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Expansive Chuppah: Washington Hebrew OKs Officiation of Interfaith Weddings--with Conditions

Reprinted with permission from Washington Jewish Week.

September 6, 2006

As members of the District's Washington Hebrew Congregation ready for Rosh Hashanah, they'll be heading into a new Jewish year with a set of recent policies that could set off ripples in the region and beyond.

WHC, the oldest and largest synagogue in the area, has set forth guidelines that, for the first time, permit interfaith couples to have a temple rabbi perform their wedding. The Reform movement overall has not forged a consensus on faith-divergent unions, leaving it to the discretion of individual rabbis.

"I felt I could better serve Judaism by being able to welcome the couple under the chuppah and to participate in the creation of a Jewish home and Jewish life," said Senior Rabbi M. Bruce Lustig, who involved the temple's board and five other clergy in the decision, finalized in May. He also consulted with rabbinic colleagues around the country.

No interfaith pairs have yet stood beneath a wedding canopy at WHC, but temple leaders report an "overwhelmingly positive" response from members, in the words of immediate past president David Vise, who presided over the change.

"I had a number of people say, 'What took you so long?'" said Vise, who sees the core of the new policy as a "real commitment to the establishment of Jewish homes and Jewish families."

Indeed, the new guidelines set forth a seven-point set of conditions for WHC members and their children, entailing a "solemn promise by the couple to establish a Jewish home and to rear their children in the context of Judaism and Judaism alone."

The pair must meet with a WHC clergy member, take an Introduction to Judaism class together and produce a document explaining their shared understanding of a Jewish home and Jewish child-rearing. Like all other couples, they will take part in the clergy's premarital counseling program.

Clergy will not co-officiate with non-Jewish clergy, according to the guidelines. The new policy, however, does allow individual rabbis to choose in the matter of performing the interfaith ceremonies altogether.

The present quartet of WHC rabbis have differing views, with Lustig and Rabbi Josh Burrows choosing to perform interfaith marriages, and Rabbis Joui Hessel and Susan Shankman opting to join their colleagues in counseling and teaching interfaith couples without officiating at their weddings.

Nonetheless, all the clergy and senior staff at the temple signed a May 25 letter setting forth the new policy. The stands of the congregation's two cantors, Mikhail Manevich and Susan Bortnick, on taking part in interfaith ceremonies could not be determined at press time.

Vise stressed that opposition to interfaith marriage would not serve as a bar to retention or hiring of clergy at WHC. In fact, another letter to the membership from the congregation's top lay leaders said "there was no pressure on any of our rabbis, cantors or educators to compromise their beliefs."

"In the spirit of Reform Judaism, we respect the right of clergy to do what is comfortable for them," as in their choice to wear a kippah on the bima or not, Vise said.

The idea of interfaith marriage had provided fodder for discussion for more than 15 years at WHC, he added.

Impetus for change, said current president Hank Levine, came from the membership.

"Too many people were hurt and felt their temple had turned them away," said Levine, who also cited an "overwhelming consensus" on the question.

The District temple, with some 2,652 households, ranks third in size among Reform congregations nationwide, after Temple Israel in West Bloomfield, Mich. (3,117 households), and Stephen S. Wise Temple in Los Angeles (2,984 households), according to the Union for Reform Judaism.

At Michigan's Temple Israel, said Rabbi Paul Yedwab, clergy have been performing interfaith weddings since the congregation's founding seven decades ago. He and his colleagues set similar prerequisites: a pledge to make "an exclusively Jewish home and raise exclusively Jewish children" and participation in an Introduction to Judaism class.

Yedwab sees the policy as a success, estimating that some 50 potential Jews, most part of interfaith couples, come through that class annually, and notes that the temple does some 35 conversions a year.

"What doing intermarriage does for me is that it gives me one hour with the couple, and to me that's a very important hour" in which to make a case for conversion, said Yedwab, who has served Temple Israel for some 20 years. "I get a chance to place those arguments in front of the couple."

Across the Washington area, most rabbis serving Reform-affiliated congregations polled say they do not perform interfaith unions.

Rabbi Jack Luxemburg of Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Md., declines to marry Jews and non-Jews, but offers to counsel them as they discuss their plans. In certain cases, that conversation has led to conversion on the part of the non-Jewish spouse-to-be.

"Many's the time I've sat with a couple where the non-Jewish partner didn't know there was an option to convert," Luxemburg said. "Sometimes, I've ended up at a chuppah with that couple."

But in Winchester, Va., Rabbi Jonathan Brown of Beth El Congregation will lend his office to interfaith marriage on three strict conditions: "that they would establish a Jewish home, raise the child with the intention that it be Jewish and that there be no officiant from a different faith."

That third prerequisite stems from Brown's desire to convey an unambiguous religious message, he says.

"A wedding is a statement, and I want the statement to be clear: Co-officiation muddles that," Brown explained.

Blocks away from WHC in the District, Rabbi Daniel Zemel of Temple Micah opts not to perform intermarriages.

What he does, however, is meet regularly with the non-Jewish partners of Jewish congregants. The Union for Reform Judaism's new push to urge conversion of such members has had "no ripple effect at Temple Micah whatsoever," Zemel said, but he reports doing a lot of conversions.

"I have never, ever been the first to utter the c-word ... but the best welcome is implicit, rather than explicit," Zemel argued.

At Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase, Md., meanwhile, Rabbi Michael Feshbach notes pressure from the Reform grassroots in light of his and other rabbis' willingness to wed Jewish same-sex couples.

"People say, how can you do one and not the other?" said Feshbach, who does not perform interfaith unions. "To me, it's apples and oranges, but I understand why many make an emotional link between the two issues."

Rabbi Brett Isserow of Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Alexandria, Va., resolved years ago while studying for the rabbinate to not perform weddings of Jews and non-Jews, but hints at similar clamor from congregants.

"The bottom line is this is one of the toughest decisions of my career and probably one of the toughest to maintain," said Isserow, who reports declining to officiate at his own brother's interfaith marriage.

At WHC, Levine sees the recent guidelines as a realistic approach to the increase in intermarriage. The 2003 Greater Washington Jewish Community Study found 41 percent of married couples are intermarried.

"It's life in 2006. Part of what Reform Judaism is about is adapting our practices so our faith can continue to flourish," Levine said, noting of interfaith couples, "If you bar the door coming in, it's harder to reach out to them later."

Since the guidelines appeared, Lustig has heard from more than one interfaith couple who would like to hold an anniversary ceremony--under the chuppah.

The pairs, who had civil weddings, "want to be able to have a Jewish wedding for the first time," Lustig said.

Hebrew for "Head of the Year," the Jewish New Year. With Yom Kippur, known as the High Holy Days. 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." 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. Hebrew for "skullcap," also known in Yiddish as a "yarmulke," the small, circular headcovering worn by male Jews in most synagogues, and female Jews in more liberal congregations. Traditional Jews were kippot (plural of kippah) all the time. 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. 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.

Paula Amann is news editor of Washington Jewish Week.

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