CHANGE: ON OFFICIATING AT INTERFAITH WEDDINGS
Rabbi Elliot M. Strom
YOM KIPPUR 5772
I wonder if any of us saw Tony Kushner’s play Caroline or Change a few years ago at the Papp Theater in New York. It was a wonderful drama set in the early sixties in Lake Charles, LA – the deepest of the Deep South – as the civil rights movement was just getting underway.
As the story unfolds, Carolyn Thibodeaux is a black maid for a Southern Jewish family, the Gellmans, spending her days in their basement doing their laundry. The Gellmans' young son, Noah, has a strong emotional connection to Caroline and spends a lot of time talking with her. She is a real friend to him, providing stability for him after his mother's death from cancer. Before long, however, a dispute develops between them about a missing $20 bill and, after harsh words are spoken, their relationship is torn apart.
On one level this is a drama about change, in this case, a $20 bill left in a pants pocket on its way to the wash. But more than this, it is about change of a much deeper sort. It is, after all, 1963, a time when the place and position of African-Americans is undergoing a thorough reimagining, a time of non-violent protests organized by the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., a time when Jim Crow and “colored only” water fountains and segregated lunch counters are reluctantly giving away to a world of equality between the races.
Seeing this play brought me back to this time when I was a sophomore in High School and in the finals of a public speaking competition. Given free reign, I chose to speak about the budding civil rights movement in the United States (which seems strange to me today since one, I didn’t live in America, and two, I had barely met a person of color in lily-white Toronto in my whole life.) Still, I spoke about it because it was – in ways hard to overstate -- a compelling passion of mine. It meant everything to me, this struggle to preserve human dignity and human opportunity for all people, this quest for tolerance and mutual respect among the races, religions and nationalities.
Now, I didn’t win that competition, (no, that honor went to Karen Wendt, a young woman who cribbed a humorous article about children and families from Dear Abby, word for word -- don’t get me started…) But I did get a silver and felt pretty good about it. More important, in retrospect, I can see now it set me on a course into the rabbinate and it showed me from a very early age that our world changes and so our lives must change to stay in step.
Of course this is true when it comes to technology, politics, the media, finances, the place of women in society, and yes the place of people of color in this country. It is also true in our Jewish community where the changes over the past years have come fast and furious.
Today, on this most sacred of days, I want to speak with you about these changes -- changes in our American Jewish community, changes in this synagogue and changes in myself.
My friends, when I first arrived here in Newtown, a young man of 28, only two years removed from rabbinical school and sporting a beard meant to make me look older, this synagogue was just beginning, tabula rasa, a blank slate. Our job back then was to set precedent on everything -- what should be our kashruth policy, what should be our way of celebrating bar and bat mitzvah, how we should welcome and involve interfaith families into our congregation. Since we were setting policies we expected to last for years, we tried to be deliberate and thoughtful, rational and logical. Sometimes the discussions turned to arguments, sometimes they got pretty heated. But we did do our best to make sensitive, common sense policies for the good of our community and the individuals within it.
Over time, need I say, our community changed, the Jewish world changed. Decisions we had reached about kashruth had to bend and flex, decisions about bar and bat mitzvah had to reflect changes in our families and in young people’s lives. And decisions about interfaith families had to change most of all.
They had to changed because our Jewish world had changed. Despite a stubborn 20-25% in this country who continue to hold negative stereotypes about us, on the whole we are the most well accepted minority group in this country; surveys repeatedly show we are seen as amongst the most desirable marriage partners among all religious and ethnic groups. As a result, we and our children are intermarrying at a rate never before seen in our history.
I must tell you, there was a time I thought -- along with most of America’s Jewish leadership -- that our survival in this country was threatened by intermarriage. Do you remember the uproar in the Jewish world when the 1990 Jewish Population Study reported over half of our children were marrying non-Jews? All over Jewish America, there was a hue and cry and a great gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands. And that’s not surprising.
Because, you see, we Jews have never been able to take our own survival for granted. While Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus never had to worry about future, we Jews have always had to wonder if we would be in 25, 50 or 100 years. In fact, we have been called “the ever-dying people” because of these constant threats to our survival in century after century of our history.
