rows of seated guests seen from behind, with a chuppah at the far end
Guests at a Jewish wedding await the happy couple. (Cariberry via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Reform rabbinical students can finally love whomever they want

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“You’re a strong candidate for rabbinical school,” the Hebrew Union College admissions team member said to me, smiling. “Just let us know when your boyfriend converts.”

I was shocked. I had grown up in an interfaith family, attending Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills because we felt welcome there. How could the Reform rabbinical seminary, which trained Beth Am’s rabbis, turn me away because I was in an interfaith relationship just like my parents?

That was 2015. Later that year, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College started admitting students with non-Jewish partners — most of whom were Reform Jews who couldn’t apply to HUC because of their spouses. I began my rabbinic studies at RRC in 2017, but later transferred to HUC.

For many years, HUC resisted the tide of interfaith relationships. But earlier this month, the school wisely reversed course and decided to begin admitting rabbinical and cantorial students in interfaith relationships.

I applaud HUC’s decision for several reasons.

The Reform movement and progressive Jewish world need rabbis who can speak about interfaith partnership from personal experience. The majority of American progressive Jews are in interfaith partnerships, and in the Bay Area, that percentage continues to rise.

The Reform movement prioritizes accessibility and inclusion, but that work has been led by leaders who approach interfaith partnership from the outside. Congregants understand the difference and feel the lack of representation. Interfaith couples and families would be best served by seeing strong models of interfaith Jewish households.

Some have argued that prohibiting interfaith partnership was the last frontier of respectability that kept HUC tied to the Jewish mainstream. They say that without this boundary, HUC has dropped all its standards. Yet we know that there are many valid ways to be Jewish.

The Reform movement and progressive Jewish world need rabbis who can speak about interfaith partnership from personal experience. 

Forcing rabbinic school admissions to use interfaith partnerships as the litmus test for legitimacy in the Reform movement robbed the community of leaders who could directly address one of the biggest issues in American Judaism from a place of personal experience. 

At the same time, the main institutions of the Reform movement have been misaligned. The Union for Reform Judaism, the umbrella organization with Reform synagogues, prioritizes interfaith family inclusiveness. The Central Conference of American Rabbis, the professional organization of working Reform rabbis, does not have a policy on rabbinic interfaith partnership. HUC stood alone, rejecting intermarried candidates for admission and ordination. HUC’s updated policy aligns it with the rest of the movement, national trends and its own stated value of maintaining an inclusive spirit.

Finally, the role of the clergy’s partner has changed. The model of the straight male rabbi with a wife who would devote extensive time to community leadership and volunteerism is no longer the norm. Today, HUC ordains clergy of every gender and sexuality. And as clergy positions have professionalized, there is less expectation that the clergy’s spouse come as part of a package deal.

Instead of needing someone to lead the religious school or sisterhood, rabbis need a partner whose support, love and understanding can sustain them through their busy and deeply personal career. Leaders of RRC and HUC have pointed out that there are plenty of Jews who don’t want to be married to a rabbi, and plenty of people who aren’t Jewish who think that their beloved’s rabbinic calling is wonderful.

Defenses of interfaith relationships often call for respect and recognition. But to be frank, I am equally concerned that we in the Bay Area progressive Jewish community run the risk of denigrating those who believe that rabbis should marry Jews. As a rabbinical student, I saw such an echo chamber form at HUC in Los Angeles: Student body opinion was so strongly against the “Jewish partners only” policy that those who supported it hesitated to state their views. Let us not forget the Jewish value of machloket l’shem shamayim — arguments for the sake of Heaven. Though it might be futile to say it, I hope it’s still worth saying.

My story worked out for the best. I spent a year at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, during which I found a beautiful prayer practice and insightful teachers — though I lost the relationship that had opened my eyes to the Reconstructionist movement.

After much thought, I transferred to HUC, and today I serve Congregation Am Tikvah in San Francisco, which has a history of affiliation with both the Reform and Conservative movements.

Last week, we studied Beha’alotcha, the Torah portion in which Miriam and Aaron challenge Moses about his marriage to a Cushite (non-Jewish) woman. “Has God not spoken through us as well?” they ask. Miriam and Aaron also speak words of Torah; we must remember that our tradition honors machloket l’shem shamayim, argument for the sake of heaven, over groupthink. Nevertheless, God chastises them for suggesting that Moses’ interfaith marriage makes him a less legitimate leader for “he is trusted in My household, and he beholds the likeness of God.” 

May we, too, trust rabbis in interfaith relationships in our households and see the likeness of God in their faces.

Rabbi Chayva Lehrman. (Photo/Emma Goss)
Rabbi Chayva Lehrman

Rabbi Chayva Lehrman is the spiritual leader of Congregation Am Tikvah in San Francisco.