How to Save American Judaism

In 1978 Rabbi Alexander Schindler made a fateful decision that reshaped the landscape of American Jewry. He urged an end to "sitting shiva" for Jewish children who marry outside of Judaism. As President of the Union for Reform Judaism, he urged rabbis and lay leaders to welcome them and their growing families into the synagogue. The latest study of the American Jewish community shows how wise and prescient he was.

Five years later Rabbi Schindler almost singlehandedly accomplished an even more audacious feat. He pushed the Central Conference of American Rabbis, over significant opposition, to accept the children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers as Jews. This acceptance challenged 2,000 years of tradition, where Jewish identity passed through the matrilineal line.

Over the vitriolic protest of Orthodox Rabbis David Hartman and Irving "Yitz" Greenberg, who foresaw the destruction of the Jewish people, and other prominent Reform leaders, Schindler argued for a "non-tribal, non-racial, all-enfolding Judaism." To see identity as passed only through the mother would violate the universalism he saw at the heart of Reform.

The Missing Link

These two acts -- the proposal of an outreach program to intermarried couples and the end of matrilineal descent -- helped make Reform Judaism the only liberal religious denomination to grow in overall numbers during the last quarter of the twentieth century. Yet, something is still missing. Something is missing that, were he alive today, Rabbi Schindler would well recognize. What is it? A call urging Reform Rabbis to officiate at interfaith weddings.

My readings of Rabbi Schindler's papers at the American Jewish Archives lead me to believe that he seriously contemplated doing so, but decided the time was not right. Now, however, the time is right. During Rabbi Schindler's time, the intermarriage rate was between 40 and 50 percent. Today 71 percent of non-Orthodox Jews marry someone who is not Jewish! Rabbis who do not officiate will not marry more than two thirds of their community.

Avoiding Hypocrisy

Many who do not officiate will argue that they can be welcoming to interfaith families without actually officiating at their wedding. We can, some say, give them a "warm no," along with an invitation to participate in Jewish life. The problem with this approach is it smacks of hypocrisy, and that is one characteristic millennials of all faiths despise in religion. A Judaism that says we want you in our synagogues but we do not want to be at your wedding feels hypocritical, even if one can make the argument it is not.

In addition, studies suggest the presence of a rabbi at an interfaith wedding can make a couple more likely to participate in the Jewish community. A 2008 study entitled "Intermarriage and Jewish Journeys in the United States," found that interfaith couples in Boston who had a rabbi officiate at their wedding were 40 percent more likely to raise Jewish children than couples who did not. What better evidence is there for the importance of rabbinic officiation?

What Leadership Takes

A call for rabbis to officiate by Rabbi Schindler's successor -- Rabbi Rick Jacobs -- would be greeted by charges of assimilation and self-destruction. It would earn the enmity of the Orthodox world. Some would charge that it would ensure the end of American Jewish life.

Yet, in a talk before the Central Conference of American Rabbis soon after the passage of the patrilineal descent change, Rabbi Schindler reminded some of his nervous colleagues not "to be snared by the delusion that a retreat on such issues as patrilineality will gain us the acceptance of the traditionally-inclined in Israel or anywhere else. Only total surrender will have such an affect in that arena. In any event, adaptive change is alien to the spirit of Reform. It substitutes political for religious judgments and thus does violence to our essential nature."

The essential nature of Reform is visionary change to meet the needs of modern American Jews. A call for rabbis to officiate at interfaith weddings might not be politically smart. But it would fulfill the spiritual mission and catalyze the growth of liberal Judaism in this century.