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A Case for Accepting Interfaith-Married or -Partnered Applicants into Seminary

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When I wrote to Hebrew College (HC) about my interest in applying for admission, I suppose I shouldn’t have been taken aback by the news that, as a Jewish partner of an interfaith marriage, I would not be considered for admission. Nevertheless, I was. Hebrew College is the newest and arguably most progressive full-time rabbinical training program in the United States, and I expected an equally progressive response from them. By the time I spoke to the director of admissions, I had gotten over my initial shock enough to ask for their reasoning. As HC does not expect full halachic compliance from its students, considers itself on the cutting edge of Jewish thought and spirituality (according to sources inside the school) and describes its program as “trans-denominational,” I wondered why this particular barrier was being upheld.

It turns out that the director’s best argument for excluding students like me was the importance of modeling appropriate Jewish families (which I address below). But the director also cited a need for the faculty to elaborate their policy to answer uncomfortable questions like mine, because--surprise--I wasn’t the first to ask. I asked if I could write this paper, so that the faculty could consider my alternate position--that it might behoove them to become the first full-time reb school to accept interfaith-married or -partnered applicants. I present this now as a thoughtpiece, in hopes that, as the issue moves into a more public sphere, increased awareness and discussion begins to move our broader institutions--not just rabbinical schools--toward the full implications of interfaith realities and the best ways to deal with them.

Since its beginnings, the Jewish tradition has reacted boldly, at times prophetically, to changing realities. As recent population statistics bear out, we are undoubtedly living in changing times and have been for at least two decades. Some segments of our community have responded with foresight to the increased numbers of Jews in interfaith relationships, realizing that this change presents an opportunity to promote vibrancy within a Jewish culture whose natural birth and conversion numbers alone would otherwise threaten its long-term prospects.

Rabbinical colleges have been slow to take a leadership role in this aspect, with none of the denominational programs so far willing to take on interfaith-married or -partnered students. In a recent email exchange, one of your graduates described Hebrew College’s Rabbinical School as "a project with the vision and force to be a real change agent in the 21st century Jewish community." As such, the program has the opportunity, indeed the obligation, to not merely follow its less courageous peers, but to lead, to face this reality with the full boldness of our tradition.

The "full range of diversity within the Jewish people" that the literature of the program calls students and rabbis to embrace, and the "community that delights in varieties of Jewish self-expression" that it asks them to create, must necessarily include interfaith families. These families cannot be fully embraced, however, if they are solely and wholly "other" to the rabbinical school experience: rabbis in interfaith relationships must be a part of that creation. Only then, as a true klal Yisrael--a community of God-wrestlers--can we best serve our communities and lead them toward a renewed, vigorous and relevant Judaism.

The Reality of our Community

The face of Judaism has changed.

According to the 2001 National Jewish Population Survey, roughly every third married Jew is married exogamously, which means that approximately 50% of married households with at least one Jewish partner are intermarried. (1) In the face of these demographic realities, our community has initiated outreach to these Jewish families, so that they feel welcome and in turn committed to raising their children with Jewish choices and community.

Indeed, the link between accepting interfaith families into our communities, on one hand, and the Jewish involvement of the next generation, seems clear: According to a recently published report surveying the Boston Jewish community, the practices of interfaith families belonging to synagogues are almost identical to those of endogamous (Reform) Jewish families with regard to rates of supporting Jewish institutions and observing Jewish rituals and festivals--including lighting Shabbat candles--and not very different in terms of early and b’nai mitzvah education for the children. (2) While no studies have yet addressed alternative communities in the same way, one could reasonably assume that the same is true for membership in independent minyanim, havurah communities, and similar non-affiliated organizations.

Another study, published by The National Center for Jewish Policy Studies at Hebrew College, shows a strong correlation, if not causality, between having a rabbi officiate at interfaith weddings and a family’s decision to keep a Jewish home. (3) While this probably means that couples who were predisposed to Judaism are more likely to stay so, the survey also found that Jewish-predisposed couples were turned off by rabbis' refusals to perform the ceremony. (4) This points to an outright demand for rabbis sensitive to the issues surrounding interfaith partnerships and ceremonies.

Qualitative research by InterfaithFamily.com suggests that "it may be the poor reception which intermarried couples receive, rather than intermarriage itself, which creates a barrier to be overcome before couples can even consider raising their children Jewish." (5) In addition to direct interaction with rabbis or synagogues, policies at Jewish institutions, including rabbinical schools, contribute to that overall "reception" that can influence whether an intermarried couple decides to embrace Judaism.

