My Experience as an Intermarried Rabbi

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Guest Post by Rabbi Ed Stafman

At 30 years old, I married my wife – the daughter of a Presbyterian minister. I considered myself an atheist and secular Jew. Because religion was unimportant to me, it had little bearing on who I would marry. My family put no pressure on me about my intention to marry the woman who would become my wife.

At age 38, when our first child was turned five, I felt that she should have a Jewish education, despite the fact that I despised my own [Orthodox] Jewish childhood education. We lived in an overwhelmingly Christian city and with my wife’s family being so strongly connected to the church, my failure to give my daughter a Jewish education would likely have led to her becoming Christian by default, and that was unacceptable to me, although I didn’t understand why at the time. My wife was very gracious and supportive. So, we joined the local Reform synagogue and enrolled our daughter in the religious school there.

As time when on, we became more involved in the synagogue. I taught seventh grade religious school (I was able to read a week ahead of the kids!). The synagogue became a center of our social lives and a source of friends and community. I served on the Board for many years, eventually as President, attended URJ biennials, served on the URJ’s Social Action Commission, and the like. But Jewish spirituality was not a big part of the draw.

In my mid 40s, I serendipitously found myself at a Jewish Renewal spiritual retreat. I had found my spiritual home. For the next several years, I attended as many of these retreats as I could.  When I returned home, the first phone call I got was always from my wife’s mother, a [Christian] spiritual director, who wanted to know what happened and everything I learned.  As time went on, I began to meet rabbinic students and faculty of ALEPH’s Rabbinic program and became more and more drawn to Jewish learning and later, to perhaps ultimately becoming a rabbi.

When application time rolled around in 2000, Rabbi Marcia Prager, the Dean of the ALEPH Rabbinic Program, explained to me that the application process vis-à-vis intermarried students was holistic in its approach, and that while intermarriage was a factor, they look at the whole person, his/her circumstances, whether they would serve the Jewish community well as a rabbi, etc. She was very clear about one thing: it was highly unlikely that any congregation would hire an intermarried rabbi and she didn’t want me to harbor false hopes.  At the time, I wasn’t all that interested in becoming a congregational rabbi, so I was not bothered by this probable limitation.

I had considered other rabbinic programs at the time, but I was told by HUC, RRC, and Hebrew College that because I was intermarried, I could not be accepted, and I was not about to get divorced after 16 years of a good marriage or to be dishonest about it. While HUC and RRC did not explain their reasoning, Rabbi Art Green of Hebrew College Rabbinic School explained to me that their philosophy was out of concern for families that might be struggling with a child intermarrying and wanting them to work it out among themselves without the child being able to point to the rabbi and saying “the rabbi’s intermarried, why can’t I?”. I was persuaded by that argument at the time, but I suspect that, in the last 20 years, there are fewer and fewer families having those difficult conversations. Both of my children are in long term relationships, one with a Jew, one not. Should they decide to marry, I wouldn’t think of debating them about the religious status of their chosen partner.

In any event, I was accepted into the ALEPH program and spent the next eight years in it, part time at first. I was the third intermarried person in the program. (One had since been divorced and a couple more entered during my time, at least one of whom subsequently divorced). Throughout my time in the program, my commitment to living a Jewish life deepened significantly and it was not always easy being married to someone who did not share that driving force. However, my experience in that regard was not much different from colleagues who were married to secular Jews who did not want to be so Jewish! Along the way, there were several spouse support groups, mostly consisting of secular Jewish spouses, but my wife fit right in. None of the spouses thought they were marrying a rabbi all those years earlier and these second career decisions required adjustments and flexibility. Often overlooked by those thinking about intermarried rabbis is the impact on the marriage, where it is bound to pose challenges. Happily, we worked through the challenges, owing to my wife’s graciousness.  She joined me in many Jewish practices and events. I would later note that next to me, she knew the liturgy better than anyone else in the congregation. She attended services regularly, played the piano during services, and her Pesach brisket rivals any.  However, although she explored it, she determined that conversion wasn’t in the cards for her.

Along the rabbinic school path, I had a student pulpit, which changed my thinking about congregational work. In 2008, a few months before I was to be ordained, an ad came across the rabbi listserve, reading: “Outside Magazine Says Bozeman, MT is the #1 Place to Live in the U.S. and We’re Looking for a Rabbi. Any questions, call Josh at #######.” It looked like a great opportunity, but the caution of the Dean from eight years earlier was still ringing in my ears. I called Josh to inform him that I was considering applying, but that I wouldn’t waste everyone’s time if being intermarried was a dealbreaker. After consulting the search committee, he told me to go ahead and apply. I ended up being hired for a few months as a student rabbi while I awaited ordination, and then spent ten years serving that community, ultimately retiring and becoming rabbi emeritus two years ago. I later heard from search committee members that they thought that by calling Josh, I was trying to game the process and gain an advantage by letting them know ahead of time that I was intermarried so that they would look upon me more favorably, since they were 60+% intermarried!

During my tenure as rabbi, I’m not aware of any negative issue that ever arose because I was intermarried. I suspect there were a few whispers in the local Orthodox community, but they too were mostly intermarried families, so it wasn’t a major issue. Being intermarried had the advantage of giving me credibility with non-Jewish spouses when I told them how much they were welcome, and to talk about conversion in a way that they knew was non-judgmental.  It increased my credibility in the outside — and especially the interfaith — community, which in turn, lifted the congregation. In the progressive Jewish world where the role of Rebbetzin has all but been eliminated, people expect the rabbi’s wife to have her own identity.

At 66 years old and having lived this journey through rabbinic school and a ten year pulpit, with its trials, failures, and successes, I believe that Rabbi Marcia Prager was correct: the decision to admit an intermarried rabbinical student must be a holistic one. The ultimate question ought to be whether the applicant is somebody whose ordination will, on the whole, lift up, inspire, and advance the interests of the Jewish people, local Jewish communities, and individual Jews. Do we want to turn away those who would be good rabbis by those standards but who intermarried many years before and came to fall in love with Judaism later, simply because his/her spouse declines to convert? In this world of evolving Jewish life, there are many factors to consider and, in my opinion, no one factor should be wholly determinative. How long has the person been married? How strong is the marriage? What are the non-Jewish spouse’s thoughts, concerns, feelings, and what will his/her role in the rabbi’s professional life look like? Is the spouse actively practicing another religion, which could pose a more significant problem? What kind of work does the applicant want to do? If congregational work is the calling, does s/he want a small more rural congregation where most people are intermarried or a congregation in a large Jewish metro area that might have different expectations? How will the applicant and his/her spouse deal with the personal and communal challenges that arise? It’s important to consider that many of these same questions can be asked of an applicant married to a secular/uninvolved Jew, who will often face the same challenges. If we are going to tell spouses of interfaith families that they are welcome in our congregations, it seems hypocritical to say that intermarriage automatically disqualifies an otherwise committed rabbinic applicant.

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After some 25 years of law practice, Ed Stafman spent eight years in the ALEPH Rabbinic program. After ordination, he served as Rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom in Bozeman, MT for ten years, where he is now Rabbi Emeritus. He is a past president of OHALAH, the Association of Rabbis for Jewish Renewal. He was elected to the Montana House of Representatives, District 62, in the November 2020 election.

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