The Jewish Wedding Now

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I don’t have any weddings in sight – my children are married and I’ve been married for 43 years myself. Nevertheless, I loved reading Anita Diamant’s The Jewish Wedding Now.

A revised version of The New Jewish Wedding, first published in 1985 and revised in 2001, the book conveys what seems to be a huge amount of information about Jewish wedding traditions in a warm, informal and engaging style. I learned a lot that I didn’t know, about the engagement ceremony known as tenaim, for example, or the tradition of the badchan, a joke-telling entertainer at the wedding. I highly recommend the book for anyone looking ahead to a wedding – marrying couples, their parents, their relatives.

I’m most interested of course in interfaith couples, and highly recommend The New Jewish Wedding to them and their families too, because the book clearly is written with them in mind.

Describing changes over time, Diamant says “the huppah, the wedding canopy, has become a very large tent, open to Jews of all descriptions and denominations… and people from different faith traditions. The status and validity of some of these weddings is the subject of intense debate – par for the course in all things Jewish – but this edition reflects the facts on the ground.” She explains that there is no chapter devoted to intermarrying couples because the book “is a menu for all who wish to include meaningful Jewish choices as they plan their ceremony and celebration; choices that are the same for everyone.”

That’s the overall tone Diamant takes towards interfaith couples – intermarriage is happening, interfaith couples are welcome to make the same Jewish choices as everyone. To those who say the presence of interfaith couples under the huppah is a threat to Jewish tradition, she says “the countervailing tradition of adaptability is the reason why Judaism has survived and thrived.” The addition of new faces under the huppah, she says, are “a healthy infusion of living waters, mayyim hayyim, and another chapter in a long, lively, disputatious history.”

If you stop to think about it, given that many in the Jewish community would not recognize a wedding of an interfaith couple as a Jewish wedding, it is quite remarkable that a prominent author revising a book about Jewish weddings for the third time would so matter-of-factly and explicitly help interfaith couples design their own Jewish weddings.

When I first read that there was no special chapter for interfaith couples, I was concerned, unnecessarily as it turned out, that the special considerations that interfaith couples do indeed have would not be addressed. To the contrary, in a few pages under the title “Non-Jews under the Huppah,” Diamant succinctly addresses the history of attitudes towards intermarriage, states that now “intermarriage is the communal norm” (I strongly agree), discusses some of the questions interfaith couples encounter, and says “Couples who can talk about religion before their weddings are much better prepared to handle knottier questions later on” (I strongly agree). She also addresses ways to inform relatives from different faith traditions about what will be happening, and ways to include them in the wedding ceremony. I love how she casually mentions the presence of other traditions, when she talks about including phrases written in Chinese or Hindi on wedding invitations, translations of interfaith ketubot into Spanish and Japanese, and huppot made from Scottish tartan or African textile.

I love that she talks about the phenomenon of couples having friends ordained for the day to officiate at their weddings, but gently says “you need a rabbi” to create a Jewish wedding. I love that Diamant encourages interfaith couples to find a compatible rabbi to officiate at their weddings, describing some of the rejection they may encounter and resources available to help them.

As Diamant says, debate is par for the course in all things Jewish. I don’t agree with Diamant saying that the term “interfaith is only appropriate if the non-Jewish partner has an ongoing connection to another religion and wants that tradition reflected in the wedding ceremony and in married life.” As I’ve said before, “interfaith” today doesn’t mean anything about religious practice, that couples are practicing two faiths, or one and none; it just means they come from different faith traditions. I also try not to use the term “non-Jew” because people don’t define themselves as “non’s” and would have preferred to see the admittedly ungainly phrase, “partner from a different faith tradition” throughout the book.

Moreover, a not insignificant proportion of interfaith couples are looking for rabbis to co-officiate their weddings with clergy from other religious traditions; The Jewish Wedding Now is, I believe, silent about that phenomenon. As I noted above, the book is extremely informative about Jewish wedding traditions, with parts appealing perhaps more only to those interested in more traditional ceremonies. I would have liked to see a nod to couples looking for co-officiation – something like “this is a book about Jewish weddings, not really about weddings that are conducted in Jewish and other traditions, although you can find elements of Jewish weddings in it that you might incorporate in such a wedding.”

But it’s a tribute to The Jewish Wedding Now that it would in fact be informative and helpful to the whole range of interfaith couples planning a wedding and wanting their wedding to include Jewish traditions, and it’s written in a way that makes those traditions accessible and inviting to interfaith couples.

More Conservative News and Debate, and June Round-up

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There’s been a steady stream of intermarriage news related to the Conservative movement. In April Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom, an emeritus rabbi who we’ve applauded before, who was expelled from the Rabbinical Assembly because he officiated for interfaith couples, was published in the Washington Post: I performed an intermarriage. Then I got expelled.

Then in May a much younger Conservative rabbi, Steven Abraham, a 2011 JTS graduate, offered It’s Time to Say “Yes.” Our friend Rabbi Brian Field (a Reconstructionist himself) responded that Rabbi Abraham is not alone, and gave a wonderful explanation how The Torah of Inclusion Offers Us a “Yes” to Interfaith Couples. But another young Conservative rabbi wrote about five steps to “save Conservative Judaism” – with no mention of interfaith families.

In June an article in the Forward about rabbis trying to make the Conservative movement more gay-friendly mentions Rabbis Adina Lewittes and Amichai Lau-Lavie as leading advocates within the movement for intermarried spouses; “Lau-Lavie will not perform any weddings until the movement revisits its blanket prohibition on rabbis officiating marriages for them; Lewittes resigned from the R.A. in order to lead interfaith ceremonies.”

Lau-Lavie’s Lab/Shul had announced an annual celebration on June 13 featuring “the revelation of our groundbreaking response to intermarriage and the evolving identities of Jewish Americans” – but the news is out in an piece by the Forward’s Jane Eisner, Why This Renegade Rabbi Says He Can Marry Jews — And The Jew-ish. As Eisner describes it, Lau-Lavie plans to use the ger toshav, resident alien, concept “within a halachic framework to justify intermarriage under certain conditions.” He will ask prospective couples to devote six months to learn about core Jewish values and to demonstrate a genuine commitment to community (he won’t co-officiate). He will engage academics to “study whether this explicit welcome-with-conditions will result in a strengthened Jewish commitment.” He will most likely have to resign from the Rabbinical Assembly.

Eisner, who is hostile to intermarriage, says she is “fascinated” by the experiment, but skeptical. She apparently lined up Steven M. Cohen, also hostile to intermarriage, to simultaneously comment that while we “need” Lau-Lavie’s approach, it won’t succeed unless Jews “understand that Judaism believes that Jews should marry Jews.”

