When Rabbi Daniel Zemel started his career, back in the past century, the last thing he thought he’d ever do was perform intermarriages.
But as the years passed, Zemel, who leads Temple Micah, a Reform congregation in Washington, found that maintaining his strict rule on this issue became ever more difficult.
“It got harder and harder to say no,” he recalled in an interview with the Forward, as he encountered situations and realities that increasingly challenged his beliefs and the teachings of his mentors. Eventually, in January 2009, Zemel wrote a lengthy letter to his community, explaining that his deliberations were over. He would no longer turn down requests to conduct interfaith weddings for members of the congregation.
“I wanted my Judaism to make sense to me, and I wanted to help create [a] Judaism that makes sense to Americans,” he said, reflecting now on the decision he made five years ago.
Many Reform rabbis, and a few Conservative ones, have gone through a similar process in recent years. And for each, crossing the Rubicon was a result of intense personal wrestling.
Reform rabbis in particular receive no clear guidance on this issue from their denominational leaders. The decision of whether to officiate interfaith marriages is left to the clergy themselves and to their understanding of Jewish theology, of the right path for American Judaism and primarily of the needs of their own community. For some, like Zemel, coming out in support of marriage of Jewish and non-Jewish couples took the form of a letter to the community. Others took to the pulpit during prime-time High Holy Days sermons to explain their move.
“After long and deliberate consideration, I have reached this decision: Going forward, when a Jew and a non-Jew in our community here at Temple Israel come to me and state that both partners are willing to commit to a Jewish future, Jewish education for their children and the creation of a Jewish home, I will officiate happily at their chuppah,” Rabbi John Rosove stated in his 2012 Rosh Hashanah sermon at Los Angeles’s Temple Israel of Hollywood.
“I was extremely nervous before this sermon,” Rosove recalled, but his congregants’ response left no room for doubt that his move struck the right chord with the community. “People stood up in the middle of the Rosh Hashanah sermon and started applauding and shouting,” he said. For weeks afterward, congregants attending services or dropping off their children at the nursery school stopped Rosove to express their support for his decision.
It was an issue Rosove had been struggling with for nearly 15 years, ever since he attended the wedding of a family friend who married a non-Jew. “It was a relationship of love,” he said.