining the congregation and raising their children as Jews.

Rabbi Boxman pauses. He wants to be crystal clear about his change of heart. He talks about maturing as a rabbi; about the sentiment among his congregants, who seem to be evenly split for and against his officiating; and about the Reform movement's policy.

There is another factor, though, that is beyond his control. Today, if the rabbi of the shul in which you were raised and to which your family has belonged since forever won't officiate, there is no shortage of rabbis who will. Indeed, the Web site, InterfaithFamily.com considers it a service to its visitors to provide that information.

Says Edmund Case, president of InterfaithFamily.com, a Boston-based non-profit organization, "We were getting 65 inquiries a month, even from Europe, from people asking us to help them find a rabbi to officiate. We hired a rabbi recently to respond, to give names and resources."

The point is not lost on pulpit rabbis like Rabbi Boxman. He holds up a hand and rubs his thumb and forefinger together in the universal symbol. "Then it becomes about money," he says, emphasizing his thought with the gesture. "Because for $600 you can find a Jewish clergy who will marry the couple. You can 'buy' a rabbi and it cheapens the experience."

Rabbi Boxman is not the only congregational rabbi in greater Baltimore who will perform interfaith marriages. A few years ago, Rabbi Rex Perlmeter, of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, changed his long-standing policy. His feeling is, a non-Jew who walks into BHC is "making a statement," and he wants to encourage that.

"The big issue is, what is our purpose? And that is increasing the odds of people choosing to live Jewish lives," he says in explaining his decision.

Rabbi Elizabeth Bolton, of the Reconstructionist Congregation Beit Tikvah, says she gets a "steady trickle" of inquiries, about one a month, looking for a rabbi to conduct an interfaith ceremony. Interestingly, a significant number are from the non-Jewish fiancé, who tell her horror stories of repeated rejections elsewhere, of phones literally slammed on them.

"The pain, the anger, the resentment," she says of hopeful couples. "I hear it all."

Nonetheless, Rabbi Bolton is not about to play the role of rent-a-rabbi. Like the other rabbis, she has certain rules, one of which is meeting the couple face to face. Sometimes, it makes her wonder.

"You see two young people, neither of whom is attached to their religion. The Jew hasn't gone to synagogue since his bar mitzvah, there was no observance at home. But they can't imagine not having a Jewish wedding," she says.

Some couples plan to raise their children in both religions. Some couples want a Jewish wedding "for my grandmother." Others want a Jewish wedding "for integrity," then inform her that "the caterer has to start at 6 p.m. on a Saturday." These are examples Rabbi Bolton gives of what she calls "automatic no's."

About 20 years ago, the Baltimore Jewish community initiated the Project on Intermarriage, since renamed the Jewish Outreach Network, a joint program of Jewish Family Services, an agency of the Associated Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, and the Baltimore Board of Rabbis.

Jackie Ashkin wasn't there at the time. But she's heard the stories. "There were protests on Park Heights Avenue," says Ms. Ashkin, coordinator of the network, which provides support and resources to interfaith couples, dating or married, to explore "pathways" to Jewish life.

"Rabbis and community members carried signs protesting that we would even broach the subject," Ms. Ashkin continues. "There was concern that we were putting a stamp of approval on intermarriage, that we were condoning it."

Now, workshops are held on the dangers of interfaith dating. The widely advertised Jewish-only dating site, JDate, has been an astonishing success. Matchmakers are said to be making a comeback.

But the battle over intermarriage was lost long ago. There is hardly a Jewish family in America it hasn't touched. Explanations abound, starting with the assimilation of American Jews into the general society after World War II.

Rabbi Schwartz, of Beth El, has fond memories of his bubbie and zayde, for whom marrying out of the faith was unimaginable. "Where would you even find someone who wasn't Jewish?" was their thinking, a question reminiscent of Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof." But like Anatevka, Tevya's shtetl, that world no longer exists.

