After Elleana Goldman was called to the Torah and recited a blessing, Rabbi Howard Buechler of the Dix Hills (L.I.) Jewish Center called her fiancé forward and together the couple spoke an English prayer thanking God for bringing them moments of joy.
Rabbi Buechler then offered them his own blessing and presented them with a mezuzah, which he said was to “let them know they are creating a Jewish home.”
Goldman, 31, said later that the prayer she and her fiancé, Jason Chalil, had recited “spoke to everyone — it was about keeping Jewish values in our home.”
Chalil, 31, agreed and said “everyone found it a good foundation for our marriage. It was exactly what we were hoping for.”
What made the April 28 ceremony different from the aufruf, or premarital blessing that is traditionally bestowed upon Jewish couples at the synagogue, is the fact that Chalil is not Jewish and that this was the first time his parents were ever in a synagogue.
“They thought it was a great experience and they found similarities to Catholic ceremonies and prayers,” he said. “They found it really welcoming.”
Goldman added that the rabbi “did not tell us we had to raise our children one way or the other. It was more of a welcome to the community — letting us know the synagogue is open for us and that it is a warm and welcoming place.”
But such a welcome is presenting a challenge to the Conservative movement as it struggles to find the right balance between keeping with its mission to observe Jewish law while embracing the modern world and welcoming interfaith couples.
Although an increasing number of Conservative rabbis say they would be receptive to offering an aufruf, or premarital blessing, to an interfaith couple, some say they would do so during Shabbat morning services, while others said it would be done in a more private setting and still others have outright refused.
“It is not a moment of communal celebration,” insisted Rabbi Philip Scheim of Toronto, the immediate past president of the movement’s Rabbinical Assembly. “I understand the desire to reach out to couples, but we would do it in a non-ceremonial fashion. I want them to feel welcome and not disparage them, but I would put no ritual stamp on it [their marriage] because it does not meet the requirements for an aufruf.”
Others confess to being troubled by the thought of blessing the couple’s union while at the same time refusing to marry them. Leaders of the Conservative movement reaffirmed last October the group’s opposition to its members performing interfaith weddings (those who do face expulsion from the RA) while at the same time urging member synagogues to welcome interfaith couples both before and after the nuptials.
“For those who want to push the boundaries, it feels like there is a level of inconsistency in saying we are going to bring them on the bima and even make a blessing over them but then tell them we can’t stand under the chuppah with you [to officiate at your wedding],” explained one New York rabbi who asked to remain anonymous. “Many Conservative rabbis wrestle with this.”
About a quarter of Conservative Jews are intermarried, compared with almost no Orthodox Jews and half of Reform Jews, according to the Pew Research Center.
Rabbi Debra Newman Kamin, the newly elected president of the RA, said in an email that rabbis are “looking at new and creative ways to reach out to intermarried couples in their communities.”
For Rabbi Buechler, officiating at the blessing of an interfaith couple is a delicate “balancing act that requires a lot of intimacy.” Thus, rather than holding the blessing in the main sanctuary on a Shabbat morning before at least 150 congregants, he holds it in the minyan chapel on Shabbat afternoon before about 20 congregants.
“We don’t call it an aufruf,” the rabbi said. “They don’t recite a Hebrew blessing and we are not stretching a tallit over their heads to symbolize a chupah [which is done during an aufruf]. We give them a gift of a mezuzah to let them know they are creating a Jewish home. The Jewish family sees the couple blessed in the traditional way and the non-Jewish family … sees Judaism as warm and embracing and has an understanding that even if one is not converting, they will practice Judaism in their home. Elleana and Jason will raise Jewish children and have Jewish lifecycle events in the future.”
The Midway Jewish Center in Syosset, L.I., also offers interfaith couples a blessing before their marriage, but it too does not call it an aufruf, according to its rabbi, Perry “Rafi” Rank. He said he has offered the blessing to two couples — the first privately with just the couple present and the other at a Shabbat morning service with the couple standing on the bima and receiving a blessing and a gift.
“I think it’s the perfect solution to the kind of tension the movement is in,” Rabbi Rank said. “We can’t perform the wedding ceremony but we can wish them all the best and hope that in the future they will find their religious life in the four walls of this synagogue.”
Rabbi Gordon Tucker, the senior rabbi at Temple Israel Center in White Plains, noted that “having a couple come to the bima and the Jewish partner say a bracha [prayer] over the Torah is not a violation of any norm. To have a prospective life partner standing there and for us to express the hopes that they will find it in their hearts and minds to build a Jewish home and raise Jewish children — I would do that.”
A survey two years ago completed by about half of the Conservative synagogues in the country found that about 17 percent of them perform an aufruf for interfaith families, according to Rabbi Joshua Rabin, director of innovation at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
“I think it is reasonable to assume that were I to collect the data again, the number would be higher,” he said.
Rabbi Adam Baldachin at Shaarei Tikvah in Scarsdale said he plans to perform his first aufruf for an interfaith couple on June 23.
“We’ll have it on a Shabbat morning because we want to include the regular congregation,” he said. “I brought up the issue to the ritual committee earlier this year because I have a number of congregants whose children are intermarrying and I have been thinking of ways to bring those couples into the community. The congregation is open to them and wants to be inclusive; we’re trying to think of more things to do.”
The Jewish Theological Seminary will be conducting a two-day conference next month for Conservative rabbis focused on the best ways to work with interfaith families. Rabbi Julia Andelman, director of community engagement at the seminary, said they will be discussing “a whole host of challenges that will arise when we work with interfaith families.”
“This is a recognition of the reality of how diverse our community has become,” she said. “Rabbis want to work effectively with them but they may not always have the skills, the language and the conceptual framework for it.”
Rabbi Eytan Hammerman of the Jewish Community Center of Harrison said he has been performing aufrufs on Shabbat mornings for interfaith couples for the past eight years.
“This is an opportunity for Conservative synagogues to make it loud and clear that we warmly welcome couples where one is Jewish and one is not,” he explained. “[The aufruf] is done in public, it is warm and it is clear that they are welcome members of our congregational community. It is an affirmation to the parents that their children are continuing in the Jewish tradition. By having the aufruf on Shabbat morning they are affirming their dual loyalty to both their beloved and the Jewish tradition in which they were raised.”
Rachel Leone, 31, said having an aufruf at the JCC of Harrison was very important for her and her family because she grew up there — attending the JCC’s nursery and religious school and Hebrew high school.
“My mother was the president of the congregation and my father was chairman of the religious board,” she said. “The JCC was a huge part of my upbringing. I became engaged in August and we knew we wanted to have a Jewish wedding.”
A couple of weeks before their March 24 wedding, she said, “Rabbi Hammerman reached out to us and said, ‘We’d like to offer you a blessing.’ It meant the world to us and to me.”
A week before the wedding, Leone said she was called to the Torah for an aliyah as her fiancé stood next to her. The rabbi then offered them a blessing and the cantor sang.
“My parents were thrilled; we were all very touched,” she said. “I married somebody because of the person he was, not because of his religion. I was worried about letting my family and community down, and Rabbi Hammerman made it known that I would always have a place and be welcomed in the community, as well as my husband. When you have a couple like us who want to be included and active members of the Jewish community, why would you push them away and tell them they are not welcome?”