There has been a great deal of press lately about interfaith marriages within the Jewish community, including an article by Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism in which he proclaimed that young people “must hear from their Jewish leaders that interfaith couples can be and are supported in their effort to raise deeply committed Jewish families.”
Until September of 2012, it was my policy not to officiate at interfaith weddings between individuals of any gender. (All Reform rabbis are allowed to make our own decisions about a number of issues, including this one.) When such couples approached me, my practice was to invite them to come in and speak with me about my decision, and/or to make a referral to a colleague who would agree to officiate. I did my best to welcome interfaith families in our synagogue community. However, I felt that it was not in my job description as a rabbi in service to the people of Israel to sanction a marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew under the chuppah. I would not officiate at a wedding in which the vows I asked each wedding couple to recite were untrue: “With this ring you are consecrated unto me as my wife/husband according to the laws of Moses and Israel.” How could a non-Jew marry a Jew “according to the laws of Moses and Israel?”
Over the years, I’ve had to say no to performing interfaith marriage ceremonies to many people who are important to me: friends, synagogue leadership, congregants and even family members. But I always felt sure that I was doing all I could to ensure the future of the Jewish people. Yet, over time, the reasons for me to officiate at interfaith wedding ceremonies have now become greater than the reasons not to officiate. In fact, I have now come to believe that ensuring the future of the Jewish people requires that I begin to perform interfaith weddings – those that meet certain criteria, that I will explain to you shortly.
As a rabbi at Temple B’nai Torah, a 500-family synagogue in Wantagh, New York, I have seen many wonderful Jewish households in varying degrees of observance. I have seen parents working hard to educate both themselves and their children in the traditions of Judaism. I have seen adults of all ages pursuing lifelong Jewish learning. And I’ve frequently had cause to notice in many of these couples one spouse is not Jewish.
Non-Jewish spouses or parents set up lunches. They drive the kids in a carpool to Hebrew School. They attend Friday night services – frequently. They make sure their kids receive a proper Jewish education, study diligently for their Bar or Bat Mitzvah and continue their Jewish learning into adulthood. I sit with them on committees and at meetings. I hear them plan Passover Seders and see them make Shofars, decorate Sukkahs and cry with joy when their child reads from the Torah for the very first time.
Seeing all this, I had to pause. And I had to think.
When one survey asked interfaith couples what experiences pushed them away from Judaism, many respondents cited perceived rejection by family members or the Jewish community; a rabbi’s refusal to officiate at their wedding; an expectation of conversion of the non-Jewish partner; and the questioning of the religious identity of the couples’ children by family members, rabbis, and others. Those with a more positive view of Judaism cited the warm welcome they received, the availability of Jewish education classes, and their congregation’s acceptance of the marriage without conversion.
“Such responses suggest that in order for outreach to intermarried couples to be effective, the Jewish community must shift from an approach where non-Jewish partners are accepted as a last resort, sometimes after the marriage occurs, to one where such partners are accepted from the outset when they agree to meet certain requirements,” Katherine Abend wrote in an article published in 2011 in the CCAR Journal. “A warmer welcome of such non-Jewish partners could increase the likelihood of the couple remaining connected to Judaism.”
So by saying “no” to families who are interested in leading Jewish lives, I may have been irrevocably closing the door to them. To be sure, I thought for a long time that Jewish households could only be built by two Jewish parents. But now I see that this need not be the case, which is why, regardless of gender, I decided to officiate at weddings between a Jew and a non-Jew in which the couple agrees to meet criteria that helped ensure that they were thoughtfully creating a Jewish household together, including a promise to raise their children exclusively as Jews.
This policy hopefully will achieve three goals: 1) it will validate the Jewish partner’s desire to maintain connection with our Jewish community; 2) it will provide a positive Jewish experience for the non-Jewish partner and 3) it will allow for the nurturing of a warm relationship between me and the interfaith couple that will hopefully flourish within our community for many years.
Since changing my policy, I've had the opportunity to officiate at a handful of interfaith ceremonies. Though each couple had trepidation going into their meetings with me, over our premarital meetings, we address their concerns. They soon come to understand how much I hoped that every family member would feel comfortable in our synagogue community. They also appreciated my efforts to make the Jewish wedding ceremony accessible and meaningful to all through my use of English translations of Hebrew used, clear explanations of all rituals and a tone that emphasized the open and inclusive nature of Jewish tradition. I received thanks and smiles I received from the non-Jewish family members who all felt comfortable and included in the wedding.
My mandate to encourage Jewish choices and to help create a dynamic, meaningful Jewish present and future remains the same. My hope remains the same: those born Jewish will grow up as Jews, remain Jews as adults, and raise their children as Jews. I believe that Judaism has many rich, unique, and holy things to bring to the world, and that we are lucky recipients of this heritage.
Rabbi Marci Bellows is a spiritual leader at Temple B'nai Torah community in Wantagh, Long Island. A native of Skokie, IL., she earned a B.A. in Psychology from Brandeis University and a Masters in Hebrew Literature in 2003 from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. She was ordained in 2004.