More Conservative rabbis struggle with interfaith marriage ban — and some are flouting it
Dario Feiguin, a rabbi for nearly 40 years, recently officiated at his first interfaith wedding — a practice forbidden by the Conservative movement that ordained him. The Jewish groom is a close friend of his daughter. The bride has no religious affiliation.
“I saw their love and commitment to each other and realized that my moral obligation is to keep the door open,” said Feguin, whose synagogue, Congregation Kol Shalom on Bainbridge Island, is part of the Reform movement.
Feiguin is one of a growing number of Conservative rabbis — members of the denomination’s Rabbinical Assembly — who are deciding to preside at interfaith weddings. The issue has been decided in the Reform movement, the largest stream of Judaism in the U.S., which allows it. And it remains strictly prohibited within Orthodox Judaism.
But the question is increasingly divisive within the RA, which has some 1,600 members worldwide. Some rabbis have resigned from the RA over it. Others have been kicked out for officiating at interfaith ceremonies, though Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, CEO of both the RA and the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, the movement’s umbrella organization, said he does not know how many. Others, like Feigun, are hoping to remain part of the movement even though they have broken its prohibition over marrying a Jew to a non-Jew.
“There are members of the RA doing it under the radar right and left,” said Rabbi Rolando Matalon of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in New York, who recently left the RA over the issue.
The Conservative movement itself first considered the issue of interfaith couples and marriages in the 1970s. It has since stepped up efforts to welcome interfaith couples married elsewhere, but the prohibition on Conservative rabbis performing those marriages has stood.
Many within and outside the movement wonder if this might change within the next few years. In addition to rabbis like Feiguin and Matalon, who have broken the ban, some Conservative rabbis report an increasing number of requests to preside at interfaith weddings. Undergirding these requests is data that shows intermarriage as the Jewish norm. The 2020 Pew Research Center’s survey of the American Jewish community found that 61 percent of Jews married since 2010 wed non-Jews.
Rabbis on either side of the debate say its outcome will be consequential for the Conservative movement, which represents about 20% of American Jews, and is shrinking. Those who want to lift the ban say it alienates Jews who want to intermarry, pushing them to other movements where rabbis are free to officiate at these weddings — or away from Judaism altogether. Others maintain that lifting the prohibition would signal that Jews are free to bend Judaism to fit personal preferences, and result in a weakened commitment to Jewish life. And what meaningful distinction between Reform and Conservative Judaism will remain, others ask, if Conservative rabbis do not draw the line at interfaith marriage?
“The number of rabbis grappling with it is growing,” said Keren McGinity, who was hired by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the congregational arm of the movement, to serve as its part-time interfaith specialist in 2020. This year, her position was made full time.
As the movement’s leader, Blumenthal said the question is rising to the top of the RA’s agenda and will be addressed at its next convention, in November in St. Louis.
“We are in the conversation stage,” he said. “We have a very diverse membership with lots of different views and our first step is to find ways for our colleagues to be able to have discussions with each other. That’s as specific as I want to be at this point.”
Harbingers of change
In 2010 Chelsea Clinton, the former president’s daughter, married a Jewish man, with a Reform rabbi and Methodist minister co-officiating. Arnie Eisen, then chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, where the Conservative movement trains clergy and scholars, attended the reception. Though not a rabbi, Eisen was an important Conservative leader, and after the wedding the RA’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards voted to allow Conservative rabbis to attend interfaith weddings.
Since then, rabbis who want the Conservative movement to reconsider the ban have noticed — in the movement, among rabbis and within congregations — other signs that they hope may signal an openness to change.
Rabbi Adina Lewittes resigned from the RA in 2015 because she felt called to officiate at interfaith weddings. After several years of feeling unwelcome at JTS because of her stance on the issue, she was invited back this semester to teach senior rabbinical students.
She called the invitation “an incredible indication of the real hope” that the movement can embrace both tradition and change.
Two other rabbis — Matalon of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, and Amichai Lau-Lavie of Lab/Shul, both in Manhattan – left the RA more recently over the issue. Matalon was asked to leave in 2018, after his synagogue engaged in a long period of study of interfaith marriage in Judaism and decided to allow its rabbis to officiate.
B’nai Jeshurun decided that it would bless interfaith weddings as long as the couple was serious about creating a Jewish home and engaging with Jewish tradition in a meaningful way. “If one doesn’t want to convert but wants to raise Jewish children, that for us is a sufficient commitment,” Matalon said.
Still, the interfaith weddings the synagogue’s rabbis perform are different from weddings between two Jews, he said — for example, they include four blessings rather than the traditional seven. He compared these distinctions to changes he makes to the traditional Jewish marriage ceremony when officiating at a same-sex wedding, in order to distinguish it from one that is unquestionably compliant with traditional Jewish law.
Lau-Lavie, known as a boundary-pushing rabbi, officiated at about 25 weddings, many of them interfaith, before he entered rabbinical school. A year after his 2016 ordination as a Conservative rabbi he published “Joy: A Proposal,” a 46-page survey of historical and halachic sources on interfaith marriage. His study led him to propose the term Joy — for “a Jew who is also a Goy.”
In St. Louis, Congregation B’nai Amoona is in the midst of studying and grappling with interfaith marriage, which its rabbi, Carnie Shalom Rose, calls “the thorniest of issues right now.”
