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I officiate at interfaith weddings because I believe it strengthens Judaism and the Jewish people, and provides essential support to a new couple beginning their life together. While turning a couple away can be enormously hurtful, officiating is an opportunity to say that the synagogue and all it offers are open to you. Rabbinic participation is a way of illustrating that we Jews are a people strengthened by diversity and confident of our message and its meaning in 21st century America.
For most of Jewish history, interfaith marriage was not only rare but effectively served as an exit visa from Jewish life. Prior to 1960, the rate of intermarriage among American Jews was less than three percent. This rate began to climb in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This new trend reflected the evolution of American society. Through the 60s and 70s, many of the barriers that had impeded Jewish advancement collapsed. University quotas ended and professional positions that had once been effectively closed to Jews became open. Indeed, by the 1990s many of the Ivy League universities that once had Jewish quotas now employed Jewish presidents. As Jews became integrated into mainstream American culture, they began to meet and marry those from other faiths and backgrounds. This new generation of Jews did not see intermarriage as a rejection of Jewish life. Rather, they exemplified Rabbi Alexander Schindler's understanding of intermarriage as the inevitable result of American Jewish acculturation. This new sociological reality demanded a new response.
What has been that response? On one hand, some have argued for a renewed emphasis on endogamy. Growing intermarriage demands that synagogues and communities build stronger walls and promote greater resistance to the "dilution" of Judaism that intermarriage represents. On the other hand, many leaders (and I suspect most of our readers) have argued for a policy of outreach. Rather than reject the intermarried, let us welcome and engage them.
Significant differences exist, however, even among advocates of this more inclusive approach. These differences usually center on rabbinic officiation. There are many who say that we can welcome interfaith couples to Jewish life without officiating at their weddings. Such officiation, they contend, violates one's role as a rabbi and constitutes an endorsement of something that the Reform movement officially discourages. Furthermore, performing such a marriage limits the incentive for conversion. From this point of view, conversion is the strongest indicator of Jewish commitment and increases the likelihood of raising Jewish children.
I understand this point of view and appreciate the way many have come to it. My sense, however, is that a different approach is more effective. A wedding is often a peak moment of life, and it is an opportunity to imprint a wonderful Jewish memory and help a couple begin life together with Jewish guidance and support. Rabbinic participation and counseling can help a couple appreciate the beauty and significance of Jewish rituals and values. It can also help them avoid the damaging feelings of abandonment and guilt frequently experienced by those who feel isolated from their religious community. Many devoted young Jews who fall in love with and seek to marry a non-Jew experience despair when unable to stand under the huppah at their synagogue with their rabbi.
We are missing an enormous opportunity. Rabbinic officiation can serve as an invitation to Jewish life. It can convey the message that we want a couple and their future family to become part of the community, create a Jewish home and raise a Jewish family. It can demonstrate the potential for Judaism to be a source of joy and meaning in an interfaith family.
The growth of Reform synagogues over the last decade has come predominantly from interfaith couples and their extended families. Young adults who grew up in Conservative congregations and who are now intermarrying find the most welcoming home in Reform synagogues, and they are frequently joined later by their parents. Let us welcome such families with open arms. Let us help non-Jews begin their Jewish journeys under the huppah, where lasting memories and associations are formed.
Judaism has survived for more than four thousand years because we evolved and adapted to our time and place. Rabbi Hillel urged leaders of his generation to "Puk Hazai Mai Amma Davar"--go and see what the people are doing. We should do no less. A great number of American Reform Jews are part of an interfaith relationship, and few of them chose their partner in an effort to distance themselves from the Jewish community. Rather, many today are seeking a warm and welcoming rabbi and community. They are searching for a spiritual home and a place to educate their children. We can build those homes. We can exemplify the commandment of welcoming the stranger. And in so doing, we can create vibrant communities for American Jews and their families in the 21st century.