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Open Hearts and an Open Door: A Different Jewish Response to the Challenge of Interfaith Marriage

This piece was written as a sermon, delivered Yom Kippur morning 5772 (October 8, 2011). It has not been edited.

It is a typical beginning to my morning of work. I boot up my computer, go to my in-box, and if the tech goblins that plague my life are not particularly malevolent that day, I read my first e-mail.

Dear Rabbi,

Your name was given to me by a friend of mine, who told me about BJS. I am engaged to be married. I'm Jewish, but my fiancé is not. She's interested in Judaism, but isn't sure she wants to convert. I'm not all that religious at this point in my life, but my heritage is very important to me and I am really hoping to be married by a rabbi.

I've already called about six other synagogues. No one will even talk to us unless my girlfriend promises to convert before our wedding. I can't ask her to do that just now, since I'm not even sure what I believe myself.

We're getting a bit desperate, and we're really kind of confused.

Would you by any chance be willing to see us and talk with us about our wedding?

Friends, with some variations in details and context, I receive at least five e-mails - and often, as many phone messages — just like this every single day. The deep hurt and pain...the spiritual and emotional cry for help...and the enormous promise and potential that such a call represents, are all part of the complex question I want to discuss with you on this Yom Kippur Morning... the issue of interfaith marriage... without a doubt, the most critical challenge facing Jewish life in America today.

Over the past fifty years, the findings of every survey of demographic statistics and trends in the Jewish community have reaffirmed that the Jewish population of the United States, the largest and most important Jewish community in the world - is gradually aging, slowly shrinking, and heading for an unsure future as a proportionately insignificant voice and presence in American life and culture. The major factor in the picture is clearly the ever- increasing rate of intermarriage. In 1963, at the time of the first major definitive study, barely five percent of American Jews married partners of another faith. By some estimates, this proportion has today risen to almost 60 percent! Most of us have known of this trend for years — and we didn't need demographic statistics to tell us about it! We just had to look at our own children — and the names on the wedding invitations we received from everyone else's children. But there are other developments documented in recent demographic studies that reveal some of the more complex implications of this reality.

It has been estimated that as much as three-quarters of the children of intermarriages in America today are not being raised as Jews. Surveys indicate that many couples are either joining the churches of the non-Jewish partner, or seek a compromise in settings they perceive as neutral alternatives, such as Unitarian Universalist congregations. And many — perhaps most — remain alienated and unaffiliated, often abandoning religion altogether, and bringing up their children without a spiritual identity.

And it is clear that the intermarriage debate continues with unabated vehemence — centering on the steadfast refusal of the vast majority of rabbis — Reform as well as Conservative and Orthodox — to officiate at the wedding ceremonies of mixed faith couples, as an elusive and futile effort to stem the tide.

My own position, born out of my personal struggles with issue, and my pastoral experience as a rabbi over almost 40 years, is an expression of my understanding of the principles of our historic liberal Classical Reform Jewish tradition. When I was ordained thirty seven years ago, the overwhelming majority of my colleagues stood steadfastly against officiating at weddings of a Jew and a non-Jew. While technically, the national Reform Movement was compelled to allow each rabbi to make this decision for themselves, the strong message officially was one of discouragement and disapproval. However, early on in my rabbinic career, after deep reflection, a great deal of argument and debate, and many painful and difficult encounters with families struggling with this question, I came to the decision that one of my personal missions and priorities as a rabbi, was to lovingly welcome and support interfaith couples in the celebration of their love and the beginnings of their spiritual journeys together. I personally encountered the ever- increasing numbers of young Jews falling in love with and marrying young people of different faiths and backgrounds. And I came to learn that this was a decision which did not at all reflect a rejection of Judaism on their part, as the conventional wisdom claimed. I realized that this trend was rather an unavoidable demographic reality in our free, open, pluralistic American society, in which — thank God — Jews were — for the first time in our history, full and equal citizens — free to live among, work with and build close relationships with non-Jews. And I came to realize that we — as a community and as families — and I as a rabbi — could play a critical and even decisive role in determining what direction this trend could take. Either we could rant and rave and "sit shivah," as generations had done before; either I as a rabbi could reject such couples and refuse to support them as so many of my rabbinic colleagues were doing — or, I and my congregation could warmly welcome them — celebrate their weddings — work with them in exploring our tradition, and help them find a home — together in Judaism. I came to believe that the bitterness and alienation that many young Jews felt, because of the way their parents and rabbis responded to their relationships, was tantamount to creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Intermarriage would indeed lead to the end of the Jewish faith and people — if we rejected and turned these young people away! The more I met with and counseled couples in this situation, the more I realized that contrary to turning their backs on Judaism, they were eager to rediscover their faith and heritage, and share it together with their partners. And I came to believe that the best and most authentic response I could make with integrity was one of love and understanding ... an open heart ... and an open door...

