It’s not often that a rabbi’s High Holy Days sermon is interrupted by a standing ovation. But that is what happened — twice — when Rabbi John Rosove, senior rabbi of Temple Israel of Hollywood, dedicated his sermon on the first day of Rosh Hashanah to explaining why he was changing a long-held position and would from now on officiate at interfaith weddings.
“It’s almost like it opened the dam and the waters are just flowing,” Rosove said, describing the reaction both that day and in the week following. “People are crying at synagogue and at the nursery and day schools. I’m getting e-mail after e-mail of gratitude. It’s quite remarkable — a phenomenon I did not expect.”
Rosove recounted in his sermon a long process of decision-making that ultimately led him to go with his intuition.
“I want to say to every interfaith couple who may want to be married by me under the chuppah with the intentions I have noted, ‘Yes, come in. Judaism and this community at Temple Israel want to elevate your sense of belonging here in a new and deeper way. We want to be able to love you, your spouse and your children, and for you all to be able to love us and give to us of your hearts and souls as you desire,’ ” Rosove told the 1,000 or so people gathered in the main sanctuary of the Hollywood Boulevard Reform congregation.
The Reform movement allows rabbis to make their own choice as to whether they will officiate at mixed-faith marriages. About 50 percent of marriages involving a Jew are now intermarriages, according to the 2001 National Jewish Population Survey. Later surveys have reported that around 25 percent of children in intermarried families are raised as Jews, compared with about 98 percent of children raised in all-Jewish families.
At Temple Israel, about a third of the 1,000 member units are mixed-faith families, and Rosove estimates about 175 members are not Jewish. The temple has worked to embrace non-Jewish members and mixed families.
In his 25-minute sermon, Rosove explained how he has always struggled with declining to officiate at the weddings of clearly loving couples — even his own family members — when one member isn’t Jewish. That decision has become more difficult recently, when the people he is saying no to are people he’s known their whole lives — he was there for the baby naming, the bar or bat mitzvah, confirmation and family funerals.
“My ‘policy’ of officiating only when both partners were Jewish was based upon voices from Judaic texts and tradition, teachers and mentors who taught me that I was ordained a rabbi to help fulfill three vital purposes: to preserve the integrity of the Jewish covenantal relationship with God, the viability of the Jewish family, and the survival and continuity of Judaism and the Jewish people. Those voices have sounded inside my head for decades along with the voice that commanded, ‘Thou shalt not officiate at an intermarriage ceremony!’ ” he said.
Rosove said he now believes he can fulfill those purposes in an increasingly diverse Jewish world by making Judaism a central component from the moment two people become a family.
“I’ve come to the conclusion that based upon the new reality in which we find ourselves and the fact that many intermarried families are seemingly successful in raising their children as Jews here at Temple Israel, I now believe that I can better serve the Jewish people by officiating at their weddings, and that it’s time for me to change my policy,” he said.
Rosove placed some conditions on the weddings he will preside over. The couple must be connected to the synagogue and must be jointly committed to creating a Jewish home and to providing children with a Jewish education. The non-Jewish partner may not be active in any other religion, and Rosove will not co-officiate with clergy from another religion.
Rabbi Steven Fox, chief executive of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), says many rabbis in their 50s and 60s have recently changed their position on intermarriage.
The Reform movement itself has moved to a more neutral position in recent years. Officially, the last resolution on the books is from 1973, and it opposes rabbinic officiation at mixed marriages, stating that interfaith marriage is contrary to Jewish tradition. It also recognizes that each rabbi will make his or her own decision. But in the last several years, the movement opted not to introduce any new resolutions on the topic.
“It’s not a yes or no, up or down question. It’s far more nuanced. The approach we are taking at CCAR is that our role is to help the rabbis process the question in a way that works best for him or her,” Fox said.
From 2008 to 2010, a task force worked to produce materials that offer the rabbis information and resources when making this decision and when counseling couples. Fox estimates that Reform rabbis nationally are split evenly on whether they officiate at interfaith weddings.
Rabbi Laura Geller at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills says she didn’t officiate at interfaith weddings for the first 30 years of her rabbinate, but her experience with highly committed, mixed-faith families caused her to change her mind.
“I came to understand that my role as a rabbi is to facilitate the creation of Jewish families, not Jewish marriages. I have discovered since that decision that when a rabbi takes planning a wedding very seriously, spending a lot of time with a couple, it becomes an opportunity to open a door that really can deepen a commitment to create a Jewish home,” she said.
Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh, also a rabbi at Temple Israel, said that she struggles with this issue, and that she believes a couple can’t really know whether they are committing to a Jewish life when they are getting married, but will know later, when they join a synagogue or enroll kids at school. At that point, when they show up at temple, she is ready to fully embrace them, she said. But she is not willing to perform an intermarriage and gamble on a promise.
Rabbi Steven Z. Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple said he does not officiate at interfaith weddings, and he believes it is possible to say no in a way that people feel respected.
He wonders whether “asking a non-Jew to stand under a chuppah, break a glass, utter traditional blessings, etc., is as disrespectful to the non-Jew and Judaism as asking a Jew to take communion in a church is to the Jew and Christianity,” Leder wrote in an e-mail.
Rosove said he has already scheduled several weddings since the sermon. One young man who grew up in the synagogue had called him over the summer, and he had already met with the couple and is satisfied that they will raise a Jewish family. Another couple, married 15 years, asked him to perform a recommitment ceremony.
He said he wouldn’t be surprised if the more welcoming atmosphere would lead more of the non-Jewish members of Temple Israel to convert.
Longtime Temple Israel member Darcy Vebber converted there in 1999, some 15 years after she was married. She was asked to lead a task force on the role of non-Jewish members in the congregation about 10 years ago, but the topic of weddings wasn’t even on the table, because the group knew Rosove’s policy. She says she was stunned and delighted by the rabbi’s change of heart.
“A friend of mine, for whom this is a pressing issue, feels a sense of relief, I guess in the same way that you would when any family member who you love fully accepts you,” Vebber said.