More than a year of study, dialogue, lectures and webinars on the subject of “Jewish Identity, Belonging and Community in the 21st Century” at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, the trend-setting liberal synagogue on the Upper West Side, culminated in an announcement Thursday night that its rabbis will perform weddings of interfaith couples – with certain conditions — as part of a major effort to strengthen Jewish family life.

J. Rolando Matalon, the senior rabbi, explained that the year of “deep conversations and reflections” with congregants “brought us to this momentous turning point” adding: “We are embracing a significant change in how we approach Jewish life at BJ…a shift in emphasis on how we relate to and invite in intermarried couples.”

Rabbi Rolando Matalon

Though the synagogue, once part of the Conservative movement, is non-denominational, Rabbi Matalon, who was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary, is a member of the Conservative rabbinic arm, the Rabbinical Assembly, whose policy does not allow its rabbis to officiate at weddings of interfaith couples.

“We are embracing a significant change in how we approach Jewish life at BJ…a shift in emphasis on how we relate to and invite in intermarried couples.”

Rabbi Matalon indicated to The Jewish Week that he is prepared to respectfully resign from the RA so that he can, he believes, better serve the needs of his congregation of some 1,700 family units.

Such resignations at the RA are extremely rare, but he is the second rabbi in New York this week to announced that he is prepared to give up his RA membership over the issue of taking part in intermarriages. Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie of the downtown Lab/Shul received a standing ovation from several hundred attendees at the experimental congregation’s gala Tuesday night when he made public his similar decision

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive director of the RA, said that as an halachic movement, Conservative Judaism cannot condone interfaith weddings but recognizes that the issue “is a source of great pain to our members, and we are committed to finding ways to show we care.” She cited an emphasis on outreach, making conversions more accessible, and strengthening Jewish marriages.

Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie, The Lab/Shul founder recently announced a plan to create a new wedding ceremony for mixed couples. Courtesy of Christopher Duggan

Several BJ members at the widely attended closed annual-meeting Thursday night described the response to the rabbis’ announcement as emotional. A number of people called it an historic moment. And many expressed pride at being part of BJ, calling the year-long process thoughtful, carefully-conceived and inclusive. But while some members said privately they may leave over the new policy as too big a break with tradition, others felt the rabbis did not go far enough by not accepting the concept of patrilineal descent for defining who is a Jew.

(Traditional Judaism defines a Jew as one born of a Jewish mother, or through conversion; Reform Judaism recognizes patrilineal descent as well.)

‘We’re Not Prepared To Lose Them’

With its diverse membership, B’nai Jeshurun has increasingly focused on concerns from members with non-Jewish partners and families whose adult children were marrying out.

“If we don’t bring them in, we lose them,” Rabbi Matalon told The Jewish Week. “And we’re not prepared to lose them and the Jewish future.”

In several interviews leading up to the Thursday night congregational meeting, he and his colleague, Rabbi Felicia Sol (whose ordination was Reform), spoke of the process – for the congregation and for the rabbis themselves –leading up to the decision. They credited the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America for facilitating a number of educational projects related to Jewish identity over the last year.

“If we don’t bring them in, we lose them. And we’re not prepared to lose them and the Jewish future.” – Rabbi Matalon

B’nai Jeshurun plays an outsize role in Jewish life, larger than serving its 1,700 family units. Its break with tradition on interfaith weddings is sure to resonate in Jewish communities around the country and spark conversations on whether and how traditional rabbis can adhere to Jewish law while welcoming non-Jews to their congregations.

Housed in a majestic, century-old Moorish-style synagogue on West 88th Street, the congregation, the second oldest in New York, was founded in 1825, and has long had a strong emphasis on social justice.

The congregation fell on hard times in the 1970s but underwent a renaissance under the leadership of Marshall Meyer, a dynamic rabbi from Argentina, in the 1980s. Rabbi Matalon, a soft-spoken native of Buenos Aires, came to BJ in 1986, and became spiritual leader after Rabbi Meyer’s death in 1993.

Congregation B’nai Jeshurun. Courtesy of Givat Haviva Educational Foundation

With its emphasis on music and its spirited, joyful Friday night services that often fill the large sanctuary, BJ became a symbol of renewal and joyful worship, attracting prominent community leaders as well as a wide range of Jews, across social and economic divides.

“We want to shift the focus of the conversation away from whom do you marry to ‘are you committed to a Jewish future?’”

“We want to shift the focus of the conversation away from whom do you marry to ‘are you committed to a Jewish future?’” Rabbi Matalon said. “And how can we enhance your commitment to Jewish life?”

At the highly anticipated meeting of the BJ membership, the rabbi and his colleague, Rabbi Felicia Sol, explained that over the next few months they will create a wedding ceremony to “celebrate” marriages of couples who commit to establishing “Jewish homes” and raise children in the Jewish faith.

They made clear that they will not co-officiate with non-Jewish clergy.

B’nai Jeshurun’s 88th Street entrance. Wikimedia Commons

In the interview with The Jewish Week, they noted that they want to move deliberately on a number of issues that remain to be resolved, including the details of the wedding ceremony and how they will deal with a Jewish divorce among intermarried couples.

But the rabbis emphasized that they will soon launch a major initiative aimed at strengthening the Jewish home for all BJ members. “We are becoming more inclusive, more embracing” in accepting interfaith marriages,” Rabbi Matalon said. “But we are creating more” [stringent] conditions for marriage “for everyone. That’s the exciting part of this whole effort.”

All couples seeking to be married by the BJ rabbis will be required to make a formal commitment based on strengthening their home Jewishly, observing Shabbat in a meaningful way, and performing acts of chesed (kindness) and tzedek (justice). There will be a host of sources and educational opportunities available to them, the rabbis said.

“Everyone is trying to figure it out…”

Interfaith couples will be asked to make additional commitments on creating a Jewish home and raising their children as Jews, and using the mikvah for conversion.

Rabbi Matalon and Rabbi Sol acknowledged that, faced with an increasingly assimilated society, balancing commitment and compassion is not easy, and that “everyone is trying to figure it out.” But they are confident that in order to sustain Jewish life today, in the face of increasing intermarriage, bold change is required.

They noted that young Jews today who choose a non-Jewish partner are not abandoning their faith, “they’re just falling in love,” Rabbi Sol said. “Many of these people want to stay, and they’re coming to us to make a space for them and their non-Jewish partners. This is where the American Jewish community is today.”