Reconstructionists OK rabbinical students with non-Jewish partners

The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College has voted to admit and graduate rabbinical students involved in interfaith relationships.

The much-anticipated policy change by the seminary’s faculty, which was approved the day before Yom Kippur and announced on Sept. 30, makes the Reconstructionist movement the first stream of Judaism to officially sanction clergy who are in relationships with non-Jewish partners.

“I am one who thinks this policy is long overdue,” said Rabbi Katie Mizrahi, spiritual leader of San Francisco’s Or Shalom Jewish Community. “When I was a student at RRC I was advocating for this change, and that was more than 10 years ago. I don’t believe a person’s choice for marriage or life partnership should be equated with their commitment to Judaism and the Jewish people. The important thing is that the rabbi and his or her family be role models of engaged Jewish life.”

Rabbi Deborah Waxman (right), president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, said the interfaith policy change comes at the right time.

Reconstructionist rabbis in the field are split on the issue, with some thrilled at the outcome and others deeply distraught. Among the opponents, some are reluctant to publicly criticize the move on the record, others are voicing outright dismay, and still others are reassessing their own and/or their congregation’s future relationship with the movement.

“It’s a decision I would rather have not  been made. I don’t think it’s a good decision for our movement or for the Jewish people,” said one congregational rabbi, who asked not to be named.

The Reform movement considered a similar move last year, but after an extensive exploration of the issue decided not to change its policy barring the admission and ordination of students involved in interfaith relationships.

Rabbi Aaron Panken, president of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, said there was much opposition to changing the policy, particularly among the HUC faculty and Reform rabbis who argued that rabbinic leadership should be held to a different standard than the rest of the Reform community, where interfaith relationships are largely accepted.

But in an interview over the summer, Panken left open the possibility that the policy on rabbinical students might be reviewed over time.

Rabbi Deborah Waxman, president of the nearly 50-year-old Reconstructionist college since October 2014, said the decision to revoke the RRC policy on interfaith relationships is the right move at the right time. “We are proud to be the first to act in this way, and we don’t think we will be the last,” she said soon after announcing the decision.

“We no longer want to prevent very wonderful and engaged Jewish leaders from becoming rabbis,” she said, asserting that intermarried Jews have already become “extraordinary” lay leaders in Reconstructionist congregations.

“The issue of Jews intermarrying is no longer something we want to fight or police,” Waxman added. “We want to welcome Jews and the people who love us to join us in the very difficult project of bringing meaning, justice and hope into our world.”

Rabbi Mychal Copeland

The controversial decision, made by just 16 voting faculty members after a long and arduous process within the movement that included outreach to congregations, comes at a time of growing fiscal and sociological pressures. RRC merged with the congregational arm of the Reconstructionist movement in 2012 to address some of those economic pressures. The seminary’s enrollment and applicant pool has been shrinking — eight students graduated this year, and the same number makes up the newest class. The low numbers are threatening the school’s financial well-being. Opening the doors wider, it is hoped, will bring in more applicants.

Waxman said the decision was driven by “a commitment to principles and a vision for the future” rather than by the dwindling numbers, but she acknowledged that the school could benefit. She also noted that Jews under 40, regardless of their relationship status, “see the existence of this policy as deeply problematic and chauvinistic.” She said she expects there will be an appreciation of the policy change among younger Jews and hopes that “among them, some will be interested in becoming rabbis.”

RRC has long been known as a welcoming institution for gay and lesbian students. It was the first movement to accept openly gay students in the mid-1980s, with the Reform seminary following soon after and the Conservative movement doing so only in the past several years.

Rabbi Mychal Copeland serves as the director of InterfaithFamily, a Bay Area group that helps engage interfaith families in Jewish life. When she was a student at RRC before being ordained in 2000, she was in what she called a “closeted” interfaith relationship with a woman whom she has since married and who converted to Judaism. She is “thrilled” by this week’s decision.

“There’s a powerful message for people who want to become rabbis, that they can be models, that their relationship isn’t a liability,” Copeland said. “This may even be the way to speak to a new generation.”

The RRC faculty first voted to change its so-called Non-Jewish Partner policy in December 2013 without the knowledge of the rest of the movement, prompting considerable dissent. Rabbis and congregations argued that such a dramatic change in policy demanded a wider discussion.

RRC officials responded by opening up the process in advance of a second faculty vote, which is required of all policy changes. They asked their 100-plus congregations to engage their communities in a discussion and present a consensus position. Thirty congregations complied with the request.

In a letter that went out to 15,000 constituents and community leaders on Sept. 30, Waxman emphasized that along with the revocation of the Non-Jewish Partner policy, the college has “strengthened our admissions standards on reviewing an applicant’s commitment to Jewish continuity in their personal, familial and communal life.”

While Waxman portrayed this addition as a compromise position, addressing concerns she had heard expressed, Rabbi Lester Bronstein, spiritual leader of the Reconstructionist congregation Bet Am Shalom in White Plains, N.Y., said it is problematic.

The additional language is “intrusive on the personhood of any of the candidates,” Bronstein said. It says you “can marry whoever you want, but we’re going to police the vitality of your Jewish practice at home.”

Rabbi Elyse Wechterman, executive director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, the movement’s professional organization of rabbis, said she has been inundated with emails this week, with some of the group’s 350 members applauding and others denouncing the decision.

“We are not saying this is the greatest thing since sliced bread nor the worst thing to befall the Jewish people,” she said. “Our rabbis are all over the place, and we are grateful the movement can have this diversity.”

By Lisa Hostein; J. senior writer Dan Pine contributed to this report.