Philadelphia — When Sandra Lawson stood under the chuppah last Saturday, she was doing more than making a lifetime commitment to her partner. She also was setting herself up to test the boundaries of what it means to be a rabbi in America today.
Lawson, an African-American lesbian and a Jew by choice, is a rabbinical student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in suburban Philadelphia. Her brand-new spouse, Susan Hurrey, is not Jewish.
Unless Hurrey decides to convert before her graduation, Lawson could become one of the first rabbis in the United States to be ordained while openly involved in an interfaith relationship. Her graduating with that status, however, is contingent on whether the RRC faculty decides to change its current policy that bans the admission and graduation of students involved in an interfaith relationship.
“Given the world we live in, with Jewish communities claiming to be welcoming to interfaith families, it’s unfair to expect rabbis to be any different,” said the 45-year-old former military police officer and personal trainer.
The seminary’s faculty is expected to vote to abandon — or amend — the policy sometime after the new academic year begins Aug. 31. As that time nears, the issue is stirring strong debate within the Reconstructionist ranks and in the wider Jewish world.
Some see the move as an inevitable response to a changing Jewish landscape by a denomination that has long paved the way for groundbreaking changes. Critics both within and outside the movement see it as going too far, a divisive step that could splinter the stream and further alienate it from the broader Jewish community.
RRC is “trying in their way to do something proactive in response to the sea changes in American life,” said Rabbi Lester Bronstein, the spiritual leader of Bet Am Shalom Synagogue, a Reconstructionist congregation in White Plains, N.Y., who has been outspoken in his opposition to abandoning the policy altogether. “But this isn’t the way to do it.”
Indeed, the negative feedback, particularly from many Reconstructionist rabbis already in the field, has been so intense that the faculty is now considering several compromise positions.
Rabbi Nina Mandel, the president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, succinctly laid out the issue in describing the views percolating among her group’s some 350 members. They range, she said, “from people who feel this is a change that is long overdue and really reflects their understanding of Reconstructionist values and a Reconstructionist lens on Judaism, to rabbis who feel really strongly that the Jewish value of fostering marriage between two Jews is essential to the continuity of the Jewish people and that rabbis who choose to partner have the responsibility to reflect that.”
The discussion comes at a critical time for the movement. More than 90 years after it was founded by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, a Conservative-ordained rabbi who defined Judaism as the “evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people,” the Reconstructionist stream remains small and financially strapped.
With just over 100 congregations scattered throughout North America, the movement’s new president, Rabbi Deborah Waxman, who sees herself as the “lead evangelist” for “cutting-edge Judaism,” is seeking to articulate a new vision and a raison d’etre for Reconstructionist Judaism.
She describes it as a “small, passionate community of communities,” people who care “deeply about the Jewish present and the Jewish future” and who take an “activist approach” to finding new and experimental ways to “building the Jewish community we want to live in and building the Jewish community we want the next generation to be attracted to and where they can thrive.”
“I am making the case not just for Reconstructionism, but for Judaism,” Rabbi Waxman said in a recent interview in her office at the college, an old mansion set on a wooded estate in Wyncote, Pa. “Everything is open for negotiations.”
Though she declined to explicitly share her position on what internally is being referred to as NJP, the non-Jewish partner issue — she says she doesn’t want to prejudice the outcome — she hints at her view in expressing her philosophy about the need to adapt to a changing Jewish environment.
“I don’t think that visceral responses that are solely grounded in the past and solely grounded in the gut are appropriate to the opportunities and the challenges going forward,” she said.
At a time when identity is increasingly being shaped by choice rather than biology, Rabbi Waxman posited, the key question is: “Can rabbinic leadership emerge out of the 40-plus percent who are in interfaith relations and are creating Jewish homes and Jewish families? We’ve already seen such lay leadership emerge.”
The issue, which was first raised at the college several years ago, is coming to the fore now as a response to both pragmatic and philosophical concerns, according to interviews with RRC officials, Reconstructionist rabbis and students.
Pragmatic because the seminary’s enrollment and applicant pool has been shrinking — just eight students graduated this year, the same number of the incoming class — and the low numbers are threatening the school’s financial well-being and possibly even its accreditation. Opening the doors wider, the thinking goes, would bring in more applicants.
Philosophical because the movement leaders are continually “reconstructing” who and what it means to be Jewish in the 21st century.
Financial woes led to a merger in 2012 between the seminary and the congregational arm to form the Jewish Reconstructionist Communities. The movement’s restructuring was “the result of the concern for the future; it was clear we had to be wise and strategic about our use of resources,” said Rabbi Waxman, who took over as president of the merged entity in January 2014.
