Four poles, a covering on top, open on all four sides -— the huppah. It’s such a simple structure, yet so layered with meaning. It is at once a private sacred space for the couple symbolizing their Jewish home, as well as a symbol that Jewish life is not lived in isolation, but in community. Like so much in Judaism, then, marriage is at once a private act and a public one, intimate and shared. A community’s relationship with its families is a holy dialogue, one which binds us to each other not just in the here and now, but across generations past and future. It’s not a relationship that any rabbi takes lightly.
The Jewish people are today grappling with a striking new reality. We’ve never lived in a society as open or inclusive as 21st-century America. In just a few short generations, prejudice and distrust have faded as we’ve found ourselves welcomed in a spirit that expresses the best American ideals and values.
But as Jews have been accepted into wider American culture, internal forces that once held us together have loosened. When selecting life partners, shared American values often play a bigger role than religious identity, even for strongly-identified and -committed Jews; at the same time, never before have non-Jews been as open to playing an active role in the Jewish community, with or without conversion.
These are facts. Our challenge, whether spiritual leaders or lay people, is what to do with them. And it is no simple decision.
Over the past year at our synagogue, B’nai Jeshurun, we have engaged with colleagues, learned from scholars and been in conversation with hundreds of community members to discuss and consider these facts. We subscribe to the approach in Halacha, rabbinic law, that holds that Jewish law must be interpreted and applied in relation to the realities of the community. We do not subscribe to a restrictive view of Halacha that considers texts and precedents as the only factors that define our decisions. We do not plan to dismantle Halacha or to efface boundaries; rather, we want to be courageous and expand Halacha as a living and dynamic system with both commitment and compassion.
As always, we have sought to honor tradition and also maintain an inclusive and innovative spirit that allows both our rabbinate and BJ to be accessible and relevant to those we serve now and will serve later.
After a year of extensive and intentional study, BJ is now embarking on a significant change in our approach to the future of Jewish life within our community. Within the framework of a broader reimagining of BJ’s shared future over the next several years and in coming generations, we have come to two decisions.
We will create a new ceremony to celebrate and officiate at the weddings of interfaith couples who are committed to creating a Jewish home and raising any children they may have as Jews. At the same time, we are upholding the traditional matrilineal definition of Jewish identity; the children of Jewish fathers who have committed to living a Jewish life will be invited to visit a mikveh to remove any ambiguity. We will continue our policy of officiating only at the weddings of members of our community and their children.
After many conversations with our community, we are developing a new initiative intended to become core to BJ: the Jewish Home Project. This initiative will be designed to provide all of our members with the resources they need to strengthen and nourish vibrant Jewish homes and shape BJ’s next generation, regardless of personal history or marital status, if they have children or don’t, are our newest members or have been with us for decades. This initiative will include new support programs for individuals, couples and families; resources for daily Jewish living; a more robust conversion program; and rich Jewish education courses. As always, we remain focused on the spiritual work of transformation, on forging a Jewish spiritual path that is authentic and profound and deeply connected to Torah and community.
This process and these decisions are about B’nai Jeshurun’s future; we do not presume to know what’s right for other communities. Our goal is to support our members as they build and strengthen Jewish homes and families, engaging in the tradition of sanctifying daily life. We look forward to learning from others about their own processes and conclusions.
The 21st-century American Jewish experience may be unprecedented, but Jews have always negotiated the borders of belonging, creating porousness and making room for those who wish to live with us.
“Open the gates, and let the righteous nation (goy tzaddik) enter,” says the prophet Isaiah. Midrash Sifra interprets, “‘Open the gates and let Priests, Levites and Israelites enter,’ it does not say, rather ‘and let a righteous gentile who keeps the faith enter.’”
If we do not stretch the boundaries and make room for those who wish to join us, live with us and build a Jewish future with us, we will be called to account for having failed future generations of the Jewish people.
As BJ’s spiritual leaders, we embrace this moment with conviction and faith. We know that Torah and Judaism are compelling when presented with passion, compassion, and commitment. We are a strong community, and we will not waver in our efforts to live up to what this hour requires of us and in our faithfulness to future generations.
J. Rolando Matalon, Felicia Sol and Marcelo Bronstein are the rabbis of B’nai Jeshurun.