'Christmas Tree Rabbis' Take Place in Faith as Intermarriage Grows

Half of Jewish Millenials Grew Up in Interfaith Homes

Getty Images

By Julie Wiener

Published November 15, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 2)

Rabbis raised in interfaith homes are a mixed lot. Some officiate at interfaith marriages, while others do not or have not yet made up their minds. Some were raised Jewish, while others embraced Judaism as teenagers or adults. Some felt welcomed by the Jewish community as children, others not so much.

But they all say their families, Jewish and gentile alike, support their decision to become rabbis. All see their backgrounds as something that makes them sensitive to the needs of intermarried families and comfortable with the diversity of practices among American Jews. And all are testaments to the unpredictable ways in which younger people are forging their own paths to Jewish identity despite their upbringing.

“People whose lives are messy can still find joy and a home in Judaism,” said Weiner, 26, whose parents, at her request, joined a synagogue and enrolled her in Hebrew school when she was 12.

Rabbis with non-Jewish fathers — like Joshua Caruso and Sara O’Donnell Adler, both 44 — are used to questions about their names. O’Donnell Adler, a chaplain at the University of Michigan Hospitals in Ann Arbor, said she deliberately kept O’Donnell when she married — not just because she is close to her Irish Catholic family, but because the name is a good icebreaker as she makes the hospital rounds.

“Some people make the assumption that I’ve converted to Judaism, and that’s OK,” she said. “It builds bridges of conversation and allows people to talk about their families. If I meet interfaith families, it seems to foster a connection.” For Erik Uriarte, 35, a first-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College, it’s not just the name but his Latino looks that raise eyebrows. He is constantly asked if he converted to Judaism to marry his wife — even though it is his wife, whose mother is not Jewish, who converted when the two joined a Conservative synagogue.

The rabbis whose mothers are not Jewish face different challenges, since without a conversion they are not considered Jewish under religious law.

Weiner declined a formal conversion, even though several professors at the Jewish Theological Seminary offered to facilitate one while she was an undergraduate there. She knows conversion would mean she is recognized as Jewish beyond the non-Orthodox movements, but she wants to signal her acceptance of patrilineal descent.

“It’s not my job to be all things to all people or convince everyone I’m right,” Weiner said.

Rabbi Karen Perolman, 31, the assistant rabbi at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, N.J., took a different approach, opting for a Conservative conversion after she was excluded from reading from the megillah at a community Purim celebration in college.

But perhaps the biggest dilemma for these rabbis is whether to officiate at intermarriages. Weiner anticipates that she will, while Uriarte says he is leaning against — a position he acknowledges is “slightly ironic” given his background.

“I totally, 100 percent support people marrying people they love and are going to get along with,” Uriarte said. “Where my concern comes in is regarding the children and how they’re raised. There’s a certain level of confidence you can have in marrying two Jewish people, even if they’re pretty secular, or two people when one is on the road to converting to Judaism. That, to me at least, would perpetuate a sense of Jewish identity.”

Many of the rabbis say their interfaith background has better prepared them to handle the challenges facing interfaith couples. Caruso believes he has credibility in explaining that his refusal to officiate at an intermarriage doesn’t imply rejection of the couple. Weiner says her background makes her more conscious of her obligation to care for both the Jewish and non-Jewish partners in a relationship. And Woodward says it makes him more conscious of the language he employs.

“Welcoming interfaith families doesn’t just mean not being mean to them,” Woodward said, “but saying we want you here.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "Selma. Nearly 50 years ago it was violent Selma, impossibly racist Selma, site of Bloody Sunday, when peaceful civil rights marchers made their first attempt to cross the Pettus Street Bridge on the way to the state capitol in Montgomery, Alabama." http://jd.fo/r50mf With the 50th anniversary approaching next spring, a new coalition is bringing together blacks, Jews and others for progressive change.
  • Kosovo's centuries-old Jewish community is down to a few dozen. In a nation where the population is 90% Muslim, they are proud their past — and wonder why Israel won't recognize their state. http://jd.fo/h4wK0
  • Israelis are taking up the #IceBucketChallenge — with hummus.
  • In WWI, Jews fought for Britain. So why were they treated as outsiders?
  • According to a new poll, 75% of Israeli Jews oppose intermarriage.
  • Will Lubavitcher Rabbi Moshe Wiener be the next Met Council CEO?
  • Angelina Jolie changed everything — but not just for the better:
  • Prime Suspect? Prime Minister.
  • Move over Dr. Ruth — there’s a (not-so) new sassy Jewish sex-therapist in town. Her name is Shirley Zussman — and just turned 100 years old.
  • From kosher wine to Ecstasy, presenting some of our best bootlegs:
  • Sara Kramer is not the first New Yorker to feel the alluring pull of the West Coast — but she might be the first heading there with Turkish Urfa pepper and za’atar in her suitcase.
  • About 1 in 40 American Jews will get pancreatic cancer (Ruth Bader Ginsberg is one of the few survivors).
  • At which grade level should classroom discussions include topics like the death of civilians kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets?
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.