Can strong rabbis emerge from interfaith couples? We think the answer is yes.
A 2013 Pew study reported that 58% of marriages involving Jews since 2005 have been marriages to non-Jews. Many have interpreted this data as Jews choosing to exit the Jewish people.
So, we have a problem: Huge numbers of Jews are intermarried, and the Jewish community seems to think that this means Jews don't want to be Jews.
We disagree with the conclusion and have chosen to stop fighting against intermarriage and to concentrate on building a vital Jewish future. We know that many intermarried Jews want to remain Jewish and to live in Jewish community, and we want to help them do it.
The recent decision by the faculty of the Reconstructionist seminary to no longer bar rabbinical students from entering our program, if they are partnered with or married to a non-Jew is, on the one hand, simply an admissions policy decision, one voted on by our faculty, after a long period of deliberation with our congregations, our students, our board of governors, and Reconstructionist rabbis.
On the other hand, it is much larger than that. In post-World War II Jewish life, we are still admonished to "marry Jewish" and told that not do so is to "give Hitler a posthumous victory." Teens are warned not to "inter-date," and novels and real-life stories alike have included tales of parents reciting the kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, over their perfectly alive children who have married non-Jews.
To Jews raised in this environment, the idea that intermarriage might not be the death knell of a liberal Jewish future may seem almost heretical. And yet, we believe it is not. We have come to embrace the reality of today and tomorrow. Over the last 30 years, across the Reconstructionist movement, we have demonstrated that engaging intermarried Jews leads to enhanced vitality in Jewish communities. We see intermarried families attend Shabbat services, come together for the High Holidays, educate their children for bar and bat mitzvahs, and live spiritually nourishing Jewish lives. In many of our congregations, non-Jewish members of Jewish families serve on committees and take leadership positions on the board. Some are so committed to the community that they take on the demanding and often thankless position of president.
Reconstructionist Judaism is predicated upon each generation reconstructing Judaism to be relevant and meaningful for its time. The effects of intermarriage have not been as dire as some have predicted. Judaism and Jewish life have not ceased to exist when families intermarry. One surprise we've found in our corner of the Jewish world, is that some of these families are more enthusiastic about living Jewishly than couples and families in which one or both partners are ambivalently Jewish. This enthusiasm--translated into practice--is the most important factor in transmitting Judaism to the next generation. "Doing" Jewish is at least as important as "being" Jewish, at least for Jews living outside the realms of Orthodox Judaism.
But why intermarried rabbis? If we are going to accept intermarriage as the fact that it is, and not presume that it is a refusal of everything Jewish, we believe that it makes sense to allow these Jews to apply to rabbinical school.
Intermarried Jews and their children have become Jewish education directors. They lead Jewish non-profits. They care for and chaplain the elderly. They are Jewish communal activists who push our world toward greater justice for all and point us in the direction of tikkun olam, of repairing a world that needs a great deal of repair. We believe it is a good thing to have rabbis who can model living Jewishly, caring Jewishly, and raising children Jewishly, from within interfaith families and communities.
To be sure, our new policy does not embrace an "anything goes" philosophy. We are saying that Jewish behavior and commitments--religious, cultural, secular--are more important than Jewish status. We are meeting Jews in the realities of their lives and engaging with them, leading from among them, and together building the Jewish future.
When I think of the prospective students with non-Jewish partners who want to study at the Reconstructionist seminary, I am excited about their enthusiasm and commitment. In this era of openness and fluidity, they could choose to embrace other traditions. They could melt away into the general secular environment. Instead, they are choosing to belong to the Jewish people and, indeed, aspire to a life of service and leadership. We believe they are part of our Jewish future, and they fill me with curiosity and hope. I look forward to welcoming them and learning from them. I hope you will join me.