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Reform Rabbis Renew Debate on Officiation

SAN FRANCISCO (JTA)--About 10 years ago, Rabbi Jerome Davidson of Temple Beth El in Great Neck, N.Y., changed his mind about officiating at interfaith weddings.

After he had officiated at the marriage of two lesbians in 1995, some congregants asked Davidson why, if he would bend that far, would he not officiate at their children's weddings to non-Jews?

The criticism hit home.

"I realized that by not being present at certain marriages, I was not doing what I'd been doing for single-sex couples: Be there at the creation of a Jewish home," Davidson said.

Now he is trying to get his Reform movement to support him.

Lev Baesh officiating at a weddingLast year, Davidson brought a resolution to the annual convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the movement's rabbinical arm. It would have replaced the group's current opposition to rabbinic officiation, in place since 1973, with a policy supporting those rabbis who choose to perform intermarriages in certain clearly defined circumstances.

The resolution never made it to the floor. Some rabbis, including Davidson, believed it was just too divisive an issue.

Instead, the rabbinic group created a task force on intermarriage, which will report on its work at this year's convention March 30-April 2 in Cincinnati.

A focus on the hot-button issue comes as new research suggests a connection between rabbinic officiation and the level of Jewish commitment among intermarried families.

Those involved say the task force will spend several more years interviewing rabbis and other experts, collecting stories and commissioning research, with the goal of bringing a proposal to the association's 2010 convention.

"I really want my colleagues to consider my position," says Davidson, who will only officiate when the non-Jewish spouse is not an adherent of another faith and if the couple commit to building a Jewish home.

Davidson says the six or seven couples at whose weddings he officiated are all raising Jewish children.

"If we don't respond, American Jewish life will go on without us and we will be left behind," says Davidson, a member of the task force.

Orthodox and Conservative rabbis are barred by their movements from performing intermarriages. The Reconstructionist movement, like the Reform, is formally opposed to the practice, but both leave the decision to the individual rabbi.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that few Reconstructionist rabbis perform intermarriages.

Among Reform rabbis, however, the tide has been shifting steadily for years, to the point where those who do not officiate at intermarriages feel great pressure to do so--mostly from their own congregations.

Rabbi Howard Jaffe of Temple Isaiah in Lexington, Mass., who hasn't performed intermarriages in his 25 years as a rabbi, says he now feels part of a "beleaguered minority."

Jaffe explains his stance in legalistic terms. In Christianity, the priest or minister confers marital status on a couple. In Jewish tradition, the couple marries each other before two witnesses.

On one hand, a rabbi is not needed. On the other hand, such a marriage can only occur between two Jews.

"At the moment when I as a rabbi stand with a couple where one is not Jewish, I would be functioning as a minister, not a rabbi," Jaffe says. "I would be bestowing a status that is not mine in Jewish law to bestow."

Most Reform rabbis who do not officiate explain their positions more emotionally.

"I can't do it because of the commitments I've made to Jewish life," says Rabbi Steven Foster of Congregation Emanuel in Denver. "I as an individual am not able to do that which is contrary to Jewish tradition."

Both Foster and Jaffe say they never turn away such couples. They work with them before and after the wedding, encouraging them to join a congregation, learn about Judaism and build a Jewish home.

"I tell them it's about me, not them," Foster says. "I don't cast judgment on the intermarriage."

He insists that most couples accept his explanation and aren't turned off from Judaism.

Jaffe isn't so sure. While he tells such couples that he is happy to work with them before and after the wedding, just one has taken him up on the offer. The others often look to another rabbi.

Little concrete research has been done on the connection between rabbinic officiation at intermarriages and the future Jewish choices of such couples.

One 2001 study by the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University found that a rabbi's ongoing attitude toward and support of interfaith couples does more to engage them in Jewish life than whether he or she officiated at their weddings.

Fern Chertok, the senior research associate of that study, says most of the rabbis interviewed did not officiate at intermarriages but took the time to explain their position and welcome the couple actively into the congregation. That made the difference, she said.

