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Rabbis Who Serve Interfaith Nuptials Tend to Go It Alone

This article first appeared in the Forward and is reprinted with permission. Visit www.forward.com.

Growing up in suburban Detroit, Lisa Gruson and her family didn't belong to a synagogue. She never attended services on the High Holy Days, and she didn't have a Bat Mitzvah. But when she got engaged last December, she wanted a Jewish wedding.

Trouble was, her fiance, Konrad--raised in an equally non-observant home, albeit a Catholic one--wanted to incorporate his religion into the ceremony as well. And so the complicated search began: Where on earth to find a rabbi--and a priest--willing to say the Lord's Prayer while standing beneath the chuppah on a Saturday night?

As an increasing number of interfaith couples know, the solution wasn't found easily. Despite the ever-rising rates of intermarriage, for many rabbis--who in the Reform and Reconstructionist denominations are increasingly, if sometimes reluctantly, performing intermarriages--co-officiating at interfaith ceremonies has remained the last taboo. Nearly every city has at least one "go-to" rabbi, known in town as the person who will co-officiate, and he or she is often booked years in advance. Despite increasing calls for including intermarried families in synagogue life, such "outreach" seems to end at the altar, or under the wedding canopy, as the case may be.

"The whole nature of interfaith marriage remains the last barrier in the minds of many people to complete assimilation," said Egon Mayer, director of Jewish studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and an advocate for Jewish outreach to interfaith families. "Given that belief, and given that rabbis see themselves as guardians of the faith, it's understandable that [co-officiating] remains a serious source of concern and contention."

"For those reasons, those rabbis who 'give in,' so to speak, are looked at rather dimly by their professional colleagues," he added.

"Over the years, the number of rabbis who are willing to officiate with a non-Jewish clergy person has certainly increased," said Rabbi Irwin Fishbein of the Rabbinic Center for Research and Counseling, a New Jersey-based program that provides support for interfaith families. On his Web site, www.rcrconline.org, Fishbein keeps a list of 292 rabbis who will perform intermarriages, 39% of whom will co-officiate with a clergy member of another faith.

According to Fishbein, however, demand exceeds supply. "Rabbis who officiate intermarriages but do not co-officiate are not really much in demand," he said. "People will usually find a rabbi who will officiate an intermarriage, but co-officiating and the special circumstances of co-officiating are still difficult."

Many rabbis willing to officiate at an interfaith wedding say co-officiating is an unreasonable request to make of clergy. "People ought to be free to create for themselves a ceremony that is expressive to themselves without doing damage to the traditions from which they come," said a Reform rabbi in New England. The rabbi spoke to the Forward on the condition of anonymity, fearing, as is the case for many rabbis, that the fact that he performs intermarriages "will dominate my rabbinate. That they should expect the traditions to conform to their reality as opposed to creating something for themselves is a mistake."

A veteran rabbi of 25 years, "I altered my position on intermarriage out of a desire not to close the door to a huge number of interfaith couples who exist," he said. Over the past decade, the rabbi has performed intermarriages for couples that meet certain criteria, including that the non-Jewish spouse does not actively practice another religion and that the couple makes a commitment to creating a Jewish household.

Orthodox Judaism prohibits rabbis from officiating at mixed marriages, as does the Conservative movement. The Reconstructionist movement permits rabbis to officiate at an intermarriage, but in the Reform movement it's a bit trickier. Although the Central Conference of American Rabbis passed a 1973 resolution barring the practice, no sanctions are applied to those who do it. "It's up to the individual rabbi to make a decision as to whether he or she will participate in an intermarriage," said Emily Grotta, a spokeswoman for the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. An estimated 50% of Reform rabbis will perform an an intermarriage, under various conditions.

Intermarriage is one thing, however, and co-officiating is another. As president and publisher of Interfaithfamily.com, Edmund Case thinks that rabbis should officiate at intermarriages, saying, "no matter how nicely they say no, it's a turn-off." But he hasn't made up his mind about rabbis co-officiating. "If a couple is willing to have a rabbi and other clergy, there's an interest in Judaism," he said. "Maybe if a rabbi would officiate, it would increase the chance that the couple would try and make a Jewish choice for themselves and their children."

Rabbi Philip Berkowitz of Temple Beth Or in Washington Township, N.J., offers a similar explanation in defense of his decision to co-officiate. "First of all, it's better that someone with credentials perform these ceremonies," he said. "The reality is, no matter if the Jewish community accepts or rejects it, individuals are going to proceed [with the practice]. If there were a way to prevent this, it would have been found a long time ago."

The New England rabbi disagrees. "When people are adult enough to get married, adult enough to set the course of who they are and where they're going and what this union represents, it strikes me that the priest and the rabbi are essentially perpetuating the non-decision, deferring it," he said.

Many of the rabbis co-officiating at interfaith ceremonies are not affiliated with any of the "big three" denominations.

Sometimes, they're not even rabbis at all. In February, amid accusations that he was never ordained, Jerry Heller resigned as the rabbi at Temple Beth El in Port Jervis, N.Y. As the owner of the Tri-State Wedding Service--a business specializing in interfaith ceremonies, no questions asked--Heller charged anywhere from $400 to $2,000 per wedding, according to the Times Herald-Record. Now, however, the legality of the marriages is in doubt.

In planning her wedding, "we didn't feel comfortable doing one-half of a religion and not the other," Lisa Gruson said, adding, "tradition is important."

Finding a rabbi willing to officiate with another clergy member can be a nearly acrobatic feat that combines scouring wedding announcements in local papers, phoning an extensive network of friends of friends of friends and pleading with area rabbis to hear their case. "Because so few of us do it, people tend to be incredibly grateful," said Rabbi Miriam Jerris, rabbinic associate for community development at the Society for Humanistic Judaism in Farmington Hills, Mich., who co-officiated at five weddings last weekend alone. "There's a huge level of appreciation. 'I couldn't imagine how you would do it, it was wonderful,' that's what I hear all the time."

"I certainly understand that I take a different position," she said. "'Black sheep' may be a negative term. I kind of embrace it. I'm a woman; I'm a humanist; by the time I get to intermarriage, it's the least radical thing I do."

After an extended round of phone calls, the Grusons booked Jerris and her frequent colleague at interfaith ceremonies, Father Jack Baker, for a Saturday evening in late April. The couple drank from a kiddush (blessing over wine) cup and lit a unity candle. The seven blessings were recited, as was the Lord's Prayer.

"Everything we wanted, we got," Gruson said. "We got to do the hora (Jewish circle dance). We broke the glass. We did the seven blessings. Everything that I felt was significant for a Jewish wedding, I got."

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." 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 "sanctification," a blessing recited over wine or grape juice to sanctify the Sabbath and Jewish holidays. 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.
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, derived from the Greek word for "dance," a variety of dances done in a circle, popular in Israel (and the Balkans).

Lisa Keys is a freelance writer.

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