I have enormous respect for Amichai Lau-Lavie. I look forward to his own explanation of his approach, and I hope that it helps the Conservative movement address intermarriage. Rabbi Steven Wernick, head of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, has expressed open-ness to the experiment — but cautions that it’s the Rabbinical Assembly that makes halachic rulings. But creating a status that confers certain benefits, which necessarily means that another status does not have those benefits, is not the inclusivity that liberal Judaism needs to thrive in the future.

In the new Forward piece Cohen says that about 8% of the grandchildren of intermarried couples are being raised as Jews-by-religion, but last fall he gave me data that showed a total of 38% were being raised as Jews-by-religion, partly Jews-by-religion, and Jewish but not by religion. He of course will say that if children aren’t raised Jews-by-religion, it’s not really good enough. Cohen and Sylvia Barack Fishman, also hostile to intermarriage, have a new paper released by the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute with their tired analysis that intermarried Jews don’t measure up on their traditional scale of how Jews ideally would behave, and offering policy suggestions to get Jews to marry Jews.

That train has left the station and trashing intermarriage just pushes those who intermarry away.  Eisner says she wants to “sustain and enrich modern Jewish life;” Cohen says “Being Jewish gives us meaning because it makes demands upon us – to treat others kindly; to help improve the world; to engage in Jewish learning; to imbibe in Jewish culture; to mark the Jewish holidays and live the Jewish calendar; to be involved in the affairs of the Jewish people, State, community and, yes, family.” We will experience more people gaining that meaning and doing their best to follow those demands – and thereby sustaining modern Jewish life – with a radically and totally inclusive, truly audacious welcoming, of interfaith couples.

Razzie Awards

In an otherwise really nice article, How My Daughter’s Bat Mitzvah Almost Didn’t Happen, Peter Szabo, who is intermarried, marvels that somehow, the Judaism within his family “survived assimilation in Hungary, Holocaust machinery, suburban assimilation in America.”  Szabo can be excused for incorrectly citing the Pew Report as saying that 80% of the children of intermarriages are not raised Jewish, but the Forward editors surely know that the correct figure is 37%.

In an otherwise fine article titled College doesn’t turn Jews away from Judaism, Laurence Kotler-Berkowitz, senior director of research and analysis at the Jewish Federations of North America, says that Jews with and without college degrees are just as likely to have a Jewish spouse, then says “college education and assimilation do not go hand in hand.” In other words, he equates not having a Jewish spouse – being intermarried – with assimilation. He should know better.

Doing Both

Reza Aslan and Jessica Jackley’s TEDx talk about how they are raising their children with  Christianity and Islam has interesting parallels to Jewish-Christain couples doing both.

Forthcoming Books

I’ll be writing more about new editions of two books that are great resources for interfaith couples. The second edition of Jim Keen’s Inside Intermarriage – I was honored to write the Foreword – will be available on August 1 but can be pre-ordered now. The third edition of our friend Anita Diamant’s The New Jewish Wedding – now titled The Jewish Wedding Now – came out this past week.  

 

How Audacious Will Our Hospitality to Interfaith Families Be?

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published in eJewishPhilanthropy

I applauded in 2013 when Rabbi Rick Jacobs announced the Reform movement’s audacious hospitality initiative, and again in 2015 when my colleague April Baskin was appointed to lead it. But the recent release of the Audacious Hospitality Toolkit surfaces a deep question: just how audacious will our hospitality to interfaith families be?

The Toolkit is an excellent resource. I recommend it to every congregation, not just Reform. It offers guiding principles and concrete steps synagogues can take to self-evaluate, develop and implement efforts to welcome diverse populations. It builds on pioneering work by the Reform movement’s own Outreach Department, Big Tent Judaism, and InterfaithFamily.

But missing from the Toolkit is discussion or guidance about the difficult issues that I believe must be addressed for interfaith families to engage in Jewish life and community.

In 2000 I wrote an op-ed, Redefine Jewish Peoplehood, for Reform Judaism magazine, and a longer We Need a Religious Movement that is Totally Inclusive of Intermarried Jewish Families for InterfaithFamily. I said that we need to include – indeed, embrace – not only Jews but also their partners from different faith traditions, and their children, as “in,” as part of “us,” as included in the Jewish people more broadly defined as the Jewish community. Not as “out,” “other,” not allowed to participate and engage fully in Jewish life. Instead of focusing on identity, on whether a person “is” Jewish, I said we needed to focus on engagement, on whether a person wants to “do” Jewish.

It’s not surprising that in the seventeen years since there has been some but not enough change. This kind of fundamental shift is hard, and generates exactly the issues that I believe Jews and their communities need to address.

One issue is the preference Jews express for their children marrying other Jews. A friend who has a lesbian daughter in a long-term relationship told me last week that he hated it when well-intentioned people said to him, “it’s wonderful that your daughter has a partner – but wouldn’t you prefer that she were straight?” No, he wouldn’t, thank you.

The same kind of preferential thinking applies to interfaith couples, and I’ve been guilty of it myself; once when a friend wanted to introduce my son to a young woman, I said “is she Jewish”? right in front of my daughter’s husband who is not Jewish himself. (Fortunately, it gave me a chance to tell him I loved him just as he was.) Jewish leaders and their communities need to address the attitudes that Jews have about partners from different faith traditions, and that consider relationships with them to be “sub-optimal.”

Another issue is the attitude that partners from different faith traditions are welcome but with limitations, that their patrilineal children aren’t “really” Jewish or Jewish enough, or that conversion or some new special status like “ger toshav” is the answer to inclusion and recognition. Partners from different faith traditions want to be welcomed as they are, without ulterior motives that they convert, and they don’t want their children’s status questioned. Creating new categories of who is more “in” or “out” and which status confers more or less benefits, is not inclusive. Jewish leaders and their communities need to examine and explicitly address their policies – and assert the Jewishness of patrilineals in dialogue with other movements.

A third issue is ritual participation policies, like the parent from a different faith tradition not being allowed to pass the Torah or join in an aliyah at the bar or bat mitzvah of the child they have raised with Judaism. Those parents could say the Torah blessing with full integrity because their family is part of the “us” to whom the Torah was given. They want to feel united with their family and want their child to see them participate and be honored fully. Maintaining the boundary that only a Jew can have an aliyah excludes them. Jewish leaders and their communities need to examine and articulate their policies, and whether they will allow anyone who wants to participate fully to do so.