I also became convinced that requiring a conversion of a non-Jewish partner merely for the sake of a wedding ceremony — which so many other rabbis insisted upon — was an inappropriate presumption. One cannot "require" such a thing of another human being and we Jews should know that better than anyone!

And, moreover, I could not in good conscience agree to convert someone whose decision to accept the sacred and profound responsibilities of Judaism, was based primarily on the desire to please an insistent fiance or placate hysterical in-laws. Such a conversion is an empty sham — a hypocrisy — and a disservice to our faith. Instead, I formulated the philosophy that developing an ongoing relationship with a couple; providing a continuing opportunity for them to learn about and experience Judaism together, in a warm and supportive environment, would be the best advertisement for our faith. This would be the most authentic motivation for a couple's decision to join a synagogue and to establish a Jewish home; to meaningfully, intelligently and sensitively raise Jewish children and perhaps, ultimately, for the non-Jewish partner to seriously consider the possibility of conversion. And yet, I was determined to count these partners as cherished, full members of the temple family, whether their search brought them to that decision or not.

I have always been encourages and inspired by the practical results of this approach. I am proud to say that to my knowledge, a major proportion of the interfaith couples I have married over the years, both in my twenty years at Chicago Sinai Congregation — my long-time pulpit where I first instituted this approach — as well as many whom I had the privilege of joining together in marriage here in Boston — are members of temples, living Jewish lives and raising their children in committed Jewish homes. Moreover, the non-Jewish spouses of so many of the interfaith couples that I have married, are some of the most active and Jewishly knowledgeable temple members I have known. Many of them, of their own choice and on their own timetable — have decided to prepare for conversion and have formally made their personal commitments to the Jewish faith and people. And I believe that these are far more authentic and deeper choices than those mechanically required by so many of my rabbinic colleagues as the forced prerequisite for a twenty minute wedding ceremony.

Just as important, have been the drastic transformations of the Jewish partners whose lives have been transformed by this approach! I always tell a prospective wedding couple that I am far more interested in the conversion of the Jewish partner than the Gentile! The pattern is virtually identical in every case: a young man or woman who has had a typical nominally Jewish upbringing: the usual pattern of coerced attendance at a mind-numbingly boring and ineffectual Hebrew School — rote , mechanical training for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah — whose major lasting impression was an obscenely lavish party — "more 'bar' than 'mitzvah'" as the saying goes — and then virtually no personal contact or religious involvement through their college years and young adult life...until they start dating a non-Jewish boy or girl and have to start taking a hard look at what their own Jewish identity means to them! They are sometimes alienated or ambivalent, but I must say, more often than not, they feel warmly and proud of their Jewish identity — regardless of how latent and suppressed it might be. However, most have never taken the opportunity to explore and experience its deeper meanings as thoughtful, responsible adults. And most of them are open and eager for an encounter with Judaism as a vital personal religious faith, as a path to exploration and possible spiritual discovery of the transcendent in their lives — rather than the narrow, simplistic, materialistic, primarily social kind of ethnicity — which so many young Jews have grown up thinking was all there is to being Jewish.

And the tragedy here is that so many of these young people — hundreds of thousands of them — turning to the rabbis and synagogues they grew up with for support and guidance at one of the most important moments of their lives, have had doors slammed in their faces — and hostile rejection from their families... often with attitudes that border on bigotry and racism. It is no wonder they left! It is that self-fulfilling prophecy at work ... by those very Jewish leaders, and families, who profess to be most concerned about Jewish survival... including congregations whose policies prohibit officiation at ceremonies for interfaith couples, and then have the chutzpah to urge them to come back after their weddings elsewhere and join as members! I cannot comprehend the insensitivity of so many synagogues — including Reform temples — who claim to "welcome" interfaith families, with all kinds of fuzzy PR catchphrases, but whose rabbis will not stand by them and affirm the sanctity and integrity of their relationships by consecrating their marriages.

And here is where our distinctive interpretation of Reform Judaism offers a transformative opportunity — offering young Jews a completely different kind of experience of Judaism — as a vital, spiritual journey — as a resource in facing life's challenges, joys and a path to the discovery of the Divine and transcendent in their human experience... and as a strong, courageous response to the moral and ethical challenges of life in society in the modern world.

