Rabbi Steven J. Lebow is the rabbi of Temple Kol Emeth in Marietta, Ga. where he has served since 1986. He has helped his congregation grow from 60 to 860 families, and does outreach in the community on local cable television. He is the founder and CEO of Atlanta Jewish and Interfaith Weddings, which serves interfaith couples with weddings and baby namings throughout Geogia, South Carolina, Alabama, and Tennessee.
Why I Officiate and Co-Officiate at Interfaith Weddings
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Growing up in the 1960's, everybody I knew was Jewish. I went to Jewish sunday school and Hebrew school in south Florida and I attended an all-Jewish summer camp in Georgia. During high school I was involved in Jewish events like NFTY (North American Federation of Temple Youth), USY (United Synagogue Youth) and BBYO (Bnai Brith Youth Organization).
After graduating college in the 1970's I went off to graduate school to get an advanced degree in Jewish Studies and New Testament. Every once in a while I would return to Florida to visit my childhood friends. As soon as I visited my friends I discovered something.
Every single one of the Jewish guys that I grew up with was intermarried. Every single one. No exceptions.
All of those couples seemed happy. All of them seemed well adjusted. When I visited them religion was never discussed. It was just old friends catching up on times long past.
During the 1980's I attended Rabbinical School at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. Little was said at HUC about officiating at interfaith marriages. When the topic came up for discussion there was usually a negative association with officiating at a Jewish-Christian wedding.
I think the die was cast when I caught up with my old friends again. None of the intermarried couples that I had grown up with had affiliated with a synagogue, or any Jewish institution, at all.
When I asked them why they gave a uniform answer. When each had approached a rabbi to see if he would officiate at an interfaith wedding, the rabbis had turned them away. Perhaps even worse, some rabbis had conveyed their disinterest in doing the wedding ceremony but had indicated to the young couples that they could affiliate with the temple, after they had married!
In other words, "I don't acknowledge your marriage or your wedding ceremony, but afterwards we are willing to take your dues..."
As a rabbi, I realize that some of my colleagues were put in a tight spot. They wanted to be welcoming, but they didn't really know how to do that.
But from my perspective they were operating in the 2000's with a methodology that had only been appropriate (maybe) in the 1950's!
As a newly ordained rabbi I had yet to decide whether to officiate or not. That changed when I took my first pulpit. I was the assistant rabbi of a large urban congregation.
At least 40 percent of my new congregants were intermarried. Some Christian spouses chose to convert. Others simply agreed to support the synagogue and to raise their children as Jews. I decided early on to officiate at intermarriages. No rabbi had welcomed my childhood friends into Judaism. None of my friends had chosen to have a Jewish life. I don't blame my colleagues who chose not to officiate. They had deeply held convictions.
Nonetheless, my conviction to work with interfaith couples was likewise deeply held. Two decades have passed since then and my work with interfaith couples has paid off. I have married hundreds of interfaith couples over the years and most of them have become very active in my current synagogue.
Although I was originally opposed to co-officiating, I have even softened in that, as well. I have developed a strong network of Catholic and Protestant clergy. They work with me, knowing that the couple will have a Jewish home, but they still want to be there to represent the Christian side of the family.
None of the Christian clergy that I co-officiate with are rigid. Each one understands that certain theological language ("In Jesus Christ's name ...") will be off-putting to the Jewish side.
Do I recommend officiating at an interfaith service? Each new Rabbi much search the depths of his or her soul. In my current congregation in Atlanta 50 percent come from an interfaith background. In many cities the rate of intermarriage is over 70 percent.
Each rabbi must decide. Do you wish to keep the door open or closed? By officiating at interfaith ceremonies I am doing my small part ... to keep the door open.
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. North American Federation of Temple Youth, the youth group of Judaism's Reform movement in North America. It offers local and regional youth groups, summer programs and post-high school programs. United Synagogue Youth, the youth group of Judaism's Conservative movement in the United States, Canada and Mexico. It offers local and regional youth groups, summer programs and post-high school programs.