Even the parents of adult children marrying non-Jews have calmed down. The days of sitting shiva because of an interfaith marriage are over. Several rabbis use the word "acceptance." At most, Rabbi Boxman says he sees one set of parents per year who are ready to disown the kid. Mainly, they worry that the grandchildren will be Jewish.

When Beth Am's Rabbi Konheim started his career 35 years ago, parents were so angry and upset that they often could not bring themselves to say the non-Jewish fiancé's name. Whether they'd attend the wedding was a real question. At one of his first marriages, the bride had converted and the groom's parents still refused to attend.

"Now, there's a pragmatic acceptance," says Rabbi Konheim. "The level of hostility has gone done. There are so many more interfaith marriages, it's part of the scenery. People have gotten used to it."

Rabbi Goldstein, of Beth Israel, agrees. Parents have come to accept intermarriage as the price of living in America's open society, he says. As a matter of fact, in Rabbi Goldstein's experience, "by a 4-to-1 margin, parents are more upset if their child marries an Orthodox Jew than a non-Jew."

The reason is simple. "Congregations have accepted the intermarried. They have family programs for them. The stigma is gone. But if the child marries Orthodox, they won't come to your synagogue for the holidays. They won't eat in your home," says Rabbi Goldstein, noting that this phenomenon is "probably particular to Baltimore, where you have a large Orthodox community."

Rabbi Chaim Landau, of the Orthodox Ner Tamid Green Spring Valley Synagogue, doesn't use the word "acceptance." It's not part of his vocabulary when he talks about interfaith marriages in which, it goes without saying, no Orthodox rabbi would participate. "Unless both parties are halachically Jewish, it's a non-valid marriage," he says.

Moreover, the rabbi continues, a number of local Orthodox shuls would not accept non-Jews as members. "Of course, there are opportunities within the shul for Jews to bring non-Jews to congregational events. They are allowed to come to events but there is no outreach to the non-Jewish party," says Rabbi Landau.

Such is not the case in Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist Judaism--in other words, all the denominations except Orthodox. Like Sleeping Beauty, these congregations have awoken to the demographic reality of a declining birth rate and dwindling memberships, and they are doing what they can to attract the intermarried. The new buzzwords are outreach and inclusion.

"If you give up on the interfaith families, your congregation gets smaller and smaller," says Rabbi Schwartz.

The challenge, though, is how to do it. The answer is found on a congregation-by-congregation basis.

Some have formal "outreach" programs; others don't feel the need. Some allow non-Jews to serve on committees and on the board of directors; others draw a line in the sand, for instance excluding non-Jews from ritual and/or education committees and officerships.

Some let non-Jews participate fully in the worship service; others place restrictions, such as not saying the v'tzivanu blessing ("you commanded us"), not holding the Torah and/or not having an aliyah.

Reform has a reputation for being welcoming. After all, the movement has been doing outreach for decades and a department is devoted exclusively to it. In the 2001 national Jewish population survey, the most current, Reform membership outnumbered Conservative for the first time. Observers attribute that to Reform's success with the intermarried.

The Conservative movement is, to use InterfaithFamily.com's Mr. Case's word, "conflicted." Beth Am's Rabbi Konheim puts it succinctly: "There are two aspects of Judaism, covenant and family. How do you preserve the first while honoring the second?"

Even the usually upbeat Rabbi Schwartz, of Beth El, acknowledges tension over the Conservative rabbinates' policy of non-officiation and the congregations' subsequent acceptance of the married couple.

"We say, 'We'd love to have you join us after you're married.' It's not hypocritical. It's the truth," says the rabbi, who regularly sees children of non-Jewish mothers and Jewish fathers brought to Beth El's mikvah. At Beth Am, an almost year-long process called "welcoming work groups" just wrapped up. There were several reasons for the process, which examined the congregation's practices, but one was the interfaith issue.

