Rabbi Samuel N. Gordon is the founding rabbi of Congregation Sukkat Shalom of Wilmette, Ill. After 15 years as a rabbi in the Chicago area, he established Sukkat Shalom in 1995 as a unique and innovative congregation serving a diverse population with a specific mission of outreach to intermarried and unaffiliated individuals and families. Rabbi Gordon was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1980.
Challenging Conventional Wisdom
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I have been a rabbi in Chicago since the time of my ordination from Hebrew Union College in 1980. When I first came here I was told that no "respected" Chicago rabbis officiated at intermarriages. In 1981 my own sister fell in love with, and married, a man who was not raised as a Jew, and did not plan to convert, though they both agreed to create a Jewish home and raise Jewish children. I knew my sister was not abandoning Judaism or rejecting it. She was not a failure as a Jew because she had fallen in love with someone who wasn't Jewish. She intended to live a life in which Judaism continued to play an important role. I chose to officiate at her wedding, and I have never regretted that decision.
Twenty years ago conventional wisdom in the Jewish community stated that intermarriage equated to assimilation. The accepted assumption was that Jews who married non-Jews were expressing a desire to reject and abandon their Jewish heritage. As a direct result of these marriages, families would not identify as Jews and children would be raised as Christians or non-believers. Rabbis who officiated at intermarriages were seen as "enablers" of assimilation. Rabbis who chose to officiate at intermarriages often felt marginalized within the national rabbinic organizations.
These past 20 years have taught those of us in the synagogue world a very different lesson. We see in our congregations engaged and active members who were not born as Jews and who have often not converted to Judaism, yet they raise Jewish children, create authentic Jewish homes, celebrate holidays and life cycle events, and find a spiritual home within the Jewish community. As rabbis we recognize these people as among our most loyal and involved congregants. These are the members who seek more Jewish learning, who work with us to increase Jewish spiritual content, and who, many times, become leaders within our synagogue family.
We know by experience that intermarriage does not, by definition, result in a loss to the Jewish world but rather represents a potential gain, both in numbers and in depth of commitment. We, as rabbis, ask the non-Jewish partner to create a Shabbat experience in the home. We see this person at holiday celebrations, family learning activities, spirituality groups, and many more activities of the synagogue. These are our success stories, and we all have them. It is becoming clear to many of us that their desire for a Jewish wedding is the first step in their creating a Jewish home and family.
It is time to reevaluate the message we send to the intermarrying couple. They often feel rejected and condemned by the rabbi who refuses to officiate at a wedding they sincerely hope will begin their Jewish family life. They are too often told that they are making the wrong choice in life partners and that they are abandoning Judaism. They hear a message of Jewish failure, yet it is clear to those of us who work with these families that there is a successful Jewish result of many of these marriages.
I believe that rabbis are the key figures in sending a message of welcome and acceptance to the person sincerely choosing to live within the Jewish world albeit without a formal conversion. The synagogue is the entry point into the Jewish community for people searching for a place in the Jewish world. The synagogue and its clergy are usually the first contact that is made by young couples contemplating marriage as well as for parents of young children seeking pre-school experiences or other programs for young families. How these engaged couples and new parents are greeted and welcomed, or insulted and turned away, can have an enormous impact on the future Jewish choices these people will make. The first place to start in accepting these couples is by welcoming them into the Jewish world through the wedding ceremony which is so important to them. Rabbis are the key people in this effort. I believe that we need to nurture a culture of rabbinic acceptance.
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.