After the Cohen Center’s recent research showed strong association between officiation and interfaith couples raising their children as Jews and joining synagogues, it is no longer tenable for liberal rabbis not to officiate on the grounds that intermarriage is not good for Jewish continuity. Jewish leaders should ensure that that at least some of their synagogue’s clergy officiate. It is time for the Reform rabbinate to change the resolution still on the CCAR’s books that disapproves of officiation. Statements of position set a tone that matters, and bold leadership helps people adapt their attitudes to address new realities. That’s why Hebrew Union College, the Reform seminary, should follow the Reconstructionists’ lead by admitting and ordaining intermarried rabbinic students. The growth and vitality of liberal synagogues depends on engaging more interfaith families. What better role model for them could there be than an intermarried rabbi?

Finally, the real frontier of audacious hospitality is how Jewish communities will respond to couples who think they may or say they want to “do both.” What appears to be a growing population wants to educate their children about both religious traditions in the home, without merging them together. When they knock on Jewish doors – when couples ask rabbis to co-officiate at their weddings, or parents ask synagogue religious schools to accept children who are receiving formal education in another religion – they mostly get “no” for an answer. While more rabbis appear to be officiating for interfaith couples, most won’t co-officiate, saying they want a commitment to a Jewish home and family. But participating in those weddings holds the door open to later Jewish commitment for couples who haven’t decided yet, while refusing to risks shutting that door. Similarly, while we don’t have to recommend or favor raising children as “both,” providing Jewish education to them if they seek it opens doors to later engagement.

The more confident we are that Jewish traditions are so compelling that people will gravitate to them once exposed, the more we will openly discuss these issues, dismantle barriers, and articulate and implement a totally inclusive – yes, a truly audacious – hospitality. People who say Jewish communities are already welcoming enough, and don’t need to talk about or do anything specific for interfaith families, are out of touch; Jewish communities can do a lot to attract and engage interfaith families with explicit statements, invitations, and programs designed for them, especially meet-ups and discussion groups where new couples can talk out how to have religious traditions in their lives.

As summer approaches, many congregational rabbis are thinking about their High Holiday sermons. The Reform movement will gather again in December at its biennial. Will Jewish leaders seize these occasions to forthrightly address just how audacious their hospitality to interfaith families needs to be?

Meeting People Where They Are

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Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, a leading Conservative rabbi whose essay in March explained why he thought Conservative rabbis should continue to not officiate at weddings of interfaith couples, has a new essay arguing that “the Conservative movement should be the movement of conversion.” He wants to “meet people where they are,” and as I understand it make the conversion process easier, in particular not requiring converts to be “fully observant.”

I have always felt that conversion is a wonderful personal choice and I don’t have any issues with making the process easier including for some couples who are getting married. But the idea that making conversion more inviting and “doable” will enable Conservative rabbis to meet young couples who are getting married “where they are” is sorely misguided. Because neither partner is thinking that the partner who is not Jewish needs to make a fundamental change in who he or she is in order to be marriageable.

As David Wilensky and Gabriel Erbs have just written in A Taxonomy of Stupid Shit the Jewish Establishment Says to Millennials:

We really don’t understand how any thinking person believes an intra-communal breeding program will be a convincing appeal to young people. Jewish millennials chafe against this pearl-clutching because we embrace, overwhelmingly, progressive values about gender, sexuality, and marriage. To us, baby-boomer chatter on intermarriage sounds alarmingly like what a lot of “polite society” said at the advent of racial intermarriage….

If Jewish boomers are really anxious about generational continuity (a phrase that verges on eugenics in its subtext), they should stop their hardline rhetoric, which simply pushes millennials out of the communal fold. For interfaith Jewish families who wish to build their family life within the Jewish communal context, this kind of talk constantly reminds them of their second-class status – so they leave.

Shaul Magid writing in The Forward also disagreed with Rabbi Cosgrove, though for different reasons:

I do not think it is fair, or spiritually refined, to ask the non-Jew to become a Jew in order to solve a Jewish problem [intermarriage]. Or to allow us, as rabbis, to sleep at night. To do so is to make conversion into an instrument and the convert into a tool to benefit us.

Rabbi Cosgrove advances other interesting ideas. Since Conservative rabbis do not recognize patrilineal descent, he recommends that all marrying couples go to the mikveh before their weddings, which would “level the playing field of Jewish identity” – and, as I understand it, enable Conservative rabbis to officiate at those weddings. He also recommends that all b’nai mitzvah children go to the mikveh, which would confirm the Jewish identity of patrilineal children.

But these are band-aids that don’t address a much bigger issue. Rabbi Cosgrove has said we must be “passionate in creating a culture of warm embrace for Jew and non-Jew alike.” Not recognizing patrilineal descent, not allowing partners from different faith traditions to participate in Jewish ritual, and not officiating at weddings of interfaith couples – all of these undermine any possible warm embrace.

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In other news, the Reform Movement’s Vice President of Audacious Hospitality, April Baskin,  has announced the piloting of an Audacious Hospitality Toolkit, a “suite of resources” that will “enable [Reform Jewish leaders] to engage and lead the diverse facets within our community more effectively, as well as enhance all aspects of synagogue life – from programming, worship, governance, staffing, and more – to increasingly reflect that diversity.” It will be interesting to see what the Toolkit says about engaging interfaith families when it is released – the movement’s description of audacious hospitality does not give particular emphasis to that audience:

Jewish populations such as Jews by choice and those exploring Judaism, Jews of color, Jews who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and/or queer, Jews who live with physical, mental, or intellectual disabilities, multiracial families, millennials, the aging Jewish population, Jews who are unaffiliated and uninspired by Jewish communal offerings, and of course, the evolving needs of interfaith and intermarried couples and families, requires our focused attention.

Widely Diverse Views: Passover, Officiation, Selling Judaism

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Attitudes about intermarriage – and Jewish “stuff” in general – seem so far apart at times, are we riding on the same bus?

Passover

Here’s a timely example, with Passover approaching. The Boston Jewish Advocate is owned by Grand Rabbi Y. A. Korff, a Hassidic rebbe. His wife writes a weekly column, Ask the Rebbetzin. In the March 24, 2017 issue, someone asked if a Christian friend who is curious about Judaism could attend her Passover seder. The Rebbetzin said that many rabbinic authorities say that “it is not appropriate (and many say forbidden) to have non-Jews at the Pesach Seder.”

Twelve years ago, in April 2005, I wrote a letter to the editor saying I was mortified when the Rebbe made the same statement in the same newspaper. I asked whether he meant to suggest that intermarried parents from different faith backgrounds should be exiled from their own families’ seders, and questioned how many of those parents would want to raise their children with Judaism if Jewish leaders took that position.