Two studies released this month suggest an even closer connection.

One, a study of 149 intermarried couples in four cities conducted by the National Center for Jewish Policy Studies at Hebrew College, found a "statistically sound correlation" between such officiation and eight kinds of Jewish behaviors.

The couples who were married by rabbis or cantors are more likely to be raising their children as Jews (87 percent) than those married without rabbis or by a rabbi co-officiating with non-Jewish clergy (63 percent). They also are less likely to belong to a church (2 percent vs. 26 percent) and less likely to celebrate Christmas or Easter.

A second new study, by the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, showed that 54 percent of intermarried couples who later raise their children as Jews were married by Jewish clergy. In contrast, 80 percent of intermarried couples who decide not to raise Jewish children had no rabbis officiating at their weddings.

Researchers on both studies emphasize they cannot prove causality, that these couples made Jewish choices because a rabbi married them. But the Hebrew College study showed that the couples themselves believe that a rabbi's willingness or refusal to officiate at their weddings had an effect on their later Jewish choices. One-third of the Jewish spouses, for example, said that a rabbi's refusal to marry them distanced the couple from Jewish institutional life.

That's what many Reform rabbis have been intuiting for years.

"The two reports certainly indicate a positive attitude towards rabbis' officiating at their marriage ceremonies," says Rabbi Peter Knobel, the president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. "That is not surprising. We've had that kind of anecdotal information for a long time."

It's a big reason more and more are agreeing to officiate at intermarriages, even if they feel torn by the decision.

Rabbi Philip Rice of Temple Micah in Nashville does officiate at intermarriages, but says it's a position he will continue to revisit. He already has retreated from co-officiating with non-Jewish clergy after a minister reneged on a promise not to invoke Jesus during the ceremony.

Still, Rice says refusing to officiate sends the wrong message.

"It's difficult for a rabbi not to officiate and then ask the couple to join their synagogue," he says.

InterfaithFamily.com, a Boston-based group that helps interfaith families make Jewish choices, is launching a clergy-only discussion and resource-sharing Web site on March 20 for rabbis and cantors, whether they perform intermarriages or not.

Ed Case, the group's president, says there are few if any other such resources.

"The rabbis are left to themselves," he says.

Last year, Case hired Rabbi Lev Baesh as the site's online rabbinic adviser to help interfaith couples find Jewish clergy to marry them. Baesh has nearly 190 rabbis and cantors on his list. Most are Reform, although two have Orthodox ordination.

Baesh is now fielding more than 100 requests a month from interfaith couples who want a Jewish wedding.

"Most are not religious, and many are a little scared," he says.

That was true for Lisa Ramos and Jonathan Weiner of Los Angeles. Baesh will officiate at their ceremony in August in Portland, Maine.

"It was important to us to include spirituality in our wedding," says Ramos, who describes herself as more spiritual than religious. "But we'd been warned a rabbi might not be willing to marry us."

After long discussions with Baesh, the couple is having "a much more Jewish wedding than we'd expected," Ramos says. And she says Baesh's willingness has made Judaism more attractive to her.

"He encouraged us to join a synagogue, and that's something we will want to do," she says. "I think it's important for me, too. I'd like to be involved in my children's lives all around, including their religious upbringing."

At this month's CCAR convention, no decision on rabbinic officiation is expected. The task force on intermarriage has met a handful of times in the past year, according to its chair, Rabbi Charles Kroloff of Temple Emanu-El in Westfield, N.J.

Kroloff cautions it is "premature" to predict whether the rabbinic organization will ultimately revise its position. Most Reform rabbis agree that no change is imminent.

"I believe the zeitgeist is such that we as an organization are not going to make that kind of a step at this point," Jaffe says. "But I would not be surprised if by the time I retire in another 13 years or so, there were a resolution to change the status quo."

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." 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.
Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the West Coast correspondent for JTA. Formerly a features writer and New York correspondent for The Jerusalem Post, her first book, The Rebbe's Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch (Schocken, 2003), was named one of the best religion books of 2003 by Publisher's Weekly.

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