Here is where Classical Reform's broad, inclusive, universal embrace offers an empowering understanding of Jewish identity — not as a closed club, with secret handshakes and passwords- but rather as an inspiring and challenging spiritual commitment — embracing philosophical concepts and ethical values that a couple can affirm fully together — regardless of their respective backgrounds. Ours is an understanding of Judaism as a broad, inclusive religious experience that transcends exclusionary ethnic identity — and offers the possibility of a shared Jewish religious faith that can confidently embrace and impart to children both of the cultural traditions of an interfaith family.

Here is where the beauty and simplicity of Classical Reform worship Services — so accessible in their expression of authentic Jewish values, in the language and cultural setting of our own time and place — can bring our tradition's message to interfaith families in a uniquely meaningful, inclusive way, that they can relate to and share together.

There is no doubt in my mind that if many of couples who felt they had to look elsewhere for a spiritual home — or who, in disillusionment, turned away from religion altogether — had been welcomed and supported in congregations such as ours, and had been offered an opportunity to experience the deeper beauty, meaning and inspiration of the Jewish tradition, they would be observing Yom Kippur today...together.

For me, there is no question whatsoever — that had the parents of those 75 percent of children of intermarriages who are not being raised as Jews, been given the kind of support, resources and the experience of a welcoming, inclusive, spiritually rich Judaism that we are trying to share here, the majority of those children would be Jewish today!

Friends, make no mistake... Jewish survival is my ultimate priority and motivation as well! I have consecrated my life to the furthering and perpetuation of the Jewish faith and people — not one iota less than the strictest Orthodox rabbi! But I believe that love and compassion and gentle guidance are the best ways of achieving this sacred goal.

And speaking of the Jewish future...even on a purely pragmatic and strategic level, I cannot understand — for the life of me — how other rabbis, who condemn our approach, do not realize what we can accomplish by welcoming hundreds of thousands of young, interfaith families into our community. Just think of the proportionately immense broadening of support and solidarity we can win from the millions of Americans who thus become the families of Jews...who will learn and experience our tradition as they celebrate and mark milestones in the lives of their Jewish children, and grandchildren...nephews and nieces. And since the Holocaust is inevitably brought into the debate by our critics, just think of the anti-Semitic remarks and attitudes that will no longer go unchallenged by untold millions of people of all religions who have an intimate personal relationship with Jews in their lives...

And so...

We will continue — with greater commitment and firmness of resolve than ever, to welcome and share our faith with everyone who enters these doors — Jews, and those whom they love ... and to do so fully and unconditionally...with warmth, and sensitivity. I hope that we will work together to serve as a model and example — of a congregation — a spiritual community — whose own serious spiritual quest, personal warmth, strong Jewish loyalty and highest ethical ideals, are the most compelling proof for the meaningful role that Judaism can play in their lives.

We will, through our partnership in the nation-wide efforts of the Society for Classical Reform Judaism, reach out to and mutually support other rabbis and congregations throughout the country seeking to offer this alternative.

Friends, look around you at the faces of our temple family gathered here together on this holiest of Days. Each and every one of us — of whatever religious background or point on our own personal spiritual journey — are links in the timeless chain of Jewish history and living testimonies of the Jewish future. We come together reflecting a rich and precious variety of traditions and backgrounds, yet each of us is actively seeking Judaism's insights and message for our own lives, according to our own understandings and choices...while sharing in a community and making our statement of solidarity together.

Let this be our response to the statistics of doom and gloom...

Let our shared commitment to finding our places within the Jewish tradition and community, be our powerful answer to those who criticize and revile us for our position.

May each of us work together to keep this a congregation that welcomes all, with open hearts and an open door...affirming the sacredness of our diversity, as we join in our shared spiritual quest... true to the teachings of our Torah and the vision of our Hebrew Prophets — who called our ancestors to establish God's house as a "house of prayer for all People"... and who challenged Jews throughout the ages — and each one of us today — to be a "light of love, justice and peace" for all humanity.

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." Hebrew for "Day of Atonement," the final of ten Days of Awe that begin with Rosh Hashanah. Occurs during the fall and is marked by a 24-hour fast. One of the most important Jewish holidays. A Yiddish word meaning audacity, for good or for bad; commonly used to imply something was gutsy. Derived from the Hebrew word for "insolence." 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.
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. 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. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.
Rabbi Howard A. Berman

Rabbi Howard A. Berman is the National Executive Director of the Society for Classical Reform Judaism, and also leads Boston Jewish Spirit, a progressive Reform congregation in Boston, Mass., with a special outreach to interfaith families.

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