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Is Officiation a Litmus Test for Hiring?

Reprinted with permission from The (New York) Jewish Week.

June 15, 2007

In New York, a recent graduate of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion takes part in employment interviews with representatives of five Reform congregations. Three don't schedule a follow-up meeting. The temple officers, says the newly ordained rabbi, seem shocked that he will not perform intermarriages.

In Atlanta, the rabbi of one of the largest non-Orthodox synagogues in the South decides not to seek an extension of his contract. "One of the challenges," said Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin of The Temple, "was a synagogue culture that had become accustomed to rabbinic officiation at interfaith weddings," a tradition the rabbi did not follow.

And also in Atlanta earlier this spring, the annual convention of the nation's Reform rabbis--sensing the intermarriage issue is roiling the movement as never before--launches a task force to study the "challenge" of mixed marriages. The gulf between some "traditional" rabbis and their more liberal congregants appears to be widening, said the movement's point man on the new task force.

A decade after the movement's rabbinical arm, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, examined the effects of intermarriage and outreach within its ranks, the largest Jewish denomination in the United States is again dealing with a question that may determine its immediate future: Is the marriage ceremony threatening to cause a divorce in Reform Judaism?

With statistical and anecdotal evidence suggesting that the intermarriage rate in American Jewry has risen to around 50 percent, observers see a growing divide in the liberal branch of the religion, between "intermarriage congregations" that permit unions between Jews and non-Jews, and "non-intermarriage congregations" that don't.

Such a polarizing issue--paralleling the mechitza-or-no-mechitza question in some Modern Orthodox synagogues and the egalitarian-vs.-traditional style of worship in the Conservative movement--has led to breakaway congregations and divisions between rabbis and congregants in Orthodox and Conservative Judaism. The tension has become most evident in the Reform movement when temples hire new rabbis or decide whether to retain incumbent rabbis.

"Don't even try [applying to] an 'intermarriage congregation,'" Rabbi Salkin, who is leaving his historic Atlanta synagogue this month after four years, said his rabbinic colleagues advise him. "In many congregations, it's an issue that takes precedence over all of a rabbi's functioning--the rabbi's scholarship and preaching and teaching.

"Officiating [at intermarriages] has become a sine qua non for rabbinic placement."

"I think the issue has become an issue in placement. It's not supposed to be," said Rabbi Charles Kroloff, chair of the CCAR task force.

So far, he said, such policy disagreements are not known to have cost many rabbis' jobs or to have led large numbers of members to leave their temples. But, he said, many fear the Reform movement may be headed in that direction.

"I'm concerned about increasing polarization between rabbis and lay leaders," he said. Hence the task force. "We're not there ... we're not at a crisis ... but we could get there some day."

"It's a major issue in our congregations--a lot of rabbis are trying to figure out what to do," said Rabbi Kroloff, a past president of the CCAR and a vice president for special projects at HUC-JIR. "It's the No. 1 issue for the majority of American Jews today."

According to the interview guidelines set by CCAR, HUC-JIR and the Union for Reform Judaism, lay leaders are not supposed to ask rabbinical candidates about intermarriage policies during employment interviews. "Does it happen? I understand that it does," Rabbi Kroloff says.

"Our lay leaders have become more vocal and more concerned about it," he says, estimating that 60 percent of Reform rabbis, both veteran spiritual leaders and recent ordainees, opt not to do intermarriages.

Intermarriage As 'Tipping Point'?

"My sense is 'yes,'" the intermarriage issue is playing an increasingly prominent role in relations between rabbis and congregations, "but it's completely anecdotal," said Rabbi Steven Leder, senior rabbi at the Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles. "Is the question asked about intermarriage in the hiring process? Yes. Is it the tipping point in some cases? Yes."

"It's harder for Reform rabbis," whose movement, while discouraging intermarriages, leaves its clergy the decision whether or not to officiate, says Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, which advocates an "inclusive" approach to interfaith families.

"The task force is an indication of division among the Reform rabbinate," said Edmund Case, president of InterfaithFamily.com. "A lot of the rabbis who do officiate feel they are looked down on by their colleagues--for all intents and purposes, it is Reform rabbis.

"I think there is growing interest among lay people in having their own rabbis officiate [at intermarriages]," Case said.

Interfaithfamily.com announced this week that Rabbi Lev Baesh, a 1994 HUC graduate, will serve as its first Rabbinic Circle director, offering online advice for interfaith couples who want Jewish weddings. His main tasks will be referring interfaith couples to rabbis who will officiate at their wedding, and running a listserv for rabbis to discuss the issue and share practical tips.

The CCAR in 1973 passed a resolution, reiterating its 1909 stand, that "mixed marriage is contrary to the Jewish tradition and should be discouraged." The rabbinical group declared its "opposition to participation by its members in any ceremony which solemnizes a mixed marriage."

In most cases, observers of the Reform movement say, rabbis who decline to perform intermarriages find themselves at odds with congregations who make the willingness to do so a requirement for employment. This is the case especially in small, rural congregations in small Jewish communities, where no other Jewish clergy are easily available. At larger congregations, senior rabbis who won't do intermarriages often bring onto their staffs assistant rabbis who will.

Sometimes, on the other hand, observers say, some anti-intermarriage congregations are reluctant to hire pro-intermarriage clergy.