“How can we most effectively advance the Reconstructionist progressive perspective in the wider world and how can we develop a sustainable model?” she said. “It’s an open question.”
Being open to intermarried rabbis, proponents of the change in policy say, is a natural extension for a movement that sees itself as increasingly diverse and inclusive.
Indeed, the current roster of students — with this year’s incoming class, there will be a total of 46 students, along with 21 full-time, part-time and adjunct faculty on campus —reflects — some would say magnifies — the changing face of American Jewry.
RRC has long been known as a welcoming institution for gay and lesbian students. It was the first movement to accept openly gay students in the mid-1980s, with the Reform seminary following soon after and the Conservative movement doing so only in the past several years. But RRC now is extending that outreach to other non-traditional populations.
“One of the big changes in the Jewish world is the incredible diversity of people who come in and say, ‘I am also Jewish,’ said Rabbi Mandel, the RRA head who serves a small congregation in rural Selinsgrove, Pa. She cited people of color, people who are transgender or are of different sexual orientation and different ethnic backgrounds as groups that seeking entry into Jewish life. These folks, along with many who were raised in interfaith families, are among those looking for a place at RRC, she said.
The 2015 graduating class is emblematic of that shift. Of the eight students ordained as rabbis in early June, one is lesbian, one is transgender and two are Jews by choice.
Sandra Lawson clearly reflects this new face of RRC. As the first African-American student at the seminary, she sees a connection between the increasingly diverse makeup of the student body and the question of rabbis with non-Jewish partners.
“I think it’s an unrealistic burden to ask queer people and Jews of color to find Jewish partners and then not deal with the racism and the homophobia that exists in the Jewish community,” she said, citing instances of people questioning her credentials or harassing her when she is praying.
Lawson, who is expected to graduate in 2018, was involved in the internal RRC process of soliciting student views about changing the policy on non-Jewish partners. While her own partner has said she would convert if necessary in order for Lawson to graduate, Lawson said there are several other students also involved in interfaith relationships, only some of whose partners are on the track toward conversion. (They all presumably met their partners after gaining admission or else their partners were already in the process of converting. College officials would not comment on other students, saying it was private information.)
Lawson said it was clear that both the students and faculty are “overwhelmingly” in favor of changing the policy, with some exceptions in both groups.
When the faculty first voted to eliminate the ban in December 2013, few Reconstructionists outside the college even knew it was happening. The backlash was swift, especially among rabbis and congregations, who argued that such a dramatic change in policy would affect the whole movement. They said that especially in light of the recent merger, the issue merited a wider discussion, even with recognition that a change in admissions policy was the ultimate purview of the RRC faculty.
At that point, RRC officials began to open up the process in advance of a second faculty vote, which is required of all policy changes. They sought input from — and dialogue with — the RRA membership and asked their 100-plus congregations to engage their communities in a discussion and present a consensus position.
In the end, only about 30-plus congregations responded to the call, with the majority of those who did respond expressing support for eliminating the policy, only four opposed and several others saying they could not come to a consensus.
Among the last group was Congregation Or Hadash in Fort Washington, Pa., a congregation with a longstanding special relationship with RRC. Housed at the college for its first several years after it was founded in 1983, Or Hadash served as a “laboratory” congregation for students at the rabbinical school.
Shelley Kapnek Rosenberg, a former president and founding member of Or Hadash whose daughter Jessica is a current rabbinical student at RRC, said she supports a change of policy. “It shows an openness on the part of the college and a realistic notion as to what’s going on in the Jewish world. I don’t think rabbis should be judged by who their partner is.”
At the same time, she said, she recognized that other people in her congregation of 150 families had strong feelings against it, including the concern about adversely affecting relations with the other movements. “We’re already considered a tad out there, and this just might put us more out there with respect to other movements.”
The current president of her synagogue, Jay Cohen, said that after several discussions at the executive committee, board and congregational level, he reported back to RRC that although his congregation was generally in favor of doing away with the policy, there was strong dissent among some congregants who want to keep or modify it. “I wasn’t comfortable writing a majority view,” he said. “I wanted them to know there was a strong minority opinion.”
Helping to shape the debate beyond the college are two rabbis who graduated from RRC a few decades apart and live at opposite ends of the country.
For Lester Bronstein, the rabbi in White Plains, the issue has been painful.
