Difficult choices for rabbis: Should they or shouldnt they perform interfaith nuptials

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Rabbis Stephen Pearce and David Roller will but Mark Diamond and Charles Popky won't.

Lavey Derby won't either but he'll pass along the names of those who will.

Michael Barenbaum will but there's a catch. He'll only do it for members of his congregation, Rodef Sholom in San Rafael.

All those rabbis, and countless others throughout the country, are grappling with "it" — the question of whether to officiate at interfaith marriages, as intermarriage rates continue to skyrocket.

At least 52 percent of Jews intermarry, according to the Council of Jewish Federations' National Jewish Population Study issued in 1990. The number is closer to 70 percent in the Bay Area, estimates Gary Tobin, director of the S.F.-based Brandeis University Institute for Community and Religion.

Responding to what many consider an intermarriage crisis, the CJF late last year jumped on the outreach bandwagon by urging local federations to market their services to interfaith families.

With a little perseverance, most interfaith couples now can find Jewish religious and cultural opportunities to hook into after they're married. The problem,they agree, is finding a rabbi to join them in the first place.

For Conservative rabbis such as Popky of San Francisco's Congregation Ner Tamid, Diamond of Oakland's Temple Beth Abraham and Derby of Tiburon's Congregation Kol Shofar, the decision about whether to officiate at interfaith weddings is simple:

United Synagogue, the Conservative movement's umbrella organization, has made the choice for them. Its answer, like that of the Orthodox movement, is no.

"For any member of the rabbinical assembly, it is quite clear we're not able to officiate [at weddings between Jews and non-Jews]," Diamond says.

"I don't think this should be perceived as a slap in the face or a statement on the part of the movement that these people aren't welcome in our synagogues," he continues.

"We're in an ironic position though. We have a large percentage of mixed marriages in our congregation. And it's important to note that the Conservative movement understands that the problem with a rabbi officiating between a Jew and non-Jew is halachic. The next day [after the wedding], it's fine for them to come to shul. It's a hard message to convey."

So hard, says independent East Bay Rabbi David Roller, that he won't even try to impart it.

"I'm not going to say with one hand, `I can't help you,' and then with the other say, `Once you're married, come join us,'" Roller says.

"You close the door to them on their wedding day and you'll never see them again. If we turn them away now, they're not going to come back and give their kid a Jewish education. What are we going to gain by saying no?"

Orthodox Rabbi Yehuda Ferris of Berkeley's Chabad House, on the other hand, says no is the only possible answer. "Our relationships with gentiles should be cordial but we cannot marry them. It's in the Torah, Deuteronomy: `Don't marry them…[The non-Jew] will turn your son away from Me.'"

Unlike the Conservative movement, which studied the issue of intermarriage before issuing its statement, the Orthodox movement makes no mention of intermarriage.

"It would be like putting in your by-laws `believe in God.' Why do you have to write it? That's what a Jew does," Ferris says.

Independent rabbis like Roller, as well as Reform, Reconstructionist and Humanistic Jewish leaders, are not bound by a dictum from their movements either. But they do follow their own sets of guidelines.

Barenbaum of San Rafael's Congregation Rodef Sholom says couples who ask him to perform their marriage ceremony must be members of the synagogue.

"It shows they are beginning a Jewish family," he says, adding that he works individually with each couple to create a working definition for what having a Jewish family means to them.

Pearce of San Francisco's Congregation Emanu-El agrees with Barenbaum's sentiments but remains open and available to non-congregants. Like most rabbis wrestling with the practical considerations of intermarriage, Pearce tries to blend his own beliefs and criteria as a spiritual leader with the needs and desires of each bride and groom-to be.

It's a balancing act — one in which the language is often confusing. And there are no hard and fast answers.

"If the couple is making a move toward a synagogue for a ceremony, it often means they're making a move toward Judaism," he notes.

"I will talk to anyone, though," Pearce says. "Just because I may not be willing to officiate doesn't mean I won't give insight and advice to people struggling with issues."

Pearce will participate in the marriage ceremony of a Jew and a non-Jew but insists upon two prerequisites: Both partners must agree beforehand to attend an introduction-to-Judaism course, and they must agree to raise their children as Jews, in a Jewish home.

The latter promise, Pearce believes, prevents future child-rearing dilemmas.

"The biggest problem I see is when both partners feel strongly about their religion and don't know what to do about their kids," he says.

"Idealistic couples say, `We'll let the children decide.' This is deadly. The children walk a fine line between aligning with one parent and betraying the other. Ultimately, it's not a healthy thing to do."

About half the weddings that Rabbi Zari Weiss of Kehilla Community Synagogue in Ber-keley has performed are between Jews and non-Jews.

Like Pearce, she tries to address difficult issues between the couple before marrying them.

For seven months prior to the wedding, Weiss meets with the couple every four weeks to discuss life-cycle events, children, education, spiritual commitment, extended family and what it means to have a Jewish home.

"It's a process which the couples seem to get a lot out of," she says. "I think it helps them to clarify their own beliefs and attitudes toward Judaism and commit themselves to it.

"I would never perform a wedding without having a chance to work with the couple and make sure there are no glaring issues to be addressed."

It's her rule for all couples, Jewish and interfaith, she says. The only difference she makes in preparing for an interfaith wedding is adding a discussion about the role of the non-Jew in the community to her meetings with the future bride and groom.

To refuse such couples, she says, "would be an opportunity lost. We've alienated many people from the community by not helping them find a way in and to have a Jewish family."

Roller, who was ordained Orthodox, adds, " We're dealing with people, not dry books of law. I left congregational life because I was turning people away without even really talking to them.

"If you're not there for the people when they need you, they're not going to come back — ever."