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Why Couples Don't Want Congregational Rabbis--and What You Can Do About It

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In the 15 years since my ordination, I have officiated at more than 350 weddings, most of which were for unaffiliated interfaith couples. During that time, I have found that couples often give similar reasons for not wanting--or being wary of--congregational rabbis...

I'd like to share some of those reasons, and ways in which congregational rabbis can do more to welcome these couples into the Jewish community.

Why Couples Don't Want Congregational Rabbis

  1. Membership requirements, even if there is a reduced fee or no fee at all for the first year (it feels like coercion to them).
  2. Their sense, whether based in fact or perception, that the rabbi they know won't vary from the routine. Many couples are looking for something creative and outside of standard wedding practice and ritual.
  3. The couples are not God-centered, or are uncomfortable with God language, and want a ceremony that speaks of spirituality without religious dogma, including blessings focused on God.
  4. Their rabbi has said things from the pulpit that negates their friends, like interfaith marriage is a "no-no" or that they won't officiate for lesbian and gay couples.
  5. Their life revolves around friends and not around congregations. They feel this is not the time in their life for congregational connection.
  6. Each set of parents wants a different clergyperson to officiate, and this is how the couples settle the debate... by not using either family's rabbi or cantor.
  7. Weddings conducted by friends feel more "authentic" to them.

What You Can Do About It

  1. Don't ask anything of the couple with regard to membership. Trying to coerce them in at a time when synagogue feels irrelevant only hastens their departure and can keep them away longer. Let them know that congregational Judaism will be there for them when they look to return. Let them know that they can gain something from Judaism without joining a congregation.
  2. Vary your ritual from the pulpit and/or talk about life cycle events from the pulpit. Let people know what you are and are not willing to participate in. People are more comfortable knowing than not knowing.
  3. Be willing to let people know where you stand on God language. If you do not have a top down model of God, think about how else you can offer spiritual conversation and guidance outside of traditional blessing formula.
  4. Talk about your views and policies on interfaith marriage and gay and lesbian marriage from the pulpit. Again, knowing is always more comfortable for people than not knowing--even if they don't like what you have to say (I can't count the number of couples who had no idea that their rabbi or cantor wouldn't officiate at the wedding of an interfaith couple, and were devastated when their clergyperson said no). Remember that people need to hear it over and over, because they may not read the temple bulletin or be in services the night you discuss it.
  5. Offer your willingness to guide their ceremony even if you don't officiate. Be their teacher if not their officiant. This goes for all couples, even the ones you wouldn't officiate for in the first place.
  6. Don't make them feel bad about their choices. That is no longer a way to keep people engaged.
  7. Offer to co-officiate with other rabbis and cantors. You can break the tie.
  8. Start early, in religious school, with teachings about Jewish life cycles that fit with who people are today and not "what Jews used to do" or "what is a traditional ceremony." While it may be good to teach about the past and other forms of Jewish practice, speak to your audience and the real lives they lead. Jewish is not a singular model with people practicing on a spectrum from less to more. Judaism is a fabric with many variant threads, colors and patterns. Learn what else is out there and how people can engage Jewishly in the world we live in.
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 member of the Jewish clergy who leads a congregation in songful prayer. ("Hazzan" in Hebrew.) 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.
Rabbi Lev Baesh

Rabbi Lev Baesh is the Director of The Resource Center for Jewish Clergy of InterfaithFamily.

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