There are other compelling reasons to rethink Hebrew College’s admission policy vis-à-vis seminarians in interfaith relationships, but the underlying issue is clear: our institutional response to interfaith families is crucial if we are to keep this growing segment involved with, and connected to, Judaism. Perhaps the first step in formulating our way forward comes from a respondent in an InterfaithfaithFamily.com essay contest, who described her household as "a Jewish family in which one parent is not Jewish"(6)--a Jewish family deserving of equal treatment.

Removing Barriers to Service

How can we best serve this growing segment of our population? This is probably one of the most vexing problems facing a 21st century rabbi. A modern rabbi's mission should be to foster the spark of Jewishness in our entire community, in all the families, opening them up to a greater connection with God and a greater sense of meaning in their lives. Likewise, a rabbinical seminary’s mission should be to train and prepare future rabbis for this task.

To that end, the contemporary denominational practice of endowing the rabbinate with vestiges of Temple-like priesthood--from tefillah leadership to central roles in lifecycle events(7)--merits examination. Although these functions now fill an important role in helping people access their connection to God and community, they have also fostered a tendency in contemporary Jewish culture to place rabbis on a "holier" level, (8) thus creating a false barrier between rabbis and the rest of the community and detracting from the very connection and meaning that are the rabbi’s mission. Rabbis and their ordaining bodies would better serve their basic missions by transcending this barrier and emphasizing their roles as teachers and spiritual-community facilitators.

Taking rabbis off a priestly plane eliminates the need for setting different standards for rabbinical students and the community at large. The standard simply becomes competence: who can be the best teacher and facilitator? The condition of her or his marriage--as with gender and sexual orientation before it--becomes irrelevant. Hebrew College’s Rabbinical School, with its strong textual emphasis, trans-denominational status, unique spiritual leadership and stress on social justice, has already taken important steps toward asserting this rabbinical paradigm. Now it needs to take the next step and change its interfaith-partner policy.

A Positive Model for our Diverse Communities

Given that the role of rabbi can be fulfilled by the interfaith-married or -partnered, should it? In other words, is it good for the Jews? Yes. Because of our community’s diversity, the families we choose to set up as models make a difference. An intermarried rabbi can be an effective role model within the 21st century klal Yisrael, not because such modeling advocates intermarriage (an unlikely proposition), but because a significant number of already intermarried couples urgently need it.

A rabbi stands in a unique position to demonstrate how to live more Jewishly; an interfaith-married or -partnered rabbi can also demonstrate this to families with a partner of a different faith tradition. The fundamental lesson is, "Yes, you can marry who you love, and this is how to do it in a Jewish way." What better way to teach this than by ordaining rabbis with a passionate commitment to, and strong practice of, Judaism, who preserve a loving Jewish family with someone who isn't Jewish? With the increased need to welcome interfaith families, it becomes more important to include these voices in the rabbinic community, for it is difficult to teach, much less model, that about which we have no experience.

My Personal Experience

I am a child of intermarriage myself, raised as a Jew in a Conservative congregation. Like many of my peers, I became, as an adult, a secular Jew with strong inclinations toward social justice. Early in my relationship with my wife Amberly, we had a serious discussion about God and religion. Why was it important to me to raise my children Jewish? I wasn’t sure; it just was. What did I think about God? I found a strong sense of spirit in nature, human connections, and music, but it didn’t correlate to any of my formal "Jewish" understanding of God. There was real tension there, because Amberly, though dissatisfied with the strain of Christianity in which she was raised, had a very strong sense of her spiritual and religious personhood and couldn't understand why I clung to a Judaism that seemed largely irrelevant to my life.

A few months later, I found a Jewish Renewal congregation and found God. It turns out God was there all along, but it took Renewal’s vision of Judaism for me to connect the dots between God, my private spirituality, my need to create a better world, my Jewish upbringing and my future wife. Through our congregation, Amberly and I were able to connect to the Echad, which brooks no distinction among the nations, and develop a rich Jewish practice at home and within our community. We were married under a huppah, with a rabbi officiating, and are committed to one day raising our children with Jewish choices and community.

