Seminary Admissions: Modern-day Discrimination

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GUEST POST BY SUSAN RIZZO

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a dentist.  Why?  My dad’s best friend was a pediatric dentist.  He had a cool office with ceiling-mounted television screens above each chair and video arcade consoles in his waiting room.  I figured there couldn’t be a better job!  Here I am in my 40s, having long ago chosen education over dentistry, and now ready for a career change (preferably one that doesn’t involve my putting my hands in another’s mouth).  Since being nominated to participate in the Wexner Heritage Program last year, I am very interested in helping shape the Jewish future.

Life-long Reform Jew that I am, I started with the website of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), the movement’s main seminary, to learn what it takes to become ordained.  I learned there about the “extraordinary five-year journey” which promised to “expand my intellectual curiosity, nurture my search for spiritual meaning, and fulfill my aspirations to implement tikkun olam, the healing of the world.”  Apart from some issues of practicality (distance, expense, etc.), I am ready to be signed up for what sounded like the adventure and career of a lifetime!

The (non-exhaustive) list of program requirements for HUC-JIR seminary programs includes:  Bachelor’s degree.  Check!  GPA of 3.0 or higher.  Check!  Year of college-level Modern Hebrew.  Check!  Readiness for graduate school.  Check!  (I’m going to assume completion of two prior master’s degrees constitutes readiness.)  Commitment to and leadership experience within Reform Judaism and K’lal Yisrael (Jewish peoplehood).  Check and check!  Ability to think analytically and express oneself clearly in speech and writing.  (I’ll let you be the judge.)

Wow, I could be a rabbi or cantor!  Except, no.  “Current policy states that applicants who are married to or in committed relationships with non-Jews will not be considered for acceptance to this program.”  That’s right, my most amazing partner of nearly 18 years, with whom I have raised a Jewish family for more than a dozen, is not himself Jewish.  Apparently, that’s enough to disqualify me from applying to an HUC-JIR rabbinic or cantorial program. Not only does this seem counter to the values espoused by Reform Judaism, but per their website, HUC-JIR “does not discriminate on the basis of disability, race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, genetic information, marital status, sex, age, sexual orientation, veteran status or gender identity and expression” (all emphases added).

I decided to invite HUC-JIR to help me see how precluding my candidacy based on the religion/ancestry of my spouse does not violate their own equal opportunity and non-discrimination policies.  Emails to Cantorial, Admissions and finally the Equal Opportunity Coordinator resulted in my having a phone conversation with the Associate Director of Recruitment and Admissions, who suggested that a policy change might be on the horizon.  That was late 2018.  As recently as last month, no change had yet been implemented, so I reached out again – this time to the new HUC-JIR president.  He thanked me for my feedback, conceded that others have expressed similar concerns, and assured me of the school’s on-going commitment to religious pluralism.  He also pointed out that rabbis and cantors serve as exemplars to the Jewish community and, therefore, have to be held to high personal standards.

I do hold myself to high standards, both personally and professionally.  Does my having intermarried somehow mean I can’t be a model for the Jewish community?  I reject that premise, both because it offends and because it really does not seem grounded in the present reality.  Has anyone noticed how many self-identified Reform Jews intermarry?  A LOT!  Do we not think congregants deserve to be led by a reflection of themselves?  The implication seems to be that my having intermarried means my having not chosen a Jewish life, but clearly that’s not true.  Not only was I chosen by my temple’s clergy to participate in the Wexner Heritage Program; I am presently matriculated in the Spertus Institute Master of Arts in Jewish Professional Studies program; I serve on four committees at my temple, including one I chair; I sing in various temple choirs and am right now co-constructing our temple’s first summer lay-led service; our two children are enrolled in our temple’s religious school and will become b’nai mitzvah next year.  Yet somehow none of that “counts” because having intermarried makes me an unfit model?

Shockingly, HUC-JIR isn’t the only non-Orthodox seminary that won’t admit intermarried candidates.  One self-ascribed “pluralistic” seminary I recently talked to “reassured” me that my husband “would likely convert, knowing how important it was to me.”  That’s not the point – he shouldn’t have to!  My husband’s religion (it happens he only practices Judaism, even though he never converted) has zero bearing on whether I’d make a good rabbi or cantor. The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College seems to know this; they decided to admit and ordain intermarried candidates in 2015.  It’s time the Reform movement, which I’ve called home since birth, caught up!

At the end of the day, discriminating against intermarried Jews violates Reform Judaism’s proclaimed emphasis on liberalism and evolution.  A half-century after the rabbinate opened to women, it’s time it opened to all Jews, regardless of race, sexuality, gender identity, or marital status.  It’s time that the Jews in the pews see ourselves reflected more fully on the bimah and that we stop being intermarriage “shamed.”

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Susan Rizzo is a life-long member of Reform synagogues, including most recently Temple Sinai in Rochester, New York, where her family have been active members since 2012.  Her husband is not Jewish but participates extensively in temple life.  Their two sons have recently begun training for their 2021 joint b’nai mitzvah.

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