The wedding of Molly Kazin, who is Jewish, and Evan Marshall, who is not, in Holyoke, Massachusetts, Nov. 20, 2021. Though Kazin grew up in a Conservative congregation, she assumed she could not get a rabbi in the movement to preside at her wedding, and found one through the group where she works, 18Doors, which supports relationships between Jews and non-Jews.
The wedding of Molly Kazin, who is Jewish, and Evan Marshall, who is not, in Holyoke, Massachusetts, Nov. 20, 2021. Though Kazin grew up in a Conservative congregation, she assumed she could not get a rabbi in the movement to preside at her wedding, and found one through the group where she works, 18Doors, which supports relationships between Jews and non-Jews.

More Conservative rabbis struggle with interfaith marriage ban — and some are flouting it

Dario Feiguin, a rabbi for nearly 40 years, recently officiated at his first interfaith wedding — a practice forbidden by the Conservative movement that ordained him. The Jewish groom is a close friend of his daughter. The bride has no religious affiliation.

“I saw their love and commitment to each other and realized that my moral obligation is to keep the door open,” said Feguin, whose synagogue, Congregation Kol Shalom on Bainbridge Island in Washington, is part of the Reform movement.

Feiguin is one of a growing number of Conservative rabbis — members of the denomination’s Rabbinical Assembly — who are deciding to preside at interfaith weddings. The issue has been decided in the Reform movement, the largest stream of Judaism in the U.S., which allows it. And it remains strictly prohibited within Orthodox Judaism.

But the question is increasingly divisive within the RA, which has some 1,600 members worldwide. Some rabbis have resigned from the RA over it. Others have been kicked out for officiating at interfaith ceremonies, though Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, CEO of both the RA and the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, the movement’s umbrella organization, said he does not know how many. Others, like Feigun, are hoping to remain part of the movement even though they have broken its prohibition over marrying a Jew to a non-Jew.

“There are members of the RA doing it under the radar right and left,” said Rabbi Rolando Matalon of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in New York, who recently left the RA over the issue.

The Conservative movement itself first considered the issue of interfaith couples and marriages in the 1970s. It has since stepped up efforts to welcome interfaith couples married elsewhere, but the prohibition on Conservative rabbis performing those marriages has stood.

Many within and outside the movement wonder if this might change within the next few years. In addition to rabbis like Feiguin and Matalon, who have broken the ban, some Conservative rabbis report an increasing number of requests to preside at interfaith weddings. Undergirding these requests is data that shows intermarriage as the Jewish norm. The 2020 Pew Research Center’s survey of the American Jewish community found that 61 percent of Jews married since 2010 wed non-Jews.

Rabbis on either side of the debate say its outcome will be consequential for the Conservative movement, which represents about 20% of American Jews, and is shrinking. Those who want to lift the ban say it alienates Jews who want to intermarry, pushing them to other movements where rabbis are free to officiate at these weddings — or away from Judaism altogether. Others maintain that lifting the prohibition would signal that Jews are free to bend Judaism to fit personal preferences, and result in a weakened commitment to Jewish life. And what meaningful distinction between Reform and Conservative Judaism will remain, others ask, if Conservative rabbis do not draw the line at interfaith marriage?

“The number of rabbis grappling with it is growing,” said Keren McGinity, who was hired by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the congregational arm of the movement, to serve as its part-time interfaith specialist in 2020. This year, her position was made full time.

As the movement’s leader, Blumenthal said the question is rising to the top of the RA’s agenda and will be addressed at its next convention, in November in St. Louis.

“We are in the conversation stage,” he said. “We have a very diverse membership with lots of different views and our first step is to find ways for our colleagues to be able to have discussions with each other. That’s as specific as I want to be at this point.”

Harbingers of change

In 2010 Chelsea Clinton, the former president’s daughter, married a Jewish man, with a Reform rabbi and Methodist minister co-officiating. Arnie Eisen, then chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, where the Conservative movement trains clergy and scholars, attended the reception. Though not a rabbi, Eisen was an important Conservative leader, and after the wedding the RA’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards voted to allow Conservative rabbis to attend interfaith weddings.

Clinton and Mezvinsky hold hands during their wedding ceremony
In 2010 Chelsea Clinton, who is not Jewish, married Marc Mezvinsky, who is Jewish, in a Jewish ceremony. (Photo/JTA-Genevieve de Manio)

Since then, rabbis who want the Conservative movement to reconsider the ban have noticed — in the movement, among rabbis and within congregations — other signs that they hope may signal an openness to change.

Rabbi Adina Lewittes resigned from the RA in 2015 because she felt called to officiate at interfaith weddings. After several years of feeling unwelcome at JTS because of her stance on the issue, she was invited back this semester to teach senior rabbinical students.

She called the invitation “an incredible indication of the real hope” that the movement can embrace both tradition and change.

Two other rabbis — Matalon of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, and Amichai Lau-Lavie of Lab/Shul, both in Manhattan – left the RA more recently over the issue. Matalon was asked to leave in 2018, after his synagogue engaged in a long period of study of interfaith marriage in Judaism and decided to allow its rabbis to officiate.

B’nai Jeshurun decided that it would bless interfaith weddings as long as the couple was serious about creating a Jewish home and engaging with Jewish tradition in a meaningful way. “If one doesn’t want to convert but wants to raise Jewish children, that for us is a sufficient commitment,” Matalon said.

Debra Nussbaum Cohen
Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Debra Nussbaum Cohen is an award-winning journalist who covers philanthropy, religion, gender and other contemporary issues. Her work has been published in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and New York magazine, among many other publications. She authored the book “Celebrating Your New Jewish Daughter: Creating Jewish Ways to Welcome Baby Girls into the Covenant.”

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