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Rabbi's Message: Change in Interfaith Wedding Policy

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June 29, 2010

From the January 2010 bulletin of Temple Sinai, Rochester, N.Y.

A number of people have inquired about our new policy regarding interfaith weddings here at Temple Sinai. We are happy to take this opportunity to explain some of the thinking and background that went into the process of this forward thinking and positive development.

To begin with, it is necessary to understand that the rabbis of a congregation are granted freedom of and responsibility for what occurs on the bima. That implies that decisions such as whether or not an interfaith wedding takes place in a congregation is a rabbinic prerogative. The congregation makes the decision of who they choose to be their rabbis.

During the 23 years of Rabbi Katz's tenure and the six years of Rabbi Sapowith's, no interfaith weddings were performed by any Temple Sinai rabbi. This policy allowed the rabbis to remain part of the local board of rabbis, who decided many years ago that no rabbi who performed an interfaith wedding would be eligible to become or to remain a member of this local board. In the hiring of our first two assistant rabbis, the hiring committees made it clear to the rabbinic candidates that this policy was in force. However, the discussion of whether this was the way we would continue has been ongoing for many years. Congregants, board members and officers have often shared their opinions, which many times were not the same as that of the senior rabbi.

When Rabbi Katz attended his first Rochester Board of Rabbis meeting, he told his colleagues that although he complies with not performing interfaith weddings, if any legitimately ordained rabbi would come to town and be excluded because of their own conscience to perform such ceremonies, he would resign in support of the right of rabbinic autonomy.

During the past year, Rabbi Katz and Rabbi Sapowith discussed the possibility of a new policy. Ideas were shared with a few Temple Sinai officers. When the two rabbis came to their decision that Rabbi Katz, as the senior rabbi, would allow the associate, in this case Rabbi Sapowith, to decide, according to her own conscience guided by a specific set of criteria, whether or not to perform Jewish wedding ceremonies for couples where only one party was Jewish, this decision and the criteria were relayed to the executive committee. The criteria include the following: No co-officiation with non-Jewish clergy; a commitment to creating a Jewish home; a commitment to raising any children with an exclusively Jewish identity; a commitment on the part of the non-Jewish partner to a course of study about Judaism; and the commitment to affiliate with a synagogue. The executive board heartily endorsed the new policy.

In order to relate this policy in a direct manner to the congregation and to avoid rumors and misconceptions, Rabbi Katz decided to announce the new policy at his Rosh Hashanah morning sermon, and Rabbi Sapowith agreed to follow suit at the family service so that we could together reach a significant percentage of our membership.

Since that time, numerous things have occurred. The Temple Sinai board of trustees overwhelmingly supported the decision. As we anticipated, the Board of Rabbis asked for Rabbi Sapowith’s resignation. The Board of Rabbis and Rabbi Katz mutually agreed to part ways. Rabbis Katz and Sapowith requested to continue to teach in the Board of Rabbis' Basic Judaism course, but that request was denied. We are now in the process of developing a course of basic Judaism for Temple Sinai. The Board of Rabbis explain that they are not acting out of ill will, but rather they are enforcing the rules of the board by which they feel governed. That said, a number of the local rabbis have contacted both Rabbis Katz and Sapowith offering their support as friends and colleagues, whether or not they personally agree with our policy. In addition, numerous congregants and many other members of the greater community have gone out of their way to also express their support. We are happy to report that Rabbi Sapowith has already begun working with a number of lovely couples, all committed to creating and being part of the Jewish community.

Rabbi Katz and Rabbi Sapowith

Hebrew for "Head of the Year," the Jewish New Year. With Yom Kippur, known as the High Holy Days. 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. 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 Amy J. Sapowith

Rabbi Amy J. Sapowith is Associate Rabbi of Temple Sinai, Rochester, N.Y. Rabbi Sapowith was ordained from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles in 2003.

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