"A number of the founding families, their kids were not members and when you asked why, there was an interfaith marriage. No one had asked what our policy was. They'd assumed that we would be unwelcoming, that we would be hostile," says Rabbi Konheim, whose goal is to make interfaith families "as comfortable as possible" in the congregation.

Other Conservative shuls are undertaking similar studies. Chizuk Amuno in Baltimore has started a series of "sacred conversations" with various groups in the congregation, in order to be more responsive to their concerns. One of those groups is the interfaith. Says Rabbi Ronald Shulman: "Chizuk Amuno is learning to become inclusive."

Beth Israel's study is called Project Chesed, and the aim is to determine how the congregation can be more welcoming, especially to the intermarried. Rabbi Goldstein notes that the Conservative movement's men's clubs, including at Beth Israel, have taken an active role in outreach.

At one time, only the Jewish spouse could be a member of Beth Israel. "The mail went to the Jewish partner. You got one seat for the High Holidays and you could buy a second," says Rabbi Goldstein, who expects the congregation to soon approve one year's free membership to newlywed young couples, including the intermarried.

"There's been a sea change," he says of attitudes toward the intermarried.

On a national level, though, the experts see a different picture. It's not a happy one, either. They argue that the Jewish community is in the midst of a crisis and they fear for its future.

"There are 1 million intermarried families out of roughly 6 million American Jews," Rabbi Kerry Olitzky says, giving a startling figure. "If we don't take this opportunity to reach out and welcome them, our Jewish institutions and communal organizations will continue to shrink."

Rabbi Olitzky is executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute. This New York-based non-profit focuses on the intermarried and the unaffiliated in the United States and Canada through research, advocacy, programs, services and leadership training. One of its programs, The Mothers Circle, for non-Jewish moms to learn about Judaism, operates in 26 communities, including in Baltimore at the Owings Mills Jewish Community Center.

Rabbi Olitzky contends that the Jewish community is failing to reach the intermarried. They are opting out in sky-high numbers.

As proof, Rabbi Olitzky cites another figure: 60 percent of American Jews are not affiliated with the community versus 85 percent of interfaith families. "Community" includes congregations, JCCs and/or federation campaigns.

In the rabbi's opinion, congregations and Jewish institutions are not nearly as welcoming as they need to be. They put up barriers to participation, sometimes inadvertently.

He talks about an interfaith couple's engagement period. Even if the rabbi won't marry them, an announcement can be put in the congregational bulletin, and an aufruf, a celebration on the Shabbat before the wedding, can be held.

Such matters are areas of synagogue culture, not Jewish law, says Rabbi Olitzky. In communities heavy on tradition, though (he refers specifically to Baltimore), it's more challenging to make changes.

Rabbi Olitzky brings up community efforts like Passover workshops. Invariably, they are held in congregational or institutional settings like a JCC but his choice would be a neutral "outside" site like a supermarket.

"You have to go to where the people are. If you cast the widest net, you will reach the interfaith," the rabbi says of a concept known as "public space Judaism."

Not too long ago, Mr. Case was a speaker at a Reform congregation in Washington, D.C. Founded in 2002, his InterfaithFamily.com has grown 30 percent annually. Among its funders are the Baltimore-based Joseph and Harvey Meyerhoff Family Charitable Funds.

Mr. Case says the congregation saw itself as "quite welcoming," but questions from the audience indicated otherwise. "Rabbinic officiation was a big issue. At this congregation, some of the rabbis will and some won't. It left a bad feeling," he remembers.

Ritual participation was another issue. "Why can't a non-Jewish parent who raises a Jewish child pass the Torah during a bar mitzvah? That clearly bothered the parent," he says.

Mr. Case contends that not enough money is being spent on outreach efforts. In Boston, where InterfaithFamily.com is located, the federation annually spends 1 percent of its funding on outreach programs, or $375,000 out of $37.5 million, he says.

As small as this amount seems, the Boston federation is the only one to supply direct support. Nationally, less than one-tenth of 1 percent goes specifically to outreach programs, according to Mr. Case.

