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The American Jewish future is interfaith. It’s about time our rabbis are, too.

At long last, a major Jewish denomination’s main seminary will admit and ordain students in interfaith relationships

In my nearly two decades spent studying interfaith Jewish relationships, I have heard the same problem mentioned over and over again.

The majority of new Jewish marriages are interfaith; these couples are raising interfaith families. But despite that, few rabbis have personal experience in interfaith nuclear families, because — until now — no one in an interfaith relationship could be trained or ordained as a rabbi by the Orthodox, Conservative or Reform movements.

This makes Hebrew Union College’s decision to admit and ordain students in interfaith relationships, announced Thursday, a radical and necessary sea change in the world of American Judaism. Finally, one of the major denominations will allow the clergy it ordains to reflect the reality of the community it serves.

Between 2005 and 2015, I interviewed interfaith couples, and sometimes adult children of interfaith marriage, for my book Beyond Chrismukkah: Christian-Jewish Interfaith Families in the United States. Since the book was published in 2018, I have given talks and led workshops in synagogues, at rabbinical schools, and for clergy on interfaith marriage. Part of my interest in this work stems from my own story: I am the child of an interfaith marriage. I was raised in my mother’s religion, and with very little practical experience of my father’s.

Many children of future Reform rabbis in interfaith relationships will live with similar strange gaps in their religious knowledge: While HUC will no longer require that students avoid interfaith relationships, its new rules clearly lay out the expectation that Reform rabbis in interfaith relationships will raise their children exclusively as Jews, and limit their religious education to Jewish religious education.  

Even so: As a first step toward acknowledging what so many American Jews have long known to be true — that our future must make room for and embrace a swell of interfaith Jewish families — HUC’s decision is worth celebrating.

There has not, to date, been a complete dearth of rabbis with experience in interfaith nuclear families. There are, for instance, any number of rabbis who are the children of interfaith marriages, or who have a parent born non-Jewish who converted, and who therefore have interfaith extended families.

Additionally, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College has been admitting students in interfaith relationships for 9 years, as has the pluralistic and progressive Hebrew College since last year. The Renewal movement never had a policy prohibiting people in interfaith marriages from being ordained to start with, nor did Humanistic Judaism. And there are rabbis who entered into interfaith relationships after they were ordained. 

But the decision of one of the most established and venerable rabbinical schools in the country to finally ordain rabbis that share the experience of the majority of the people in their pews will go much farther in addressing that persistent question I encountered in my research: Where are the rabbis like us, and without them, how can we truly fit in this community? 

That means that more and more interfaith couples will have access to clergy who understand, on an intimate level, the joys and trials of life in a religiously pluralistic family. 

Jews who do not want to have a Christmas tree, but whose partner finds great joy in the twinkly lights and smell of pine, will be able to find rabbis who figured out how to navigate that challenge — or who actually turn out to love that their interfaith marriage means that they, too, can have a tree. Imagine, someone as Jewish as a rabbi, who might be able to help a congregant see that loving a holiday symbol widely embraced as a secular emblem of joy does not have to be a sin against Judaism. 

Engaged couples will encounter clergy who can actually help prepare them for an interfaith marriage, because they know their own interfaith marriages to be loving and enriching. And they will also know a bit about navigating the challenges of families and communities who may still see your love as a problem. 

Right now, the majority of clergy do not have that set of experiences — experiences that are the reality for the majority of American Jews. And even the best-intentioned clergy can make mistakes when working outside of their own experience.

In fact, you can see hints of some of these mistakes in the letter that announced the welcoming of rabbinical students in interfaith marriages — foremost among them the demand that children of students studying at HUC be raised as exclusively Jewish. 

While I was doing interviews with interfaith couples, one Jewish woman said to me that, “if you love Grandma, you have to know what Grandma loves.” Her mother-in-law was a devout Christian, and a deeply involved member of her Black Baptist church. The woman and her spouse were committed to raising their son as a Jew, but they wanted to make sure that he knew a bit about his grandmother’s faith, and was comfortable in her church, if for no reason other than the fact that they wanted him to find comfort in her funeral when she died. 

This did not mean that they were raising a Jewish-Christian child; while some people do exactly that, and those children turn out fine, it is understandable that the Reform movement might have other goals. They were raising a Jewish child and making sure he was literate in his grandmother’s traditions. Education does not have to mean identity.

I know, first-hand, how alienating it is to attend the funeral of a beloved relative and find no comfort in the utterly alien traditions. At some point, HUC is going to have to reckon with the poor pastoral practice of asking couples to block out one half of their families’ heritage.

But here is the thing: This shift is how you get the rabbis who will have the experiences to take the next right step in opening up our Jewish world. The rabbis who will love watching their children wait for Santa with their cousins, or light diyas at Diwali, and who will understand that those acts do not make their children any less Jewish.

Those rabbis will, eventually, be able to craft policies about loving and honoring Jewish homes in positive terms — not through the exclusion of other traditions, but through the robust embrace of all that is beautiful about Judaism — a Judaism will be flexible enough to meet the world that it is in.

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