NEW YORK - Some 25 years ago, when the iconic B’nai Jeshurun synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side held its first “commitment ceremony” for a lesbian couple, its clergy knew they were ahead of their time, and not everyone was going to like it. Years later, it became clear B’nai Jeshurun, known as “BJ”, had set a trend. Last week, the synagogue's rabbis introduced another novelty to their congregation: they will now officiate at the weddings of interfaith couples, as long as they commit to creating Jewish homes and raising any children as Jewish.
“The percentage of Jews who marry people who are not Jewish is very high so we have to find a way to hold on to those people, because they really don't want to leave,” Rabbi J. Rolando Matalon told The Jerusalem Post on Monday. “When they marry somebody who's not Jewish, their intention is not to leave Jewish life or the Jewish community.”
“We have come to this solution that in fact expands the boundaries in order to be able to include those people and count them as part of our community,” he added.
The decision came after a year of examination and dialogue on the issue. Among the community in general, the debate over the growing numbers of interfaith marriages involving Jews has been preoccupying many. Last week, the Jewish People Policy Institute published a study showing that only 40% of Jews are marrying Jewish spouses and that among non-Orthodox Jewish-American adults, only 32% were raising their children Jewish in one way or another. Only about 8% of grandchildren of intermarried couples are being raised as “Jews by religion.”
Rabbi Felicia Sol, who joined B'nai Jeshurun in 2001, becoming its first woman rabbi, told the Post that the congregation includes many intermarried couples, from different generations.
“I think a lot of intermarried couples here have felt welcomed by the community but also somewhat invisible at the same time,” she said. “There is not one category of interfaith family in our community nor in the community at large and I think we've tried our best, within the confines of what we thought was possible.”
Over the past few years, she said, another possibility became clear. “I think it started to feel less authentic to who we are as rabbis to continue to say no [to interfaith couples],” Rabbi Sol said. “It wasn't like our ‘no’ was any incentive for them to change their lives or to change who they fall in love with.”
Rabbis Matalon and Sol are now in the process of creating a special ceremony intended to celebrate the union of interfaith couples. In addition, they will draft a set of commitments to Jewish life for the couple to reflect on. To celebrate their marriage, the Rabbis will determine, through conversations, whether the interfaith couple is determined to lead a Jewish life.
With this new vision however, Rabbis at B'nai Jeshurun said they are not prepared to change the definition of who is a Jew under Jewish law, or halacha. The clergy will continue to hold to the traditional matrilineal definition of Jewish identity, in which a child is considered Jewish at birth if its mother is Jewish by birth or choice. Patrilineal adults and children will continue to immerse in a mikvah as part of a conversion ceremony at the synagogue.
Although the Upper West Side synagogue has roots in the Conservative movement, it is unaffiliated with any denomination and has over the years set its own course between the liberalism of Reform and the stricter traditionalism or Conservatism. B’nai Jeshurun’s ways have earned it praise but also criticism. After their recent announcement, Rabbi Matalon said “there has been some respectful disagreement.”
“That's not what [some, particularly in the Conservative movement] wish we had done but they respect us, they respect the community,” he said. “I think that over the years we have established a reputation as a serious community that has done a lot for Jewish life and that has pioneered a number of things as part of the totality of what we do.”
Rabbis Sol and Matalon added that some of the rabbis who have decided to officiate interfaith weddings have had to move away from the conservative movement or even give up their membership at The Rabbinical Assembly. This was the case for Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie of the Lab/Shul in New York earlier this month. Rabbi Joshua M. Davidson of the Reform Congregation Emanu-El in the city called B'nai Jeshurun’s initiative “wonderful and so very important.”
“I believe our continued vitality, if not our survival, depends on the extent of our welcome,” he told the Post. “There are a number of people that we've been in touch with and that we know are eager to find a way forward, who are struggling with it as we have, who have these realities in their communities and who understand the reality of the larger Jewish community in America,” Rabbi Matalon said.
“I think what's coming is that this is going to be a much more open conversation within the movement, and I hope it is one that is productive for the sake of the Jewish future,” he added.
JTA contributed to this report.