In Baltimore, the Associated does not allocate funds specifically for outreach to the intermarried although it supports a variety of programs that engage them, according to a statement from Matthew Freedman, chief planning officer.

Mr. Case says that some Jewish leaders argue it is not worth spending money on outreach because of minimal "Jewish return." But in Boston, 60 percent of interfaith families are raising their children as Jews, nearly double the national average of 33 percent.

"That's the payoff," for him.

At its convention last fall, the Jewish Outreach Institute initiated a new program called Big Tent Judaism. Anyone can sign onto this national outreach advocacy coalition, which will share resources, receive free training from institute staff and spread the message of welcome.

"This is the most significant phenomenon facing American Jews," Rabbi Olitzky says of intermarriage. "What we do today will determine the future landscape of the Jewish community."

Four Families

Non-Issue

Lynda and Robert Eisenberg were married at a country club eight years ago. A cantor and priest co-officiated although, says Lynda, an urban planner by profession, it was primarily a Jewish ceremony.

"The priest said a blessing, and he tried to leave out the Jesus terminology," she recalls.

Robert, a nurse/businessman, is a Baltimore native. He was raised in a Reform congregation but became a bar mitzvah in an Orthodox shul and attended a yeshiva for a while, according to his wife, who hails from Southern Maryland herself.

The couple live in Reisterstown, Md., and have two children, Jacob, 4, who attends the JCC preschool, and Elaina, almost 1. They are not currently affiliated with a congregation but sometimes attend services at Temple Emanuel.

"In Reform, they recognize my children as Jewish and that's important to us," says Lynda, whose son had a bris and daughter a baby naming at Temple Emanuel.

Lynda's experience with the Jewish community has been positive. Her in-laws have been supportive, including them in the High Holidays. Lynda belongs to The Mothers Circle at the JCC, where she has met women in the same circumstances as herself.

"It's a non-issue," Lynda says of intermarriage attitudes. "There are lots of people in this area and in our circle who are mixed marriages."

Called Around

Jennifer and David Hano were married at the Pikesville Hilton five years ago by Cantor Nancy Ginsberg, of Har Sinai Congregation.

It wasn't hard to find Jewish clergy to officiate. "We called around," says Jennifer, a human resources specialist and mother to Lainna, 15 months.

Having a Jewish wedding was important to them. David, a case manager in mental health services, "defines himself as being Jewish and we are raising our child as Jewish," says Jennifer, who wasn't raised in any religion herself.

The couple are not affiliated with a congregation. But they have joined the JCC, where Jennifer is active in The Mothers Circle. When pregnant, she took Lamazal Tov, a childbirth education series from a Jewish perspective.

David has heard a couple of comments about intermarriage. A Jewish friend asked him why he'd married out of the faith. He was volunteering at the Maccabi Games when someone else, a total stranger, scolded him on the subject.

Not so for Jennifer, who has found a welcoming Jewish community. Maybe it's because she "looks" Jewish, she says, or because her husband bought her a Star of David necklace, which she wears. It could be their Pikesville address.

"I almost identify myself as being Jewish because that's how I live," says Jennifer.

Temple Shopping

Melissa and Todd Werner were married three years ago in Connecticut. They had two separate ceremonies: the first by a congregational minister in the church in which Melissa was raised, the second by a Reform rabbi on the grounds outside.

"The rabbi had co-officiated with the minister in another ceremony. But he wasn't comfortable doing the ceremony inside a church, and we wanted two distinct ceremonies," says Melissa, an executive search professional. Todd is a corporate controller.

The couple are Cockeysville residents, have two children, ages 2 years and 6 months, and belong to Temple Emanuel.

After moving to Baltimore, "we went temple shopping, Reform and Conservative," says Melissa, who wasn't impressed with what she heard in the Conservative shuls.

"My perception was, they weren't accepting of me as a full member. There were certain things I could not do on the bima," says Melissa. "I wanted to be a full member and also, it was important that I had a rapport with the rabbi."

