Recently, our ritual committee studied about a ceremony on shabbat offering blessings to interfaith couples before their weddings.
One of the things I love most about being a rabbi is introducing people to living a Jewish life- celebrating special and joyous occasions as Jews, helping individuals suffering a loss through the comfort of Jewish practices of mourning, and encouraging people to try ancient rituals to bring the sacred into their lives. Often, these moments can open doors for people as they explore their Jewish identity. And I am often amazed at the profound experiences people can have when they try something new.
Unfortunately, we live in a time and a place where many people find Jewish ritual foreign and irrelevant to their lives. Jewish identity is not assumed to be passed on to the next generation, and affiliation rates are quite low. The oft-quoted Pew survey of US Jews from 2013 spells out some of these trends.
In particular, the reported intermarriage rate of over 70% of non-Orthodox Jews is quite startling and makes us question the continuity of the Jewish people. And yet, in my experience, having Jewish communities in America that are welcoming to interfaith families can have a tremendous impact on the identities of these families.
As a member of the Rabbinical Assembly, the association for Conservative rabbis, I honor a standard of the organization which prohibits me from performing weddings for interfaith couples. However, as a rabbi who cares for all people and acknowledges the diversity of families in our congregation as well as in our larger community, I am aware of the importance of providing a place for interfaith families to feel welcome at Shaarei Tikvah. In addition, I am committed to supporting Am Yisrael, the Jewish people, and believe that maintaining the continuity and strength of Jews and Judaism is one of my mandates as a rabbi.
Therefore, it is my obligation to ensure that I am playing my part to support the task of creating and maintaining Jewish families. In my first four years as a rabbi, I have met a number of couples where one partner is Jewish and the other of a different faith or no faith. Interestingly, many of these couples are committed to raising a Jewish family even if the non-Jewish partner has no interest in converting. Often, my relationship with that couple can help shape the future religious identity of their family.
In my experience, my participation in life cycle events can have an important impact on a family’s or individual’s experience of that event. More specifically, the work of relationship building I have done with engaged couples has been deep and profound, often resulting in decisions to bring more Judaism and Jewish ritual into the identity and practice of the couple and their children’s lives.
Shaarei Tikvah has taken steps through its Keruv committee work over the years to enhance its ability to welcome interfaith families. My interest in connecting with interfaith couples at this moment in their lives coincided with our community’s goal to welcome these couples and their families into our community, and this ceremony seemed like a good way to expand this effort. It is for these reasons that I brought before our ritual committee the question of Cantor Cohen’s and my officiating interfaith aufrufs at Shaarei Tikvah.
Aufruf, a Yiddish phrase which means “to go up”, refers to the ritual of an engaged couple “going up” for an aliyah to the Torah the Shabbat before (or close to) the wedding. The aliyah consists of blessings recited before and after the communal reading of the Torah. After the aliyah is recited, Cantor Cohen and I offer a mi sheberach, which is a prayer of blessing for the engaged couple before their wedding which speaks to the hopes of the community for the successful marriage of the couple, filled with joy, health, and other blessings. It is joyous for the community to see a new couple embark on their journey together, and we conclude with singing “siman tov umazal tov” to express our joy for this occasion.
Our congregation has already made the decision that interfaith couples who celebrate a child’s bar/bat mitzvah can stand together during an aliyah. And so, here too in the context of their upcoming wedding, the interfaith couple would come up for the aliyah. As is the case during the celebration of a bar/bat mitzvah, the Jewish partner then recites the aliyah, which includes the words of gratitude for God’s choosing the Jewish people to receive the Torah. The partner who is not Jewish does not recite this blessing. Cantor Cohen and I will then offer some words to the couple who seek blessings from God and the community that we wish for a couple before their wedding.
The ritual committee recommended in the late spring of 2017 to allow interfaith aufrufs at Shaarei Tikvah subject to my discretion. I will be basing my decision on a couple’s desire to maintain a Jewish home. Each family will discuss with me their interpretation of what that means and I will decide whether it is appropriate for that particular couple to have an aufruf ceremony. It is my hope that through these and consequent meetings I can delve into deeper discussions about the couple’s relationship and improve and encourage their family’s commitment to Jewish practice in their home.
I understand that there are many reasons why someone is unwilling to convert. I don’t want to put up extra barriers of entry into the Jewish community or make it more difficult for a family to raise Jewish children because they are excluded from a community or from a relationship with a rabbi when they are in the process of beginning a family and determining the religious identity of their family.
I believe we should take the opportunity to celebrate and encourage that process. We must acknowledge that we as a Jewish American community are in a world where Jewish identity and endogamy, marrying within one’s community, can no longer be assumed from one generation to the next. Rather, we must work with what we have and utilize the strength of interpersonal connections and powerful community gatherings, to open our doors and our arms to couples of different faiths. Here, at Shaarei Tikvah, the gates of hope are opening more widely to all who experience their family’s identity as Jewish.