Eight years ago, like all Reform rabbinical students about to be ordained, Rachel Goldenberg had to make a decision. Would she officiate at interfaith weddings or not?
Along with many of her classmates at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Goldenberg opted against performing such ceremonies, reasoning that the ritual made sense only when joining two Jews.
But a few months ago, Rabbi Goldenberg, the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Shalom Rodfe Zedek in Chester, Conn., changed her mind.
“What I’d been told back in rabbinical school was ‘invite [interfaith couples] in and get to know them — you might say no to the wedding but that doesn’t mean they won’t come back to synagogue,’” she said.
But once outside the seminary’s ivory tower, she discovered that, despite her invitations, rebuffed couples never actually came to her synagogue and didn’t seem to feel welcome.
“I started to see the wedding in a different way: not just as a ritual but as a gateway for couples into Judaism, one that is a potential door in their face if I say no,” she explained.
Rabbi Goldenberg, who is 35, is not the only Reform rabbi to change her thinking mid-career and start doing interfaith weddings. Rabbi James Ponet, the Yale Hillel director who famously co-officiated at Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky’s wedding this summer, recently wrote an article for the online Jewish magazine Tablet explaining his decision five years ago to begin performing such weddings.
“I began to acknowledge that my legal scruple about officiating or co-officiating at such a wedding was not consistent with my willingness to discount many other traditional norms,” he wrote.
While there are no recent statistics available on this topic (the number that’s been batted around for the past decade is a little less than half of Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis willing to officiate), and surprisingly few rabbis with whom I talk seem to know where their colleagues stand on the issue, I’m sensing that more and more liberal rabbis are switching policies mid-career.
They run the spectrum from those who, like Rabbi Goldenberg, will officiate only when the couple commits to having an “unambiguously” Jewish home to those who, like Rabbi Ponet, will co-officiate with clergy of other faiths.
They include rabbis of major congregations, like Rabbi Daniel Zemel of Temple Micah in Washington, D.C., Rabbi Richard Block of The Temple-Tifereth Israel in Cleveland and Rabbi Daniel Feder of Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame, Calif. Rabbi Feder, who changed his policy less than a year ago, wrote in his congregation’s January 2010 newsletter, “I was troubled by a nagging question: What did I accomplish by sending [interfaith] couples away?”
They also include Rabbi Goldenberg’s father, Rabbi Irwin Goldenberg, whose shift towards the end of a 35-year career at Temple Beth Israel in York, Pa., influenced his daughter.
Ed Case, the CEO of InterfaithFamily.com, which runs a free referral service for interfaith couples seeking rabbis, predicts that “more and more Reform rabbis will officiate at interfaith weddings,” in the coming years.
Obviously, the growing acceptance of intermarriage among American Jews is a factor. But another major influence, according to Case, is a statement released earlier this year by Reform’s Central Conference of American Rabbis, which he says “gives [rabbis who officiate] cover.”
While not actually endorsing interfaith weddings, the statement of the CCAR Task Force on the Challenges of Intermarriage for the Reform Rabbi notes that “debating the question of rabbis officiating at ceremonies of couples who are intermarrying is simply not a productive conversation.”
According to Rabbi Rachel Goldenberg, that “creates an atmosphere where it’s a lot easier to come out as someone who officiates at interfaith weddings, where rabbis don’t feel stigmatized or looked down upon for doing it.”
Reform rabbis aren’t the only ones who officiate at interfaith weddings. A number of Renewal and Reconstructionist rabbis also officiate, as do graduates of newer nondenominational seminaries, like Riverdale’s Academy for Jewish Religion and Boston’s Hebrew College.
Even some Conservative rabbis, who are forbidden from even attending interfaith weddings (a policy believed to be widely flouted and rarely, if ever, enforced), are starting to refer couples to other rabbis, rather than simply saying no.
The InterfaithFamily.com referral service, created in 2007, fields approximately 120 inquiries from couples each month and has almost 400 rabbis and cantors in its database.
In addition to providing couples with names of nearby clergy who are available, IFF provides information and various ritual options to clergy who “don’t have experience [officiating at interfaith weddings] and don’t know how best to shape their ceremonies,” said IFF’s Rabbi Lev Baesh, who himself frequently officiates (and co-officiates) at interfaith weddings.
“I always tell [clergy] I’m very far to the left of the spectrum, but I’ve had enough experience to know what the spectrum looks like,” he said.
As for Rabbi Goldenberg, she not only requires couples to commit to “an unambiguously Jewish home and raising unambiguously Jewish children,” but also asks them to become members of her synagogue.
“I want my couples, the Jewish-Jewish ones as well, to have thought about what kind of household they’re creating, how they want to raise children,” she explained, adding that “even if that means a couple realizes they can’t make a commitment yet and have a wedding with me, they’re at least thinking about it and I feel I’m helping them along their way.”
This means she will still be saying no sometimes, but “the door is wider open than when I said no to all [interfaith couples], and it’s going to be easier for a couple to walk in my door if they know I do officiate at some interfaith weddings.”
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