Instead of watering down my faith to a universalist or syncretist lowest common denominator, my desire to deeply connect with my Christian partner, and subsequent exposure to Renewal Judaism, sparked a desire to become deeply involved not only in my community but also in Judaism itself, ultimately leading me to want to pursue an intimately and explicitly Jewish life through the rabbinate. In a very real sense, my intermarriage is the best thing to happen to my Judaism. Does it make it harder for me to convince others to live a Jewish life? Quite the opposite: it underlies the very reason I can.

My relationship with and connection to YHVH, the incomprehensible mixture of tenses that reveals the possibility of possibilities, has grown since that conversation with Amberly five years ago. It literally gets me out of bed in the morning and informs my every choice and relationship. It is also why I’m writing this paper, out of the courage of my conviction that Hebrew College Rabbinical School should change its policy.

A Vision of Change Agency in the 21st Century Jewish Community

Our community--both at the institutional and the popular level--needs our leadership at this very moment. We have waited too long to act, and cannot now react with half-measures. Ordaining interfaith-married rabbis not only represents Judaism’s welcome to interfaith families; it also lifts high a model for intense, passionate Jewish living and connection in a mixed-faith marriage.

I will be an agent of this change in my future rabbinate, regardless of where I receive smicha, and I would like Hebrew College to join me in bringing about that change. I therefore propose the following policy statement, which expresses a progressive stance on the Jewish family while underscoring the importance of a rabbi’s role in promoting Jewish life, whatever form it may take.

“Because we believe in the importance of Jewish family modeling, applicants who are married or in a committed relationship will need to show commitment, knowledge, and passion for creating a Jewish household. Because there is a vast array of ways of being a Jewish family, we accept applicants in interfaith relationships and marriages who will be able to engage with, support, and otherwise Jewishly enrich the families of the communities they serve.”

I have struggled with a more specific formulation, and ultimately rejected setting requirements for interfaith-married or -partnered applicants beyond what is expected of applicants with Jewish partners or spouses. The judgment already inherent in the admissions process should be good enough to vet candidates, whoever they may be married to.

I realize that by adopting this proposal, Hebrew College would be putting itself outside the mainstream of Jewish institutional thought. But one cannot be both a leader on the cutting edge and a follower. Change is necessary as Judaism moves into the 21st century, not only for rabbinical seminaries, but for all Jewish institutions. As leaders and rabbis, we must act out of our highest ideals rather than our fears. Because this policy shift is no small step and will mean no small amount of work to execute, I would be happy to labor alongside you in what way I can to make this a reality. I look forward to the challenge.

1: Dashevsky, FAQs, pp 9-10

2:Combined Jewish Philanthropies, p. 12, 13, 15, 16, 22

3: Dashevsky, Intermarriage, p.19

4: Dashevsky, Intermarriage, p. 30

5: Case

6: Case

7: Blecher, p. 149-151

8: Ibid.

 

Bibliography

Blecher, Rabbi Arthur. The New American Judaism: The Way Forward to Challenging Issues from Intermarriage to Jewish Identity. New York and London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Case, Edmund. Learning from Interfaith Families. InterfaithFamily.com

Combined Jewish Philanthropies. The 2005 Greater Boston Community Study Intermarried Families and Their Children. Boston: Combined Jewish Philanthropies, 2008.

Dashefsky, Arnold, and Zachary Heller. Intermarriage and Jewish Journeys. Newton Centre, MA: National Center for Jewish Policy Studies at Hebrew College, 2008.

Dashefsky, Arnold, Ira Sheskin, and Ron Miller. FAQs on American Jews – Number 2 Intermarriage Data. Storrs, CT: the Mandell L. Berman Institute--North American Jewish Data Bank at the University of Connecticut, 2008.

United Jewish Communities. The National Jewish Population Survey 2000–01: Strength, Challenge and Diversity in the American Jewish Population. New York: United Jewish Communities and Storrs, CT: the Mandell L. Berman Institute--North American Jewish Data Bank at the University of Connecticut, 2003.

Hebrew for "All of Israel," a term used to describe and promote a sense of shared community and destiny between Jews around the world. Derived from the Hebrew for "Jewish law," it's pertaining or according to 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 "prayer." Hebrew for "fellowship," a lay-led group that meets for Shabbat or holiday prayer services, life cycle events, and/or Jewish learning or discussion. Hebrew for "commandment," it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. ("You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!") The second is a good deed. ("Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!") The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. 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 "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. 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.
E. David Curiel

E. David Curiel is preparing himself for future rabbinic candidacy. Currently living in Spain, he is a wine merchant turned freelance writer and translator.

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