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I Put People First

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I've been officiating at interfaith marriages for the past 32 years. It didn't start out that way--at least for the first month of my rabbinate. Like many rabbinic students I spent lots of time during my five years of rabbinic seminary talking with fellow students about the problems and challenges of interfaith marriage and coming up with a long list of rules and expectations and criteria for when I would and when I would not be willing to officiate. By the time I graduated and was ordained from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion I had my list down to an exact science and thought I was totally prepared to go out into the Jewish world and apply my detailed criteria to whatever requests and circumstances might arise. And then my friends called.

There I was, barely a month after my ordination with criteria in hand, and two of my dearest friends, who happened to be an interfaith couple, called, filled with excitement, bubbling over with joy as they told me that they had gotten engaged and asking (naturally) "Will you do our wedding?" A minute later I realized that I had answered "yes" without even giving it a second thought. And that was it.

In one moment of reality, one moment of bumping up against the real world of real people in real loving relationships who wanted me both as rabbi and friend to sanctify their relationship together in a ceremony, I had the most profound values clarification experience of my rabbinate. At that moment I realized where my true priorities lay and what was really important to me: people. I realized that people and relationships were more important to me than rules, or "tradition."

Ultimately my personal values and personal priorities became very clear. I discovered that individual Jewish people are more important to me than the Jewish people as a whole. Simply put, and I know it really is simply put, I put people first. Period. The rest of my rabbinate for the past 32 years has been just that: putting people first, caring for their personal lives, personal dreams, personal struggles, personal wrestling with who they are and how they can make lives of meaning and purpose and holiness regardless of who they love and who they marry.

This has been my guiding principle and continues to guide my choices and decisions to this day. It is why I have always been willing to do same-gender commitment ceremonies or weddings, interfaith marriages, and as a congregational rabbi with a relatively large congregation of about 1,100 families, include non-Jewish partners and parents fully in every aspect of congregational life with absolutely no regrets.

When I stood on the bima a year ago at Rosh Hashanah and gave a special blessing to the non-Jewish partners of our interfaith families, thanking them for their own unique contributions to the Jewish life of their children and partners and community, I was flooded with gratitude. I can't even adequately express the depth of the emotional response I got from non-Jews who felt validated, their personal sacrifices and commitments acknowledged and their willingness to support Judaism in spite of not formally being Jewish celebrated. It was for me one more validation of why I do interfaith marriages and why I subsequently give a free year's membership in my synagogue to every couple I marry.

I know that my experiences are similar to every other rabbi who officiates at interfaith ceremonies. All of us have sat with couples who have been emotionally scarred and traumatized by how other rabbis have treated them in the process of their search for someone to officiate at their weddings. The rejection that the Jewish partner has felt from his or her religious tradition, the messages they and their non-Jewish partners have received that their union isn't worthy of sanctifying by a Jewish clergy because somehow one of them not being Jewish diminishes its validity.

Over and over throughout my rabbinic career I have felt like part of my job was rescuing Jews from the rejection of Judaism itself. I believe that since the couple is going to get married one way or another, as an official representative of Judaism and Jewish tradition and the Jewish people, I can present Judaism as welcoming, open, encouraging, non-judgmental, safe emotional and spiritual place to explore one's personal spiritual journey. That is the choice that I always make.

My goal is for every couple to know that when they have issues about how to live their lives religiously, how to raise their children, what choices are the best for them to make, they can turn to me as a rabbi and feel confident that I will be a safe and non-judgmental place to work through these many issues. In my personal experience that is exactly what has taken place over and over again. I officiate at a couple's wedding. I give them a membership in my synagogue. They may use it to come to High Holy Day services or they may not use it at all until they have a child years later--and then I am the clergy and my synagogue is the sacred community in which they know they will feel most comfortable as they figure out how to create their own unique religious lifestyle.

I know that is why I have so many interfaith families in my synagogue, and I also believe that is why I have so many non-Jews who ultimately choose to formally become Jewish as well. Many of my congregants choose to become Jews after many years of raising their children (often in the year before their oldest child's Bar or Bat Mitzvah)--not because we push conversion (which we don't)--but specifically because we allow people to follow their own path and discover their own spiritual lives in a non-judgmental way. People have said as much to me time and time again, and have thanked me for allowing them the respect and opportunity to find their own way.

So after 32 years of officiating at interfaith marriages of all kinds, I continue to believe that putting people first is the most important value that I represent as a rabbi. I know it's a cliché, but the most important principle which informs my entire rabbinate is the truth that people don't care how much you know until they know how much you care. It is caring for people and truly being present in their lives and believing that people are doing the best they can to bring meaning and a sense of the sacred into their own lives that continues to inspire me to be a rabbi in the first place.

Hebrew for "Head of the Year," the Jewish New Year. With Yom Kippur, known as the High Holy Days. 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." 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.
The elevated area or platform in a synagogue, from which Torah is read. Worship service leaders, such as clergy, may lead services from the bimah as well.
Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben

Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben is the author of Making Interfaith Marriage Work (Prima Publishing, 1994), A Nonjudgmental Guide to Interfaith Marriage (Xlibris.com, 2002) and There's an Easter Egg on Your Seder Plate: Surviving Your Child's Interfaith Marriage (Praeger Publishing, 2007). He is senior rabbi at Kehillat Israel Reconstructionist Congregation in Pacific Palisades, Calif.

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