This time around I had a respectful email exchange with the Rebbetzin. She explained that traditional Halachah (Jewish law) states that people who are not Jewish should not participate in the seder; that traditionally observant Jews are bound to follow it whether they agree or not; and that others may take a different approach.

I want to be respectful, and I’m in no position to say that members of a Hassidic community should welcome people who are not Jewish to their seders. But on the other hand, when Jewish leaders from that kind of community make a statement in the broader Jewish community that would serve to repel intermarried parents from Jewish life, it contributes to a general negative attitude about intermarriage that isn’t helpful.

At perhaps the other extreme, I loved Kate Bigam’s piece on ReformJudaism.org, Our Non-Traditional, Interfaith Seder: A Little Creativity and a Lot of Love, about her preparations for her first seder with her soon-to-be husband, who grew up Catholic. She wanted to “show him a good one” and focused on assembling what goes on the seder plate; then he arrived with a beautiful seder plate as a gift (shades of the famous O. Henry story The Gift of the Magi). They enjoyed working through the haggadah, but as she hadn’t prepared dinner, they planned to go to a taco place to eat, but ended up at a Thai restaurant instead. I loved her conclusion:

Traditionalists will say we didn’t do Passover right, and maybe that’s true. My Judaism is not perfect, but it’s genuine and passionate and important to me, even when I get a little creative about it. I’ll always remember Mike’s and my first seder together, and I look forward to many more to come.

I had to wonder what the Rebbe and the Rebbetzin would say about that non-traditional seder! There is something core about the seder ritual and more fundamentally about the meaning of the holiday to which both the Rebbetzin and Kate Bigam are very dedicated, but circling around that core are very divergent approaches. It’s easy to say that because they are in such different communities that are so far apart, it doesn’t matter what they think of each other. But I would like to hope that the Rebbe and Rebbetzin could respect the non-traditional approach the way I try to respect their traditional one; that would mean being more careful about statements they make to the broad Jewish community.

Officiation, and Conservative Judaism

Last week I blogged about the Conservative movement allowing synagogues to allow people who are not Jewish to be members, with a reference to the relatively new and apparently increasing discussion among Conservative rabbis about changing the prohibition against their officiating for interfaith couples. Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, a thoughtful and highly-regarded Conservative rabbi, has weighed in with To Officiate or Not at Intermarriages. Rabbi Cosgrove reveals that there was a “special off-the-record session” at the recent convention of the Rabbinical Assembly (the Conservative rabbis’ association) indicating that “as a movement we clearly are squirming.” I have good reason to believe the session was a presentation by people from the Cohen Center at Brandeis about their game-changing study showing that interfaith couples who have a rabbi officiate have a higher rate of Jewish engagement.

Rabbi Cosgrove says that if the data shows that officiation has positive impact, and if it is not at all surprising that if rabbis turn their backs on couples the couples will turn their backs on Judaism, then the argument that Conservative rabbis should serve the couples is a forceful one. But he is not persuaded. He says couples who are pre-disposed to be engaged might be more likely to have a rabbi – but the study found that controlling for childhood Jewish background and college experiences, intermarrieds who had sole Jewish clergy officiation were still more Jewishly engaged. He says that although Jewish law “can, and oftentimes should, change,” Jewish law has the right to limit what it validates. And he says that he “unapologetically want[s] young Jews to marry other Jews;” officiation at intermarriages “send[s] the message that all choices are equal, a message that I do not think wise given the undisputed place in-marriage has as the single most important determinant in ensuring Jewish continuity.”

I respect Rabbi Cosgrove’s position but think it is misguided. Once he acknowledges that Jewish law can and oftentimes should change, it’s no longer a debate about Jewish law, it’s about the consequences of the positions taken – which brings us right back to couples turning their backs on Judaism when rabbis turn their backs on them.

Rabbi Cosgrove says he wants the Conservative movement’s message to be: we want you to marry Jews; when you don’t the path to conversion is warm and embracing and doable; if that’s not an option, we will help you build a Jewish family and future while respecting your spiritual integrity. Unfortunately this is the same message that the Conservative movement has been sending for the past twenty years, with no positive results to show. Rabbi Cosgrove says that when an intermarriage occurs, “we must be … passionate in creating a culture of warm embrace for Jew and non-Jew alike.” Refusing to officiate seriously undermines any warm embrace. Daniel Solomon had a great story in the Forward about the Conservative movement’s recent change in membership rules, and his title says it all: Conservatives Welcome Non-Jews – But Will They Be Second-Class Citizens In the Synagogue? Solomon quotes Rabbi Steven Wernick, head of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, as saying they wanted to “deepen the sense of welcome for those married to people of another faith,” but Solomon told me that Rabbi Wernick said the USCJ is going to be issuing guidelines that say non-Jews can’t serve on a synagogue board and the membership resolution will not change prohibitions adopted by the Rabbinical Assembly that do not allow people who are not Jewish to handle the Torah during services.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the spectrum, Rabbi Angela Buchdahl of Manhattan’s Central Synagogue wrote what I found to be a stunning explanation of The Power of ‘Yes’ on Interfaith Officiation. Rabbi Buchdahl did not officiate for the first ten years of her rabbinate. She learned that:

[S]aying “No” often leads to a profound alienation from the Jewish community. It pains me now, looking back, to think of the many children of my congregation who came to me with their non-Jewish partners, committed to having a Jewish home, and how I turned them away. Many of them left synagogue life permanently. I could no longer bear the hypocrisy I felt in refusing to stand with them for one of the most important days of their lives, but then inviting them to become synagogue members the next day. This could not be the right decision for our Jewish future.

Rabbi Buchdahl says she is now an “impassioned supporter of rabbinic officiation for a couple who commits to the creation of a Jewish home (the very same standard I apply when asked to officiate at a wedding between two Jews).” Rabbi Buchdahl finds power in saying “yes” in part because of the deep relationships couples build with their officiating rabbis. “Then, on their wedding day — one of the most consequential and memorable days of their lives — Jewish ritual becomes the vehicle for their transformation into a family.”

Over the years, I’ve talked to many rabbis who balked at saying the traditional phrase that consecrates a marriage, “under the laws of Moses and Israel,” for interfaith couples. But in what is to me a great advance in thinking on the issue, Rabbi Buchdahl says that “if a non-Jewish partner is willing to live in a home ‘under the laws of Moses and Israel,’ to study Jewish laws and practice, and to raise any future children as Jews, then a rabbi can consecrate that commitment with integrity.” In another great advance to my mind, she says that those who take Central Synagogue’s Exploring Judaism course, but chose not to convert, may not become “b’nai Yisrael” (children of Israel), but they become “bonei Yisrael, builders of Israel and our communities.” She says both b’nai Yisrael and bonei Yisrael are deserving of our blessing under the chuppah.