“We are talking about a precedent that fundamentally alters what it means to be the Jewish Reconstructionist movement and to create religious peoplehood,” he wrote in one of two “con” position papers that were circulated among movement leaders.
“It encourages the wrong behaviors without sufficiently encouraging things that would be constructive — like improving Jewish literacy or Jewish modeling for people trying to create a Jewish home,” Rabbi Bronstein said in an interview.
The rabbi, 67, said he understands the argument RRC officials have made that they are turning away potentially good candidates. “I want to welcome these outliers too, but I think the boundaries we have are welcoming enough” without sacrificing the commitment to in-marriage as the model appropriate for rabbinic leadership.
He applauded RRC officials for opening up the process — his congregation was one that engaged in the discussion and was among the handful that reported opposition to lifting the ban — but he still worries about the outcome of the faculty vote.
“I really don’t want to leave the movement and hope they can do something that will keep me in,” he said, hinting that a compromise being discussed that would allow for some flexibility in the ban would be acceptable.
On the other side of the spectrum is Rabbi Mychal Copeland, who sees her personal experience as a living example of why a change is needed.
Rabbi Copeland, 44, graduated from RRC in 2000. She spent her rabbinical school years in a relationship with a woman who wasn’t Jewish but who converted just a few months before her graduation.
She and her partner, Kirsti, whom she has since married, were somewhat “closeted” about their relationship even as they came out as lesbians during her time there, she said. “We didn’t want my partner’s decision concerning conversion to be controlled by others or part of a public debate, so we tried to keep a low profile throughout my five years at the college,” she wrote in a piece supporting a change in policy that was widely circulated.
Now the director of Interfaith Family in San Francisco, a group that helps engage interfaith families in Jewish life, Copeland said that ordaining rabbis involved in interfaith relationships would provide an important model that is currently missing.
“We don’t have models for the vast majority of people who are interfaith families and what that looks like — people coming from different backgrounds, engaged in deeply Jewish conversations, values and practice in their homes,” she said in an interview.
Beyond the confines of the Reconstructionist movement, the wider Jewish world is taking notice of — and, in some cases, reacting strongly to — the debate.
Until recently, such a move “would have been unthinkable,” said Jonathan Sarna, a professor at Brandeis University and a renowned historian of American Jewish life.
“Endogamy was still a value that was broadly accepted in the liberal movements; the big change now is that intermarriage has become normative,” he said. If it’s considered normative behavior, then “it’s not a great surprise that people say that rabbis ought to be allowed to be intermarried, too.”
The discussion also reflects the changing perspective on what intermarriage represents, he said. If intermarriage was once seen as a statement that you are leaving Judaism and that your children won’t be Jewish, now it’s seen merely as a result of someone falling in love with someone who is not Jewish. “Now you can be intermarried and still feel strongly about being Jewish — and even want to be a rabbi.”
He predicted that the Reform movement would follow the path of the Reconstructionist movement at some point.
As the new academic year at RRC approaches — and with it a likely vote on the matter — several compromise positions are being considered, according to documents being circulated in the movement. Rather than a straight decision to keep or eliminate the current policy to ban the admission and ordination of students with non-Jewish partners, the faculty could decide to remove the prohibition on partnering with non-Jews but add language that makes clear that all students and applicants “be committed to maintaining Jewish homes and raising Jewish children.”
Or they could decide to apply more robustly the term “ordinarily,” which is already in the current policy prohibiting admission or graduation for those in interfaith relationships but generally has been used only in cases where the partner is in the process of converting. In other words, strengthening the caveat “ordinarily” could open the door to others under certain conditions. A third compromise position suggests applying the biblical “category of ger toshav for non-Jews who commit themselves to the Jewish community,” meaning they would be accepted as “resident aliens,” given status within the community if they commit to certain precepts without actually converting.
Underlying the debate are the potential repercussions for the movement as a whole and for rabbinical students in particular should a change in policy occur: Some congregations might decide to disaffiliate, the RRA would have to assess its policy of automatically accepting as members all graduates of the rabbinical seminary and some graduates might encounter obstacles finding jobs.
Even some congregations that conveyed support for a policy change made clear they would not necessarily hire a rabbi who is intermarried.
Waxman said that while she understands all the concerns swirling around the issue, she is impressed by the vitality of the discussion it has engendered. In this, like other contemporary issues the Reconstructionist movement has tackled, Waxman asserted, there is a pattern:
“Where we have led, the Jewish community has almost always followed; when we start to lead there is usually much controversy; and when a particular policy change is widely adopted,” she said, “there is usually very little recognition” that it came from the Reconstructionist movement.