Embracing interfaith couples only strengthens congregations

For 30 years as a rabbi, I officiated at weddings only when both bride and groom were Jewish. This seemed the best way to ensure the future of the Jewish people. After all, research reveals that only one-third of children from marriages between Jews and non-Jews are raised as Jews. And since half of all marriages of American Jews are mixed, many children may be lost to Judaism.

But after two years as senior rabbi at Congregation Sherith Israel — and seeing the dynamics of diversity at work — I have changed my mind.

Over the past decades, permeable boundaries have increased rates of marriage across religious, ethnic and racial lines. Intermarriage is no longer automatically viewed as apostasy or cultural betrayal — particularly in Northern California. Partners who practice different religions and blended families of multiple faiths are a common fact of life. You simply can’t identify a Jew by physical appearance. (Since we have always resembled the peoples among whom we have lived in Africa, Asia and Europe, you never could.) Today’s Jewish community doesn’t resemble yesterday’s.

Jewish community leaders naturally decry the shrinking of the Jewish population and cite intermarriage as a major cause. In San Francisco, where intermarriage rates are high, only 15 percent of Jewish households belong to any congregation. True, many Jews express no interest in Judaism and prefer to blend in with the general population. Yet many others with non-Jewish partners maintain the spark of Jewishness. They simply don’t feel welcome or comfortable in our synagogues. We can transform that spark into a flame.

Clear evidence exists for a vibrant Jewish future — if we embrace interfaith couples, drawing them from the periphery into the center of Jewish life. Research informs us that helping interfaith couples create a Jewish home, raise children as Jews and grow through formal and informal Jewish education offer the best chances of Jewish survival. Reaching out to interfaith couples doesn’t diminish our community or our commitment to Jewish continuity. It enhances it.

Reform Judaism has differentiated itself from other streams in Jewish life by welcoming intermarried couples into our community. Yes, we encourage Jews to marry Jews. But we do not reject Jews who marry non-Jews — and for good reason.

At Congregation Sherith Israel I am astounded by the dedication and commitment of so many non-Jewish parents, spouses and partners to creating Jewish homes and supporting Jewish education for their children. Some non-Jewish partners ultimately convert. Others do not for varied and personal reasons. Yet, many of Sherith Israel’s non-Jewish spouses have embraced our synagogue’s mission of strengthening Jewish life through membership and through involvement across the spectrum of synagogue activities from worship to study to tzedakah.

My goal as a rabbi is to grow Jews. Therefore, I now welcome the opportunity to officiate at weddings of interfaith couples as long as they commit to upholding the essential message of a Jewish wedding ceremony — that the new couple will establish a Jewish home. The couple must make this commitment at the outset. Then they must act on it with both partners attending an “Introduction to Judaism” course to learn a common Judaism and support each other.

Because Judaism has so much to offer, we need to make it easy for non-Jewish partners to ask questions and share their thoughts. We must also encourage non-Jews considering conversion — and provide continued guidance after conversion. And while not all non-Jewish partners will become Jews, we can expand their involvement in rituals and lifecycle events. They have aligned themselves with us and we cherish them.

So to interfaith couples I now say, “I welcome you and your wedding.” I fully embrace couples that choose to create a Jewish home, just as they choose to embrace the Jewish people. With our encouragement and assistance, they will strengthen us now and parent a new generation of youngsters learned in and committed to Judaism.

Our synagogue doors and our hearts are open.

Rabbi Lawrence Raphael is the spiritual leader of Reform Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco.