This last July, the Cleveland Jewish News ran a feature story on the results of a study commissioned by the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland regarding outreach towards interfaith families. The study found that “intermarriage is not a rejection of the Jewish spouse’s Jewish identity,” and more should be done to promote a welcoming Jewish community.
While we saw the article as a good indication of what the community can do to increase participation in Jewish life, one reader responded with a story of a missed opportunity for inclusion – with an ending we fear most. He wrote:
My son is about to marry a non-Jewish woman. I approached the head rabbi of our Reform synagogue and asked him to conduct the marriage ceremony. We were told that the Reform movement had broached the subject of condoning rabbinic participation in mixed marriages three times over the past 100 years. Each time the decision was made not to sanction such marriages, although each rabbi was given the latitude to decide whether to maintain or disagree with the policy.
Although our rabbi’s final decision was to decline participation, he did offer to welcome the new bride and groom into the congregation with a special blessing that he would perform after the ceremony.
My son, a 5th-generation heir to our temple’s family membership, was, to put it mildly, understandably distressed. Why would he want a blessing from a rabbi who personally, and officially, would not participate in his marriage? How would he feel walking into a synagogue that held community standards over his personal choice? How could he, in good conscience, participate in an organization whose basics tenet is exclusionary?
As a most unfortunate result of my son’s experience, the rabbi and our temple have lost two potential participants rather than (at the very least) saving one.
While the result is indeed unfortunate, we can only assume that this rabbi made his best effort to support the couple in the way he felt most appropriate. The bigger issue at hand is one of welcoming. In this case, the couple did not feel like they had the support they desired, but it’s clear the rabbi made the effort to welcome them in – and that’s what’s important. Though interfaith marriage is a complicated issue with a distinct set of challenges, there are things you can do to always make a couple feel welcome when they approach. For example: congratulating them and their families on the upcoming nuptials, inviting them to meet with the rabbi, and following up after the initial communication are all great methods for creating a meaningful bond between the couple, the institution, and the community.
What a situation like the one described above tells us is that we are a long way from ending the intermarriage conversation, but hopefully we will reach a point where one day no one will feel like their only choice is to turn away from Judaism.