The S.H. and Helen R. Scheuer Chapel on the Cincinnati campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (Photo/JTA-Ady Manory)
The S.H. and Helen R. Scheuer Chapel on the Cincinnati campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (Photo/JTA-Ady Manory)

Want more Reform rabbis? Stop turning away Jews in interfaith relationships

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The board of Hebrew Union College will soon vote on a proposal to stop enrolling rabbinic students at its Cincinnati campus, one of the Reform movement’s three North American rabbinical college locations.

As revealed in publicly available papers and the proposal itself, enrollment across HUC’s three campuses is down 37% over the past 15 years. The proposal, which will come to a vote April 10, concludes that “the total pool of Jews who might consider applying to rabbinical school is only going to decrease in the foreseeable future.”

This is not a problem unique to the Reform movement. Extensive coverage in the Jewish press describes declining enrollment at the Reform and Conservative seminaries as well as a shortage of Conservative rabbis.

It is astonishing that in none of this lengthy discussion is there any mention of an obvious way to expand the pool of potential rabbinic students: admitting and ordaining rabbinic students who are in interfaith relationships.

It’s highly inconsistent of a movement that prides itself on being welcoming and inclusive of interfaith families to bar those in interfaith relationships from becoming Reform rabbis. There’s no telling how many prospective candidates might apply to HUC if the policy were revoked: in 2021, Rabbi Adam Allenberg, who heads HUC’s admissions department, said he dealt with the issue “practically every week” in calls from prospective students, and that those calls “only continue to increase.”

There is evidence that enrollment at rabbinical schools without restrictive policies is growing. There was a significant increase in enrollment at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College from 2018 to 2021; in 2015, the RRC revoked its policy not to admit or ordain those in interfaith relationships.

Revoking HUC’s policy would not only broaden its applicant pool, but would also broadly appeal to potential applicants who are not in interfaith relationships themselves. As I have argued before in the Forward, because LGBTQ Jews, Jews of Color and the children of intermarried parents have higher rates of interfaith marriage, HUC’s policy has a disparate negative impact on them — the kind of discrimination that is distasteful to young American Jews.

Barring those in interfaith relationships from becoming rabbis reflects an outmoded generational narrative that demeans interfaith marriage and alienates young American Jews, many of whom have intermarried parents (or are themselves intermarried).

RELATED: As more American Jews intermarry, seminaries face calls to ordain intermarried rabbis

HUC’s policy is based on a 2001 Central Conference of American Rabbi’s teshuvah, which says that “we do not condone mixed marriage,” that the ideal “is that Jews should marry Jews” and that interfaith marriage “tends to frustrate the achievement of build[ing] Jewish homes and ensur[ing] the transmission of Jewish life and identity to our children.”

All of the rationales advanced for HUC’s policy — that rabbis should demonstrate commitment to Jewish life (and don’t if they are intermarried), that rabbis should be role models (and aren’t if they are intermarried) — are based on these outdated views.

Of course, rabbinic students should demonstrate a commitment to Jewish life. But thinking that being in an interfaith relationship belies that commitment is out of date. As Rabbi Deborah Waxman stated in explaining the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College’s 2015 decision to revoke their policy excluding intermarried students, “rabbinical candidates must model commitment to Judaism in their communal, personal, and family lives. We witness Jews with non-Jewish partners demonstrating these commitments every day in many Jewish communities.”

HUC’s restrictive policy sends the message that, in the eyes of the Reform movement, interfaith marriage is not ideal and that partners from different faith backgrounds are undesirable. It is beyond time for HUC to revoke that policy and embrace instead a new narrative that sees interfaith marriage as an opportunity, that recognizes that many intermarried Jewish partners strengthen their Jewish engagement while drawing their partners from different faith backgrounds near to Jewish life.

Failing to recognize the effect HUC’s restrictive admissions policy has on their enrollment is reflective of an overall unwillingness among Jewish institutions and leaders to acknowledge reality.

In the 10 months since the 2021 Pew report found a 72% rate of interfaith marriage among non-Orthodox Jews, there’s been almost no public discussion about what can be done to increase the numbers of interfaith families who engage Jewishly.

The CCAR rejected my proposal for a program on the subject at its current convention. The currently ongoing Jewish Funder’s Network conference isn’t featuring any sessions about it, either. The issue is not even on the agenda of the Union for Reform Judaism’s upcoming movement-wide gathering in May.

A corollary of the old narrative that demeans interfaith marriage is that it’s not the fault of anything the Jewish community does that interfaith families don’t engage.

Jewish Theological Seminary professor Jack Wertheimer, perhaps the foremost critic of interfaith marriage, recently insisted that the vast majority of interfaith couples do not feel excluded from the Jewish community, citing data from one question from the 2021 Pew report that not many respondents gave not feeling welcome as a reason for not attending services often.

But as I have argued, local community surveys provide extensive indications that people in interfaith relationships feel less welcomed and less a part of Jewish communities than Jews married to other Jews do. What a significant segment of people in interfaith relationships say in responses to the surveys demonstrates a persistent feeling of being “other.”

One thing should be clear: pronouncing interfaith relationships to be not ideal, as the HUC admissions policy does, is exactly not the way to make people in those relationships feel included and thus more likely to engage. Revoking the policy would be an important practical and symbolic step in the right direction.

Edmund Case
Edmund Case

Edmund Case is the retired founder of InterfaithFamily (now 18Doors), president of the Center for Radically Inclusive Judaism and author of “A New Theory of Interfaith Marriage.”


Content reprinted with permission from the Forward. Sign up here to get the Forward's free email newsletters delivered to your inbox.