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EXCLUSIVE: Rabbis Who Favor Ban On Intermarriage Challenge Conservative Leaders

A group of rabbis who support the Conservative movement’s ban on intermarriage are mounting a highly unusual challenge to colleagues who have been hand-picked to assume the leadership of their professional body, the Rabbinical Assembly.

The movement, a liberal denomination that adheres to Jewish law, bans intermarriage, but some of its rabbis bitterly oppose the ban. Three of the four insurgent candidates mounting write-in campaigns to lead the Rabbinical Assembly — the first such effort since the 1980s — are doing so under the banner of upholding the ban, the Forward has learned. Repealing it altogether is unlikely, but the candidates want to make sure that it isn’t weakened, either. The ban, they feel, is an existential question. Their candidacies give their convictions a platform.

“It’s an issue of Jewish law, but it’s also an issue of whether we’re going to be here tomorrow or not,” said Rabbi Felipe Goodman, who is challenging the board-nominated candidate, Rabbi Stewart Vogel, of Woodland Hills, California, to be the Rabbinical Assembly vice president. “If we want to remain a people, this is something we have to uphold,” Goodman told the Forward.

Vogel could not be reached for comment.

Goodman, from a prominent Las Vegas synagogue, along with Rabbi Bradley Tecktiel of Las Vegas and Rabbi Daniel Horwitz of Houston, believe strongly that their movement should not sanction intermarriage by allowing rabbis to officiate weddings between Jews and non-Jews, according to several rabbis interviewed for this article. Rabbi Aaron Melman, of Chicago, said he is running against the board-nominated candidates because he feels he has been passed over for a leadership position too many times.

The Rabbinical Assembly is the top authority on religious law within the movement. It also sets professional standards for its roughly 1,600 member rabbis and negotiates their contracts. Every year the members vote in a new executive council and board of officers, though there are almost never any other candidates on the ballot besides the ones nominated by the outgoing board.

Tecktiel, Horwitz and Melman are seeking positions on the executive council. The executive committee has limited sway, however, over the official religious positions of the movement, such as the ban on rabbis officiating interfaith marriages. Those rules are debated and voted on by the RA’s Committee on Jewish Laws and Standards, which reviews issues of halakha, or Jewish law, and determines what the movement’s official halakhic positions are.

Technically, the executive council can block appointments to the committee made by leaders of other movement institutions. But a prominent member of the committee said that the executive council has never vetoed an committee appointee on the basis of ideology.

Intermarriage has been a divisive issue in the movement for many years. Prominent rabbis have voluntarily left the movement or been expelled after officiating at interfaith weddings. The Reform movement, by contrast, allows its rabbis to decide for themselves, while Orthodox Jews by and large consider intermarriage to be a severe breach of Jewish law.

Now the movement’s struggle with the question of intermarriage has landed on the doorstep of its institutions and their leaders.

In March of 2017, a major wing of the movement passed a resolution allowing synagogues to extend membership to non-Jews. In October of last year, the RA reaffirmed its ban on rabbis officiating at intermarriages. But in January, the RA’s leadership began a process — recommended by an elite commission that was never formally disclosed to the rank and file — that could lead to rabbis being allowed to attend intermarriages as guests. (The RA declined to comment for this article through a representative.)

That move by the commission put many rabbis on edge, as intermarriage is strictly forbidden by Jewish law. They worry that further inquiry into the question by the RA will lead to a broader endorsement of intermarriage — leading to what they perceive as a dilution of the movement’s commitment to Jewish law and an erasure of one of the markers that separates it from Reform Judaism.

According to the member of the Committee for Jewish Laws and Standards, however, overturning the ban would require a four-fifths majority vote by the committee’s members, followed by a simple majority vote of affirmation by the entire Assembly. The committee is currently reviewing the ancillary problems related to intermarriage, like whether you can announce an interfaith wedding in the synagogue bulletin.

Goodman has publicly supported interfaith families — but only with limits. In 2002, he told JTA that the Conservative movement should be “creative” about welcoming non-Jewish members, partly as a way to keep the Reform movement from being the only home for interfaith families. And while Goodman says he supports allowing rabbis to attend interfaith weddings, he believes that is where the line should be drawn.

“We need to uphold the standards of Conservative rabbis not officiating interfaith weddings,” he said. “The future of our movement very much depends on this.”

But some conservative rabbis say the candidates are using their passionate rejection of intermarriage to hide their inexperience in RA leadership. Rabbi Michael Siegel, of Anshe Emet in Chicago said that he believes the candidates were not nominated because they have not “proved themselves” within the extensive system of committees and regional councils maintained by the RA. At least one of the rabbis — Tecktiel, of Las Vegas — has by his own admission, rarely attended the RA’s annual convention. Rabbi Horwitz briefly served as president of the RA’s midwestern region. (Tecktiel and Horwitz did not immediately respond to requests for comment.)

“The people who are slated have given yeoman’s time,” Siegel said. “They have that perspective that is needed to be in the executive leadership.”

Melman, of Temple Beth Shalom in Northbrook, Illinois, said he is running for executive leadership council because he feels he has been passed over for the position for several years.

“I took matters into my own hands,” he said.

Melman said he supports the candidacies of the other write-in candidates, but that his candidacy is not about intermarriage — a fact he said that RA members understands. He said it is not a frequent topic of discussion at his synagogue, where he has been a rabbi for 16 years.

“People know that the RA doesn’t permit it, and people know that we won’t do it,” he said.

Correction, March 28, 2018, 10:05 a.m. — A previous version of this article misstated where Rabbi Daniel Horwitz is a rabbi. He is at a congregation in Houston, Texas, not Galveston.

Josh Nathan-Kazis contributed reporting to this article.

Contact Ari Feldman at [email protected] or on Twitter @aefeldman

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