Rose officiates at 20 weddings a year and estimates he could be presiding at double that if he decided to stand with interfaith couples under the chuppah. “It breaks my heart that we are turning them away,” he said. No matter what other alternatives a rabbi offers — words of Torah before or after the wedding, for instance — “it always falls a little short. Once a person has been rejected, it’s hard for them to come back.”
But the consequences of performing these marriages, he reasons, may have unintended consequences for the congregation, one of the first 10 in the country to join the movement, with which 560 synagogues in North America affiliate.
He worries about the B’nai Amoona teens who belong to United Synagogue Youth, which also falls under the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s umbrella. If the congregation was no longer affiliated, “What would happen to our youth movement?” he wondered. “Many of our kids are deeply involved.”
‘A wrong turn’
Anxiety about “continuity,” and whether American Jews’ attachment to Judaism and Jewish institutions will persist, underlies many of the conversations about officiation at interfaith weddings. While the Pew study found most American Jews marrying outside the religion, it also showed that the offspring of intermarriages have become increasingly likely to identify as Jewish in adulthood.
For some Conservative rabbis, that does not bolster the case for officiating at interfaith unions.
“I understand the enormous sociological pressures that would lead rabbis to make this decision,” said Rabbi David Wolpe of Los Angeles’ Sinai Temple, who is well known for his books and media appearances. “But I regret it and think it is ultimately a wrong turn.”
Few congregants approach him about officiating at their interfaith marriage, because “people know where we stand,” he said, adding that Sinai Temple may have lost some young members over the issue, “but not many.”
Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, who leads Manhattan’s Park Avenue Synagogue, said he wants to see the Conservative movement “unapologetically preach, teach, and value endogamy,” that is, Jews marrying other Jews. That should accompany, he continued, more robust efforts to convert non-Jews who want to marry Jews. His synagogue’s clergy oversee the conversions of about 25 people a year, he said.
“Conversion is important not only for halachic reasons but also as a signal that that partner is a participant and not just an observer in the creation of a Jewish home,” he said, adding that a non-Jewish partner who chooses not to convert should still be welcomed into Jewish and synagogue life.
“Not every choice that everyone makes needs to be sanctioned within the context of Jewish law and practice,” Cosgrove said. “Even as boundaries are set, I never lose sight of the fact that it’s a human being in front of me who is seeking to create a home, identity and a sense of wholeness.”
In Las Vegas, Rabbi Felipe Goodman of Temple Beth Sholom worries that those who want to lift the ban are too focused on the ceremony and not what comes after. “Officiating sends the wrong message,” he said. “Those 20 minutes we spend under the chuppah will not determine whether they become part of our communities or not.”
For rabbis concerned about rejecting people, Goodman echoes Cosgrove, and counsels a stronger invitation to the non-Jewish partner to become Jewish. “We should advocate for an easier path to conversion, which we should have done years ago. I don’t think officiating will save our situation.”
He has done so with great success, he said. When a member of his synagogue approaches him about officiating at an interfaith wedding, he asks about conversion for the non-Jewish partner. Then “four out of five times” they convert, he said, adding that rabbis may have to put in significant effort to bring two Jews to the bimah. One non-Jewish woman who couldn’t take the synagogue’s Judaism 101 class is instead getting one-on-one lessons from the rabbi. “I’ll do whatever it takes,” Goodman said.
He fears that officiating at interfaith weddings will make Conservative Judaism irrelevant.
“The moment we do it the line between Conservative and Reform movements will be completely obliterated. If we do not hold on to the values we hold dear, like endogamy, then I don’t know what future we can have” as a denomination, he said.
One rabbi’s choice
Rabbi Amanda Schwartz, ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2016, has never presided at an interfaith marriage. She was removed from the rolls of the RA last summer for failure to pay her dues. But it was really about its policy on intermarriages, with which she disagrees. For that reason, Schwartz said, she stopped paying.
As family life director at the non-denominational Judaism Your Way in Denver — which provides buffet-style choices in Jewish education, holiday services and life cycle rituals — Schwartz’s Conservative credentials are not required for the job and her colleagues do “a ton of intermarriages,” she said.
Scheduled to preside at her first intermarriage in June 2020, the wedding was postponed because of the pandemic. She’s booked for the rescheduled date this summer. But her history with the issue goes back to her time as a rabbinical student, when two friends about to marry non-Jews asked her to officiate their weddings.
“I wanted to say yes but had to say no because I was afraid I’d get kicked out of rabbinical school if I did,” Schwartz said. After she turned one of the couples down, she lost a friendship.
The other couple is now “such a Jewish family,” Schwartz said. “They are super involved in Jewish life and it’s a shame that they didn’t get to have a rabbi perform their wedding. To me it was so painful.”
Schwartz now identifies as post-denominational, and has joined the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, which is part of the smallest of the major streams of Judaism. It allows its rabbis to preside at unions between Jews and non-Jews and in 2015 became the first seminary to permit its rabbinical students to have non-Jewish partners.
Schwartz said she needed to leave the RA, but that some like-minded peers don’t.
“I have classmates who have officiated at interfaith weddings but are still members of the RA,” said Schwartz. “Some are trying to work within the system.”
Corrections: An earlier version of this story misidentified the stream of Judaism of which Congregation Kol Shalom in Washington State is part. It belongs to the Reform movement. And Molly Kazin’s name was misspelled in a caption.