"Either way, it does function as a litmus test" more than it did a generation ago, says an upstate New York rabbi who left his position as spiritual leader of a major congregation in the 1990s because he would not do intermarriages. "The demography of the Jewish community is changing--the percentage of intermarriages is going up."

Which means an increasing acceptance of the practice in branches of Judaism that, like Reform, don't abide by the traditional view that intermarriage is strictly banned by Jewish law.

Jewish authorities have traditionally interpreted the biblical prohibition (Deut. 7:3) against the Children of Israel marrying the indigenous nations of Canaan as an outright ban on intermarriage, a ban explained by the Talmud and by such commentaries as the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) and Maimonides' Mishnah Torah.

"The issue has become very divisive," the upstate rabbi says, requesting that he not be identified by name. "It runs the risk of changing the self-definition of the movement," which may find itself split into "two very distinct camps."

Pressure on Reform rabbis to do intermarriages, ironically, is growing, he says, at the same time that many Reform Jews are incorporating aspects of Jewish tradition into their religious observance. "There was a time," he says, "when intermarriage meant by definition that a person was ceasing to identify himself as a Jew." Today, "that same person who intermarries may want to wear a yarmulke when he goes to services. Or he will want a rabbi to officiate at his intermarriage."

Anxiety In Atlanta

Rabbi Salkin, a leading Reform voice for the inclusion of spirituality in Reform life, says his policy on intermarriage always is discussed early in preliminary employment interviews with other congregations. When lay leaders hear his position, he says, "the conversation grows cold and the phone grows dead." When he first interviewed for rabbinic positions in the 1980s, he says, "this was not an issue."

The rabbi says he decided a year ago not to seek renewal of his contract at The Temple, a landmark congregation in Atlanta, because of a "certain amount of discomfort" over matters of philosophy and personal style.

At The Temple, Long Island-born Rabbi Salkin was a Northerner in a Southern pulpit, an outsider following a long-term, native-born rabbi. "I have a Woody Allen-ish perspective on the world," he says. "I can be a little intense at times."

The rabbi, who says he welcomed intermarried families into his congregation and agreed to speak at intermarriage ceremonies performed by colleagues, would explain his policy in terms of the marriage text, which "assumes the Jewish identity of both partners. The wording of the wedding ceremony is a strictly Jewish ceremony."

Rabbi Salkin says his unwillingness to officiate at intermarriages or to co-officiate with non-Jewish clergy "caused some disappointment" during his years at the temple. Congregants' requests for him to perform intermarriages decreased over the last two years, after his policy became known, he says, "and The Temple allows all clergy to follow their conscience on this matter. I wholeheartedly support that freedom."

Temple officers did not return calls from The Jewish Week asking for comment on the subject.

According to a recent update on The Temple's web site about the search for a new senior rabbi, the congregation, "recognizing the number of interfaith families in our congregation ... acknowledge[s] the need to establish a welcoming and inclusive environment for life cycle events that involve non-Jewish partners."

Rabbi Jeffrey Weill, recently ordained by HUC, said "a chill fell over some people in the room" during one employment interview when he answered a question about his intermarriage policy. The temple officers, he said, preferred a candidate who would do intermarriages.

The rabbi said his "honest" answer probably hurt his chances of getting a second interview with the congregation. "It certainly could have been a reason."

"I've heard the 'chill comes over the room' response," Rabbi Kroloff says.

Seminars at HUC-JIR discuss the issue, and teachers at the school counsel students who encounter resistance on the topic during job interviews.

Mark Criden, executive director of Temple Beth Zion in Buffalo, N.Y., says he noticed lay leaders' strong feelings on the subject during a round of recent interviews for an assistant rabbi. "There are many [lay] people who are unhappy about the fact that many of the young [rabbis] won't do it. Many of them feel ... that we want to be in the position of servicing our congregants."

"Servicing," Criden says, means, in many cases, providing rabbis who will do intermarriages.

"We definitely asked" the rabbinical candidates about their intermarriage policies, he says. "We asked them directly. It wasn't a litmus test. It's a factor."

"I agree that this is something the congregation should know," Rabbi Weill said of his recent interviews with temple officers. "If they asked this of me, they asked it of all the candidates."

He says one lay leader told him, "We're looking for a rabbi who is 'contemporary.' That is a way of saying a rabbi who is open to doing intermarriage."

This summer, Rabbi Weill begins work at one of the congregations that interviewed him, in the Chicago area, as an assistant rabbi.

He doesn't know what the congregation's policy on intermarriages is. "They didn't ask me."

Hebrew for "Set Table," also known as the Code of Jewish Law, it is the most authoritative legal code of Judaism, authored by Rabbi Yosef Karo in 1563. Yiddish for "skullcap," also known in Hebrew as a "kippah," 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. A divider (such as a curtain or barrier) that separates men and women at prayer. Hebrew for "repetition" (from the verb meaning "to study and review"), it refers to the first major written redaction of the Jewish oral traditions ("Oral Torah"). Mishnah is the first post-biblical collection of Jewish legal materials, and the primary building block of the Talmud (the major collection of Jewish law), as interpreted by the rabbis. 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 "instruction" or "learning," a central text of Judaism, recording the rabbinic discussions pertaining to Jewish law, ethics, philosophy, customs and history. It has two parts: Mishnah (redacted c. 200 CE) and Gemara (c. 500 CE), an elucidation of the Mishnah. 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 first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them. Hebrew term, synonymous with Jerusalem.

Steve Lipman is a staff writer for The Jewish Week.

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