Of course there is a further end to the spectrum: some would say that officiating only when an interfaith couples commits to the creation of a Jewish home does not go far enough. Rabbi Buchdahl says that she will not “co-officiate with a leader from another faith; if the wedding is marking the end of a couple’s connection to Judaism, instead of a new beginning, then I have no proper place there.” It’s not clear that she meant that co-officiation does mark the end of a couple’s connection to Judaism, and I don’t believe that to be the case. But I’m very grateful to Rabbi Buchdahl for her thoughtful explanation of a position that I believe will clearly engage more interfaith couples in Jewish life than Rabbi Cosgrove’s.

Selling Judaism

Lastly, InterfaithFamily had a mention in the unlikely venue of BloombergBusinessweek, Selling Judaism, Religion Not Included. The article starts out with someone not Jewish celebrating Shabbat – Shabbat is “poised to become the new yoga practice.” Then it moves to Danya Shults, an intermarried Jew who started Arq, “a lifestyle company that seeks to sell people of all faiths on a trendy, tech-literate, and, above all, accessible version of Jewish traditions” that include holiday planning guides. The mention of InterfaithFamily quotes Rabbi Ari Moffic from InterfaithFamily/Chicago as saying “You can do Jewish … even if you’re not Jewish. You want to unplug? It’s called Shabbat, and we’re the experts on it.” The article also mentions Honeymoon Israel, which sends “nontraditional (interfaith, same-sex)” couples on trips to Israel. Everything is referred to as “cultural marketing.”

I’m just not sure that celebrating Shabbat and other Jewish holidays and traveling to Israel isn’t “religious,” as the article title suggests. Of course it depends on what “religious” means – and I’ll have to leave that for other posts. And I’m not saying that cultural marketing is a bad thing, far from it. To me, what related this article to the Passover and officiation issues is the very big factor of welcoming and inclusion, and those who are interested in perpetuating “religious” traditions should take notice. Because what motivated Shults and her Presbyterian husband to look for something different and to start Arq was that “We never really found a [religious] community that matched what we were looking for, especially for” him. “Many of the synagogues that purported to be inclusive turned out to have an agenda, such as trying to get [him] to convert or cultivating the couple’s political support for Israel.” We’ve got a long way to go on the welcoming and inclusion front.

Best wishes for a meaningful Passover – when, after all, we are charged to remember to welcome the stranger, because we were strangers ourselves.

Late 2016 Round-up: Major Convening, Major Research… What’s Next?

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I think it’s safe to say that we would all have to agree that an awful lot has happened in the past two months. That includes developments in the field of engaging interfaith families Jewishly, which I summarize here.

On October 10, eJewishPhilanthropy published my review of a demographic study of British Jews that I found to be unfortunately negative about intermarriage, given trends indicative of a generational shift in identity and practice that I thought supported increased efforts to engage interfaith couples and families.

The October 26 Interfaith Opportunity Summit marked a watershed moment, putting engaging interfaith families at a high level in the mainstream Jewish community’s agenda. eJewishPhilanthropy published Jodi Bromberg’s and my report on new understandings of how to influence engagement, new efforts to engage interfaith families, and the need for an attitudinal “narrative shift” about intermarriage discussed at the Summit.

The Cohen Center at Brandeis on the day of the Summit released a very important study on the impact of rabbinic officiation at weddings of interfaith couples. My op-ed, Are Rabbis Who Refuse to Marry Interfaith Couples Hurting Jewish Continuity?, was published in the Forward and eJewishPhilanthropy. I said that it is no longer tenable for rabbis not to officiate on the grounds that intermarriage is “bad for the Jews,” when the new research shows strong association between officiation and interfaith couples raising their children as Jews and joining synagogues.

The Jewish People Policy Institute in Jerusalem released an important report in November on definitions of Jewishness in a time of fluid identity. In my blog post, what I found promising was the apparent consensus, among  over 700 Jewish leaders from Israel, the US and other countries, on the need to be welcoming to interfaith couples. However, I noted a conflict with an accompanying desire to maintain community standards that express a preference for in-marriage.

In November CJP released the 2015 Greater Boston Jewish Community Study, conducted by the Cohen Center and Steinhardt Institute at Brandeis. In my blog post, I note that the Study confirms the very large extent of intermarriage in the community, and validates the wisdom of CJP’s welcoming approach, with high rates of intermarried couples raising their children as Jews and promising rates of engagement in many other Jewish behaviors. The Study is also important for creating an Index of Jewish Engagement that recognizes multiple patterns of engagement and supports programmatic efforts targeted towards groups with different needs and interests.

I added a new “Reports” section on this site with summaries of important studies, including the officiation research, the JPPI definitions of Jewishness report, and the 2015 Boston Study.

We are clearly in a time of increased interest in the field, with new convenings and research supporting increased efforts. The question that remains is how to make a national coordinated effort to engage interfaith families a reality.

Are Rabbis Who Refuse To Marry Interfaith Couples Hurting Jewish Continuity?

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published by The Forward and on eJewishPhilanthropy
reprinted with permission

The Cohen Center’s new study, Under the Chuppah: Rabbinic Officiation and Intermarriage, is a game-changer. The many rabbis who don’t officiate at weddings of interfaith couples because they think those couples won’t engage in Jewish life no longer have that leg to stand on.

Addressing the issue of rabbinic officiation at intermarriages was a major focus of InterfaithFamily’s (IFF) work since it started fifteen years ago. In the early years, IFF published many first-person accounts of the hurt and rejection couples experienced; one of the most striking articles from 2002 is titled Why I Am a Unitarian – you can guess the reason why. But no one seemed to pay much attention.

In early 2008, a study by the National Center for Jewish Policy Studies, Intermarriage and Jewish Journeys, confirmed that the negative experience many interfaith couples had seeking Jewish clergy to officiate at their weddings was a “huge turnoff.” Finally, I thought, people would pay attention to research by a respected academic – but it didn’t happen.

In March 2010, the CCAR, after three years of study, released a report that acknowledged the opportunity to engage interfaith families Jewishly through rabbinic outreach, and said that a range of practices, including officiation under certain circumstances, was “respected.” But it also said that encouraging in-marriage was important because of the greater likelihood of continuity, and left standing the CCAR’s 1973 resolution that officially disapproves of officiation because intermarriage is “should be discouraged.” To my knowledge, no one knows how many Reform rabbis officiate for interfaith couples; most published comments say “about half.”

