The Reconstructionist movement is on the cusp of making a historic decision about whether to drop its longstanding ban against intermarried rabbinical school students.
If the policy change passes, as most expect, Reconstructionism would become the first of America’s four major Jewish religious denominations to ordain intermarried rabbis.
Supporters of the change argue that the ban hews to an outdated way of defining Jewish identity and community, and that eliminating the ban would reaffirm Reconstructionism’s commitment to progressivism and inclusivity. In 1985, the movement was the first among the major Jewish denominations to ordain openly gay rabbis. And it embraced its first woman rabbi in 1974, just two years after the Reform movement. Last year it became the first to install a gay rabbi, Deborah Waxman, at the helm of its flagship seminary, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.
“The Jewish world should steer away from looking at those who marry non-Jews as second-class citizens,” Rabbi Doug Heifetz of Oseh Shalom, a Reconstructionist congregation in Laurel, Md., told JTA. “Reconstructionism is based on the idea of Judaism as an evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people. We can’t expect our demographic profile to be exactly like what it was 50 to 100 years ago. I think it’s appropriate for us to at least discuss rabbinic policies that reflect the changing nature of the Jewish people.”
For opponents of the change, dropping the ban — which bars admission to the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College or ordination to those with non-Jewish partners — would undermine the movement’s commitment to Jewish peoplehood and the legitimacy of Reconstructionist rabbis within the wider Jewish world.
“We think it’s a misguided, wrong decision to take,” Rabbi Ron Aigen said of his congregation, Dorshei Emet in Montreal. “We don’t think it promotes peoplehood. It undermines the credibility of rabbis who are trying to promote in-marriage. If rabbis can model intermarriage, then it doesn’t help make the case for trying to create Jewish families that are totally committed to Judaism. And we don’t think it’s going to bring in better students.”
This issue is different from ordaining gay or female rabbis, Aigen said, because marrying a non-Jewish partner is a matter of choice.
Rabbi Lester Bronstein of Bet Am Shalom in White Plains, who wrote a widely circulated letter within the movement warning that the change would take Reconstructionism in a “new and unrecognizable direction,” assigning equal value to in-married unions and intermarried ones, and dramatically altering the idea of Jewish peoplehood in ways that would be bad for the Jewish people.
“I believe in continuing to privilege in-marriage, for all the emotional, historic, and even statistical reasons I have always believed in it,” Rabbi Bronstein wrote, referring to data that show children of intermarriage are far less likely to be Jewishly engaged than children of in-married parents. Rabbi Bronstein wrote that if the policy changed, his congregation would consider quitting the movement.
“It feels like a deal breaker for me,” Rabbi Bronstein told JTA.
Though movement leaders are loath to talk about it, the Reconstructionist movement is also considering the policy change for a practical reason: Classes at the rabbinical school, which is in the Philadelphia area, have become so small that the viability of the entire seminary is at risk. Last year it ordained just six new rabbis.
In 2014, America’s two main Conservative rabbinical seminaries ordained 31, and the Reform schools 35.
“The question becomes, can the college survive — period,” said one recently ordained Reconstructionist rabbi who asked that her name not be used. “You have a small teaching faculty and a lot of layers of administration. If you’re going to have classes of two students, it’s very hard to justify this whole structure.”