Heather Moran has long been an observant Jew, so she understood why her Catholic husband would be excluded from the parental blessing during their son’s bar mitzvah. The ancient ritual welcomes youth completing the service to “our people Israel.” Although Sean Moran didn’t qualify, he is so active at Temple Micah in Northwest Washington that he was on a recent rabbi-picking committee.
“I get it,” said Heather Moran, 41, of Kensington. “This is complicated for rabbis.”
But when Micah’s rabbi, Danny Zemel, told a roomful of parents this past spring that he had written a new blessing for non-Jewish parents to say at that pivotal moment in the service, she began to cry. It thanks God, “who has made it possible for us to draw our son [or daughter] near to the Torah.” It will be used at Micah beginning this fall, and when the Morans’ son is bar mitzvahed next year.
“It’s absolutely amazing that there won’t be a moment when the non-Jewish parent feels detached,” said Heather Moran, a National Geographic Channel executive.
Sean Moran, 41, a school technical director, said he was taken aback by how much the change meant to him. “To hear somebody actually say it is different from just being accepted.”
After decades of opposing — overtly or subtly — interfaith marriage, much of U.S. Judaism is finding ways to embrace such families. It took a modern interfaith marriage rate nearing 60 percent, the fleeing of young Jews from institutional affiliation and a broadening of the idea of a “Jewish” home — from a place filled with Jews to one engaged richly with the religion’s practice and teaching, regardless of whether everyone there belongs to the faith.
The shift in attitude is going on largely among the 90 percent of Jews who are not Orthodox. It ranges from the elimination in many places of synagogue rules allowing only Jews on membership rolls to new rituals such as the one at Micah of a greater openness among rabbis toward performing interfaith marriages. Many rabbis in the more liberal Reform movement — the largest U.S. Jewish denomination — will not officiate at such marriages, but the number who will is growing.
Five years ago, none of the four rabbis at Temple Sinai, one of the largest D.C. area synagogues, would perform interfaith marriages for its Reform community, which is about one-third interfaith and prides itself in being welcoming. The congregation demanded a change, and now all four of the new rabbis officiate with certain conditions, such as requiring couples to affirm they will create a Jewish home.
“There have to be limits to create any sort of community. If it was just: ‘Do whatever’ — that’s beyond. I’ll talk to anyone, but at some point you have to draw lines,” said Adam Rosenwasser, Sinai’s new associate rabbi. “When I’m marrying a couple, whether they are mixed faith or gay or whatever, I have the same standards — I want them to have a Jewish home, to have a love for Judaism. But that can mean different things to different people.”
The views of Rosenwasser, who is married to another man, drive home a dynamic particular to Judaism. Jews are overwhelmingly liberal on many social issues, including gay equality. Although the Reform movement has supported same-sex marriage for 20 years, its seminary bans entry to intermarried applicants, a policy increasingly under debate.
Some Sinai members noted the stark contrast between Rosenwasser’s non-controversial appointment (Sinai is the region’s first major congregation to hire a rabbi in a same-sex marriage) and the tension in the past couple years over how far the interfaith envelope can be pushed.
“We’re getting a well-
respected, well-regarded rabbi who happens to be coming with a male spouse. It generated chatter, but positive chatter, and people asking: What if it had been an intermarried rabbi?” said Tara Sonenshine, a member of Sinai who used to be on the board.
The smaller, more traditional Conservative movement forbids rabbis from performing interfaith marriages, but it does allow them to perform same-sex weddings of two Jews.
“This is a major challenge, and we’re struggling royally with it,” said Rabbi Gil Steinlauf of Adas Israel, a large Conservative synagogue in Northwest D.C. “This is where Judaism is a living, breathing organism. [The Hebrew word for Israel] ‘Yisrael’ means ‘struggling with God.’ It’s in the struggle that we find our greatest truth.”
Under traditional Jewish law, non-Jews can’t be part of the legal document that is a marriage contract. As a result, they can’t have additional honors that come with it, including an “auf ruf,” which is a custom, or honor, of calling a couple to read blessings from the Torah on the Sabbath at synagogue before their marriage.
Five years ago, Steinlauf created a “Keruv Aliyah,” from the Hebrew word “Keruv,” meaning to bring close, or to include. Soon after the interfaith couple is married, Steinlauf will call them to read a blessing emphasizing their value. “We want them to feel completely we’re with them.”
For some people, distinctions — regardless of their nature — are too much.
Marci, a teacher from Germantown who didn’t want her last name used, said she was welcomed at a local synagogue as a non-member when she and her husband, who was raised Catholic, came for a baby-naming blessing for their daughter. The rabbi agreed to do the blessing, she said, but many people at the meal afterward asked when her husband would be converting. They didn’t join.
“It made me feel kind of embarrassed, like this is a really bad image of the religion I grew up with,” said Marci, who has two daughters. “Like we were unwelcome, it was all-or-nothing kind of thing.”
But Daniel Serwer said the world has become vastly more accepting in the 46 years since he tried to find a rabbi who would marry him to Jacquelyn Days, his Christian high-school sweetheart.
“Someone would slip you a piece of paper and the name of a fly-by-night rabbi who might do it. It was like being given the name of a doctor who did abortions,” said Serwer, now a professor of conflict management at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “It felt bad. It felt really, really bad.”
Today, Daniel and Jackie Serwer — she is chief curator at the upcoming National Museum of African American History and Culture — are active members of Temple Sinai. Jackie Serwer converted to Judaism, and their son attended Hebrew school at Sinai. When their son became engaged to a Presbyterian woman and the couple was unwilling to commit to raising their children as Jews, Daniel Serwer said he accepted that his son could not be married at Sinai.
“I protested generally [about the policy], but in our case I understood we were beyond any conceivable rules,” he said.
Sinai Senior Rabbi Jonathan Roos said he would have hired someone for Rosenwasser’s position who didn’t perform interfaith marriages, depending on their general openness toward the place of non-Jews in synagogue life. After all, Roos didn’t always perform interfaith weddings.
“By the time a couple calls me, they are getting married. If I don’t do the wedding, the only thing I can say is: My personal integrity is protected, but I haven’t done anything for the Jewish community to bring them closer, to take an interest in their faith story,” Roos said. “If I’m serious about wanting to embrace a couple and help them raise a Jewish family, I can’t do it after the wedding.”
Some see the two topics as boiling down to a question similar to those facing every faith today: What is truly essential to Judaism and unchanging, and what is not? Zemel, the rabbi at Micah, doesn’t see it that way.
“I think we’re in an era where we have to even question the kind of thinking that Judaism has essences. I think we’re in a deeper period,” he said. “For me, Judaism is a system that is constantly being created and re-created. What is dominant in one era becomes secondary in another era.”
But former Sinai chief rabbi Fred Reiner — who does not officiate mixed marriages and whose retirement largely triggered the changes at Sinai four years ago — said preserving Jewish tradition is paramount.
“While the Reform movement was founded with the understanding that we needed to be responsive to outside society . . . we still are the caretakers of a tradition that is thousands of years old,” he said. “We want to preserve the integrity of Judaism so we don’t simply say we can throw that away. We agonize over that.”