InterfaithFamily never argued with rabbis who said that their position on officiation was based on their relationship with Jewish law. But it’s clear that the opposition of many to officiation is based not on theology but on demographics: the belief that intermarriage is “bad for the Jews.” I vividly remember meeting a Reform rabbi on the North Shore of Chicago who told me she didn’t officiate for interfaith couples because of Steven Cohen’s research showing that intermarried couples were not Jewishly engaged. When prominent Conservative rabbi David Wolpe explained in 2013 why he didn’t officiate for interfaith couples, the first reason he gave was that “invariably” in an intermarriage the chances that the children will be raised as Jewish are much less. That’s why the new research on the impact of officiation is so important.

When Len Saxe discussed the new study at the recent Interfaith Opportunity Summit, one of his slides generated an audible gasp among the attendees: 85% of intermarried couples who had only Jewish clergy officiate at their wedding are raising their children Jewish, compared to 94% of in-married couples who have Jewish clergy officiate, and 23% of intermarried couples who have other officiants. Moreover, 34% of intermarried couples with sole Jewish clergy officiants are synagogue members, compared to 41% of in-married couples, and 7% of intermarrieds with other officiants.

As careful researchers, Saxe and his team don’t claim definitive causation, but the association between officiation and later Jewish engagement is striking. “Interactions with Jewish clergy in preparation for the wedding may serve to welcome the non-Jewish partner into Judaism, establish the groundwork for a continuing relationship, and affirm the couple’s prior decision to raise a Jewish family. However, the opposite may also be true. Rejection by Jewish clergy may serve to dissuade couples from pursuing other Jewish commitments and connections.”

After this research, Reform rabbis who don’t officiate are refusing to take action they are permitted by their association to take that leads to interfaith couples raising their children as Jews and joining synagogues. That can’t be a tenable position any longer, and it’s time for the CCAR to change its official position.

But this isn’t just a Reform issue. At the Interfaith Opportunity Summit, several Conservative rabbis expressed deep concern about their association’s position on officiation. One said, “we massage the message but at the end of the day we are saying ‘no’ and it is real and painful.” A prominent Conservative rabbi earlier this year said it’s time to allow Conservative rabbis to officiate at weddings of interfaith couples. The new research supports efforts to change the RA’s policy from within.

It’s time for Judaism’s religious leaders, instead of making interfaith couples feel that their relationships are disapproved, to truly embrace them. What could be more welcoming than a rabbi embracing an interfaith couple at the nodal moment of the wedding? Rabbis should be leading the effort to change the dominant narrative away from ambivalence about intermarriage and the legitimacy of the intermarried.

With 72% of non-Orthodox Jews intermarrying, efforts to engage interfaith families Jewishly are essential. They cannot succeed without a dramatic shift in attitudes towards the positive.

What We Learned at the Interfaith Opportunity Summit

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November 6, 2016
with Jodi Bromberg
published on eJewishPhilanthropy

In October 2016, an at-capacity crowd of 300-plus major foundation, federation and organization leaders gathered in Philadelphia at the Interfaith Opportunity Summit: Embracing the New Jewish Reality, the first-ever national convening on the topic of engaging interfaith families in Jewish life and community. The Summit happened now because of steadily growing interest in the issue, spurred by the award of the Genesis Prize to Michael Douglas in 2015 and the resulting matching challenge grant process run by the Jewish Funders Network, and because of InterfaithFamily’s emergence as the leading convener in the space, with a successful smaller gathering in Boston last year.

The Summit marked a watershed moment, putting engaging interfaith families at a high level in the mainstream Jewish community’s agenda, with the Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Funders Network partnering with IFF on the Summit. Every significant programmatic effort to engage interfaith families was represented. Three areas of learnings emerged: 1) the issues that need to be addressed to engage interfaith families; 2) the new efforts to engage them; and 3) the “narrative shift” in attitudes that must happen to make engagement efforts successful.

New Understandings about What Influences Engagement

There was considerable consensus about the applicability to interfaith families of a new conceptualization of what it means to be or to “do” Jewish. People will engage in Jewish life and community if Jewish values, rituals and practices, and forms of community help them meet common human needs for meaning and purpose, connect with others, and connect with something greater than themselves. In turn, interfaith couples will engage to the extent they are aware of this Jewish “stuff” and it is delivered in ways that are accessible to them.

There were stories of interfaith couples valuing Judaism’s gratitude practice, home family practice, focus on others, focus on improving the world, spiritual life, and ongoing questioning. How people will apply Jewish values and wisdom, and which traditions and forms of community they will adopt, however, is in flux, and traditional measures will not capture how people are defining and expressing their Jewishness today. At a session on entry points and pathways for interfaith families, speakers said we need to “bring the magic of Judaism as an enriching force in everyday lives to parents, grandparents, and children;” that “Jewish values help parents do the core job of parenting;” and that there is nothing that disengaged “free roamers” can talk about that they care about that isn’t addressed by Jewish values and traditions.

That much of Jewish religious life is organized around the concept of “the Jewish people,” and much of Jewish cultural life is by definition particularistic, raises the question how a partner from a different faith background can feel included in Jewish life. That in turn raises issues for the Jewish partners, who privilege their relationships over religion and other priorities, as found in the Continuum research sponsored by the Jacobson Family Foundation and a new study of mixed religion families by the Pew Research Center released in conjunction with the Summit. The Summit featured a text study session on different conceptions of Jewishness (nationality; ancestry; loyalty to a set of beliefs and doctrines; affiliation with a community; and identifying with a culture). An intermarried unconverted partner from a different faith tradition could feel included as a member of the Jewish people, and as a member of some Jewish communities but not others, while not a Jew. The idea of treating Jewish peoplehood as a family was also advanced. How peoplehood is understood and explained is a fertile area for further exploration.

The Summit featured a session on difficult boundary issues. The phenomenon of interfaith couples saying they are raising their children in more than one religion – partly Jewish and partly something else – is real. InterfaithFamily felt that the issue was important and warranted discussion, and invited a prominent proponent of “doing both,” to present at the Summit.  She argued that 1) families doing both are already part of synagogues and Jewish communities, and 2) that these couples want to engage in Judaism while educating their children about both religious traditions in the family, and don’t want to merge them together. Another speaker talked of an “open Judaism” that moved beyond tolerance to celebrating different religious traditions. Whether Jewish institutions will be willing to engage openly with these families without alienating them is another area for further consideration.

New Efforts to Engage Interfaith Families

One program session addressed ways to reach interfaith families through advertising, community organizing approaches and Israel trips. Recommendations included edgy, humorous advertising; explicit and prominent statements that interfaith families are welcome; and meeting people where they are, building relationships one-on-one and connecting them with others with similar interests, and providing content from the vast storehouse of Judaism that addresses their interests, and helps them do Jewish things.