Melissa has found the Jewish community welcoming. But, she says, she doesn't know the Jewish traditions that well "so sometimes I put my foot in my mouth."

So far, though, "no one has cast an evil eye on me," she says.

Comfortable Home

Bernadette and Mark Leeds have been married for 16 years. A Catholic priest and a cantor co-officiated at the ceremony, which was held in Bernadette's church in Baltimore.

Bernadette and Mark, federal and state employees, respectively, have one child, Aaron, who had a bris and is being raised Jewish.

"There was a lot of rejection from the Jewish community," says Bernadette, remembering her difficulty finding a Jewish clergy who would co-officiate. Her search eventually led to a cantor in Columbia, Md.

The couple bring a twist to the intermarried scenario. Bernadette is African-American. After her marriage, she took interfaith classes and the couple joined Temple Oheb Shalom, where she found a comfortable spiritual home for herself and Aaron, who attended the congregation's preschool as a toddler.

"They had to accept me as an African-American female, and I feel they have," she says of the Reform congregation.

Bernadette says that both her and her husband's family have been supportive. Such is not the case with some other interfaith families. "Some of them went through very negative experiences," she says. "But that is not our experience."

Known in Hebrew as "magen David" (literally," shield of David"), it is more commonly recognized as the star of David, a six-point star. The symbol has origins in the Torah, and has been used as a symbol of Jewish identity and Judaism in Europe since the Middle Ages. Hebrew for "Jewish law," halacha is the body of Jewish religious law including biblical law (those commandments found in the Torah), later Talmudic and rabbinic law, as well as customs and traditions. Hebrew for "son of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish boys come of age at 13. When a boy comes of age, he is officially a bar mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bar mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The female equivalent is "bat mitzvah." Hebrew for "Day of Atonement," the final of ten Days of Awe that begin with Rosh Hashanah. Occurs during the fall and is marked by a 24-hour fast. One of the most important Jewish holidays. Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. Hebrew, literally, for "sitting," refers to a Jewish educational institution that focuses on the study of traditional religious texts (including Torah and Talmud study). A yeshiva can be a day school for elementary or high school students, or a place of study for adults. Traditionally, a yeshiva was attended by boys/men only; more recently, yeshivas have opened for girls/women and even co-ed yeshivas now exist. Hebrew for "going up," it refers to the honor of saying the blessing over the Torah reading. It can also refer to the act of immigrating to Israel. (e.g. "After falling in love with Jerusalem, Rachel and Christopher made aliyah.") Yiddish for "calling up," it's a celebration of a couple on the Jewish Sabbath prior to their wedding. It usually involves the honor of an aliyah (saying the blessing over the Torah). After the Torah reading, the congregation customarily sings a congratulatory song and may also throw candies at the couple. Yiddish for "grandmother." 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 "collection," referring to the "collection of water," is a bath used for the purpose of ritual immersion in Judaism. Today it is used as part of the traditional procedure for converting to Judaism, by Jews who follow the laws of ritual (body) purity, and sometimes for making kitchen utensils kosher. 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. Hebrew for "seven," refers to the seven days of mourning following the funeral of a family member. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them. Yiddish for "grandfather." The elevated area or platform in a synagogue, from which Torah is read. Worship service leaders, such as clergy, may lead services from the bimah as well. Hebrew for "covenant," often referring to the ritual for Jewish boys when they are 8 days old ("brit milah" - "covenant of circumcision"). It is commonly known as "bris," which is the Ashkenazi or Yiddish pronunciation of "brit." Yiddish for "synagogue."
Barbara Pash

Barbara Pash is the Associate Editor of the Baltimore Jewish Times, and has won numerous awards for her writing locally, regionally and nationally. Most recently, she won Best in Show in the 2007 Maryland-Delaware-Washington, D.C. Press Association for an article about the dilemma rabbis face in performing interfaith marriage ceremonies and the impact interfaith families are having on the American Jewish community.

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