One important suggestion was to empathize – to anticipate the hesitations that interfaith couples will have (Will we be welcomed or judged? Will there be people like us? Will we know enough?) and then tell stories of other interfaith families’ experiences that address those hesitations. Another was to focus on touchstone, nodal moments in peoples’ lives.

Several speakers emphasized the key role of grandparents, which one referred to as “the boots on the ground” with “high touch” relationships wanting to create “safe spaces.” Others emphasized the importance of reaching people through their friends: the disengaged “free roamers” have friends who are engaged and friends who are seekers, and all of them are social and on social media. People go to things when someone they know says “do you want to go to this, I’m going.”

If there was one consistent theme, it was the importance of relationships and relational processes in engaging interfaith families. The underlying theory is that identity formation is lifelong and dependent on experiences; people are susceptible to change because of college experiences or their experiences as couples. Jewish identity is relationally constructed and manifested in the “social self.” The stories of several of the interfaith couples who spoke at the Summit included examples of negotiation and compromise that resulted in Jewish engagement. Almost all of the speakers in a program session on entry points and pathways for interfaith couples, representing early childhood programs, couples’ groups, and Jewish learning programs, emphasized the importance of developing relationships; one said, “when relationships of trust and security are evident, families can thrive.”

Wendy Rosov presented her program evaluations of InterfaithFamily’s Your Community initiative, which places a rabbi and a program manager in local communities to offer a range of services and programs targeted at interfaith couples, and of Honeymoon Israel, which provides immersive trips to Israel for locally-based cohorts of couples (69% to date have been interfaith couples). Rosov focused on two shared strategies: high touch relationship building, both between couples and staff and among couples, and providing a safe, non-judgmental space that facilitates discussion, negotiation and compromise between partners. Programmatic efforts that depend on relationship building and relational processes take time and are expensive (to the extent they depend on staff), and to the extent that reaching greater numbers requires more staff, the cost increases.

The kinds of outcomes these programs achieve tie in to the new conceptualizations of what it means to be or “do” Jewish. Shifting couple dynamics is particularly important, towards more equality around making Jewish choices, and towards more facility in discussing religious differences, doing Jewish things, and integrating traditions in ways that work for both partners. Outcomes being achieved include feeling connected to other Jewishly-engaged couples and to Jewish communities, incorporating Jewish traditions in their lives on a regular basis, and increased comfort in Jewish settings.

Changing the Narrative

At the concluding plenary a participant made a plea for a “shift in the dominant narrative.” Several Summit speakers referred to the remaining ambivalence over intermarriage and the full legitimacy of the intermarried. A Hillel representative reported that students find it ostracizing when their parents’ marriages are considered invalid, and Hillel professionals are “in the closet” about being in interfaith relationships or from interfaith families.

A concrete result of negative attitudes about intermarriage is the “door slamming” that interfaith couples can experience when seeking a rabbi to officiate at their life cycle events. A number of Conservative rabbis spoke about the pain they feel when they tell couples that they cannot officiate at their weddings; one said that “we massage the message but at the end of the day we are saying ‘no’ and it is real and painful.” A new study first discussed at the Summit, Under the Chuppah: Rabbinic Officiation and Intermarriage, may lead more rabbis to officiate. The audience audibly gasped when one of the report’s authors, Len Saxe, projected a slide showing that the percentage of in-married and intermarried couples who are raising their children as Jews by religion is very close when a rabbi is the sole officiant at the couples’ weddings – 96% for in-married couples compared to 85% for intermarried couples.

The stories of many speakers, on the other hand, reflected the cultural shift in attitudes that is needed in both institutions and individuals, and happening with some of them. Common threads in the experiences of the interfaith couples who spoke at the Summit included being invited in, seeing others like themselves, hearing explicit welcoming statements, and experiencing an overall diverse and welcoming milieu. A rabbi at one of their synagogues spoke of the blessings of intermarriage – bringing more thoughtful, questioning people “into the fold.”

Another speaker, a Protestant woman married to a Jewish man, raising their children Jewish, told about how she was deeply moved when she held the Torah for the first time at Simchat Torah immediately before the Summit. She reached that point, she said, because a rabbi said yes when asked to officiate at her wedding, and because at her emerging spiritual community she experienced “radical hospitality, not just tolerance,” there was no hint of “do more Jewish, be more Jewish, convert,” and it was a safe place to explore while feeling truly part of a community.

Many speakers emphasized the work on welcoming that remains to be done. More than one said that organizations that think they are welcome, really aren’t, and pointed out the need to train religious school teachers in particular. One said that if a couple has one bad experience, they may not come back. Another said that “we all need to be educated that we are all ambassadors.”

What’s Next?

The concluding plenary addressed what local communities need to do to engage interfaith families. There was consensus that both programs aimed explicitly at interfaith couples and families, and general programs that welcome everyone, including interfaith families, are needed. Wendy Rosov noted that one common strategy of InterfaithFamily/Your Community and Honeymoon Israel is a national organization with local community efforts.

The new data on the impact of rabbinic officiation supports the importance of relationship building in interfaith family engagement work. Len Saxe said that while they couldn’t prove that having a rabbi as a sole officiant caused the couples to raise their children as Jews by religion, there is some independent effect of rabbinic officiation, and he suggested that it could be the process by which the couple and the rabbi work together in preparation for the wedding.

With respect to changing the narrative, one participant pointed to a coming generational shift in attitudes. A worthy next step to the Summit might be to consider what can be done to speed up that shift.

InterfaithFamily introduced the Summit with the hope that the outcome would be a national coordinated effort to engage interfaith families. The question that now needs to be addressed is how to make that hope a reality.

Choosing Love and Family at a B’nei Mitzvah

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I’ve been to a lot of bar and bat mitzvahs in my life, but I’ve never been so deeply moved as I was on a recent Shabbat.

My cousin, Nancy Sharp, who I’ve always adored, has experienced a life of tragic loss and re-found joy. Her husband, Brett, who I remember vividly as a most wonderful young man, died of brain cancer when their twins, Casey and Rebecca, were 2 1/2 years old. Nancy decided to move from Manhattan to Denver, where she had one friend.

both_sides_now

After relocating, Nancy read about Steve Saunders, a local TV journalist, in a magazine article about eligible bachelors; Steve’s wife had died of cancer and he was raising two young teens, Ryan and Dylan. Long story short, Nancy and Steve met, married and combined their families. Nancy has told her story in a remarkable book, Both Sides Now. And this spring, Casey and Rebecca became bar and bat mitzvah.

The service and the celebration were amazing. Brett’s family, though living at a distance, has remained very close to Nancy and her children. Brett’s mother, an aunt and uncle, and many cousins were all present and there were not a few tears when Brett’s mother presented his tallit to Casey at the start of the service. But Steve’s family, who are not Jewish, were very present too; I could see that Casey and Rebecca have acquired a third set of grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins. The kindness and the love that flowed between Steve and Brett’s family, and Steve’s family and my cousins, was plain for all to see.

I learned that Ryan and Dylan had many Jewish friends growing up, attended Jewish summer camp and one of Steve’s very adorable nephews (who is not Jewish) even attends the pre-school at Temple Micah, where Nancy and Steve are members. So the Saunders family was not unfamiliar with what happens at a bar or bat mitzvah. And Rabbi Adam Morris did an extraordinarily sensitive job of bringing Brett into the service while keeping the focus on the present.

But what I especially appreciated was how inclusive Rabbi Morris was of Steve and his family. In many Reform synagogues, part of a bar or bat mitzvah service is a symbolic passing of the Torah from grandparents to parents to child, but at many, the grandparents and parent who are not Jewish don’t get to participate (on the theory that the Torah is not “theirs” to pass, or perhaps that they couldn’t have passed Judaism to the child). At this b’nei mitzvah, I was very glad to see the Torah passed from my cousins Ron and Sue to Brett’s mother, to Steve’s parents, to Steve and Nancy and then to their children.

As in probably all Reform synagogues, part of the bar or bat mitzvah service involves the parents having an aliyah (saying the blessings before and after a portion of the Torah is read). But as best I know, the vast majority of Reform rabbis will not allow a parent who is not Jewish to join in reciting the Torah blessings at their own child’s bar or bat mitzvah. I believe this is based on theory that the blessing refers to God choosing “us” and giving “us” the Torah, and the parent who is not Jewish isn’t part of the “us.” I felt so grateful to Rabbi Morris, and told him so afterwards, for allowing Steve to join with Nancy in the parents’ aliyah. I wish the rabbis who wouldn’t have permitted that could have been at the b’nei mitzvah of Casey and Rebecca Zickerman. Maybe seeing the contribution that Steve, not to mention his extended family, has made to passing Judaism on to Casey and Rebecca might persuade them to change their minds. Something is very wrong, in my opinion, when rabbis can’t consider the family of a person like Steve to be the “us” to whom the Torah was given, making it fully authentic and appropriate for a person like Steve to thank God for giving the Torah to his family—to “us.”

Rabbi Morris’ inclusive approach should not have been a surprise; in 2004 he wrote an excellent sermon explaining why, as it says on the Temple Micah website, “I proudly officiate at the weddings of interfaith couples.” To our knowledge, he is the only congregational rabbi in Denver who will do so.

Nancy Sharp’s story is very personal and emotional for me, and one of, if not the, most inspiring stories I have ever encountered. I love Nancy and her family; the loss she suffered was painful, and the love that she found is a source of great joy. I think the lesson here is about being open to and choosing love. The love that Nancy was open to and chose with Steve, and the love that flows between their families, including Brett’s, is what makes their example so powerful. I hope that the inclusive approach of their rabbi, who chooses to privilege love and family over other concerns, becomes an increasingly powerful example to his colleagues, too.

This post originally appeared on www.interfaithfamily.com and is reprinted with permission.

Shifts in the Conservative Movement

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There was an important JTA article yesterday about a prominent Conservative rabbi who reportedly floated the idea of officiating at weddings of interfaith couples – something Conservative rabbis are prohibited from doing by their association, the Rabbinical Assembly – and then reportedly reversed course.

Since InterfaithFamily started operating thirteen years ago, we have always taken the position that Jewish clergy officiating at weddings of interfaith couples is a potential “door opener” to future Jewish engagement by the couple, while refusals to officiate or difficulties finding an officiant are potential “door closers.” We have always tried to be respectful of rabbis who chose not to officiate, while encouraging some rabbis in all communities to officiate in order to minimize the “door closing” effect.

Since InterfaithFamily got started we also have consistently tried to be helpful to the Conservative movement in its response to interfaith couples. Back in 2009 I wrote about how we were trying to recruit Conservative synagogues and professionals to list on our Network and thereby indicate that they welcomed interfaith families, and that we always publicized the Keruv initiative of the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs. At the time, we applauded a softening of the movement’s previous approach to aggressively promote conversion. In early 2013 we wrote about a prominent Conservative rabbi in New York who proposed a “fast track” conversion, in which a person who was not Jewish would convert first, and then study later, in order to enable Conservative rabbis to officiate at that person’s wedding.

Many observers have said that the Conservative movement has lost many members because the Reform movement is perceived to be more welcoming to interfaith couples. Promoting conversion – which appeared to be getting renewed emphasis just this past summer from Arnold Eisen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary – continues to be a potential obstacle to a more welcoming stance. The inability of Conservative rabbis to officiate for interfaith couples is another obstacle.

A year or two ago, a highly-regarded Conservative rabbi told me that within five to ten years, Conservative rabbis would be officiating. I know another highly-regarded Conservative rabbi who is trying to figure out a way to be involved with interfaith couples along with another rabbi who would ultimately officiate at the wedding. And on Yom Kippur this year, Rabbi Adina Lewittes, a Conservative rabbi who had served as assistant dean of the Jewish Theological Seminary, delivered a sermon in which she revealed that she would officiate at intermarriages and had resigned from the Rabbinical Assembly.

According to yesterday’s JTA article, Rabbi Wesley Gardenswartz of Temple Emanuel in Newton, MA, one of the largest Conservative synagogues in the country, had sent an email to congregants seeking support for a policy that would enable him to officiate at interfaith weddings where the couple had committed to a “Covenant to Raise Jewish Children.” Apparently there were significant reservations about the proposed “Covenant,” so the proposed policy was withdrawn, although Rabbi Gardenwartz said the congregation would “explore ways to be more welcoming to interfaith families both before and after the wedding.”

I agree with Rabbi Chuck Simon of the Federation of Jewish Men’s clubs who is quoted in the JTA article as describing “the move by someone of Gardenswartz’s stature to review policy on interfaith unions” as a potential “game changer for the movement” and “the beginning of a huge paradigm shift.” Although the head of the Rabbinical Assembly is quoted in the article as saying “we don’t see the performance of intermarriage as something rabbis can do,” we expect that as more and more Conservative leaders see officiation as a potential “door opener” and their existing policy as a potential “door closer,” we will see more moves like Rabbi Gardenswartz’s toward a change in that approach.

This post originally appeared on www.interfaithfamily.com and is reprinted with permission.