So much of what I’ve tried to do as a rabbi and as a Jew over these years has been driven by this concern to preserve a future for our Jewish people. In my earlier years here, I expressed that concern in more than one sermon about the need for Jewish young people to marry other Jewish young people. And I still believe in this. Because, while there was never any guarantee that an endogamous couple (a Jewish-Jewish couple) would make a Jewish home and raise Jewish children, the odds seemed much greater than a couple who did not share a common Jewish religious identity. So I made the decision not to officiate at wedding ceremonies unless both partners were Jewish.
Today I see it radically differently. Today I am convinced that our survival depends on our reaching out to intermarried couples, welcoming them genuinely and wholeheartedly into our community, building on their desire to be one with us.
What convinced me? More than anything else, the families I have met in our community, the families in this synagogue. Over the years, more and more of our Shir Ami families are comprised of one member of the Jewish faith and one member of another faith, usually but not always Christianity. Over the years, more and more of our members have names like McGary, Palmieri and Chan. And what has been a surprise for me -- a wonderful surprise to be sure -- is that so many of these families are active, involved and committed to this community in a deep and abiding fashion. All of these changes, it seems clear to me, call for a change in our response.
And so change we have, slowly, steadily and consistently over the years.
For example, while we had always invited both Jewish and non-Jewish parents to be with their child on the bimah as they became bar and bat mitzvah, we now made sure to pass the Torah to both parents – regardless of their faith -- before passing it, before the open ark, to the young man or woman.
And I remember one particularly passionate discussion with a non-Jewish father, the night before his son’s bar mitzvah ceremony, a discussion in which he told me through tears that he had enthusiastically raised his children to be Jews, had quietly taken on the life of a Jewish man, husband and father but couldn’t formally convert because of the anguish it would cause his parents – and could he PLEASE recite the Torah blessing in Hebrew the next morning along with his wife? Well, I did a lot of thinking that night and by the next morning, he did recite the Hebrew blessing and so our policy changed, changed because the world had changed, our community had changed, our Jewish families had changed. Today, those changes in policy –changes that evolved over the years -- means there is no difference in the participation of Jewish and non-Jewish parents in the celebration of their children’s bat and bar mitzvahs. And I, for one, am very proud of these changes.
At the same time, we made a conscious decision to pursue active outreach, to welcome the growing numbers of interfaith families in the synagogue. We created a Grandparents Circle to explore with grandparents of children who are being raised with two religions in the home how best to deal with issues between themselves and their children and grandchildren.
We also created a program called Stepping Stones – to teach and integrate and welcome interfaith families who are thinking of affiliating with the synagogue. And I particularly excited to announce that we are returning to this wonderful program – through the incredible volunteer efforts of Harvey Abramson and Susan Strom -- and you will be hearing more from me on this in the very near future.
As well, several years ago, on Rosh Hashanah, we began to recite a prayer of praise and honor for the non-Jewish parents in this congregation who were actively, lovingly raising Jewish children here at Shir Ami.
And at about the same time, we allowed our Shir Ami clergy to officiate at interfaith weddings where the couple was choosing to create a Jewish home and family -- and several of our clergy have chosen to do so.
My friends, I believe these changes we’ve made were right and proper, necessary and menschlich. We needed to make a statement to our interfaith families that we value your presence here, appreciate your special commitment, want you to know that you are wanted and needed here in this congregation. We needed to be clear that we appreciate the choice you’ve made to be a part of this community, when so many others have not made that choice. We needed to acknowledge the incredible contribution so many of you have made to this synagogue and this community through the years, the children you have raised to be proud, knowledgeable, active Jews.
Still, with all this, there has been one roadblock in the way of getting our welcoming message heard and believed and that has been the reluctance of its senior rabbi, me, to officiate at such ceremonies.
So now, after all the changes in the world, in Jewish life, in this community and in our programs and policies over the years, it is time for one more change – a change I make wholeheartedly and with absolute conviction – and that is, as I believe we all know by now, that I stand ready to officiate at the wedding of a Jew and a non-Jew – even without the conversion of the non-Jewish partner – as long as they are committed to making a Jewish home and family.
As you can imagine, this is a very big change for me, a change I don’t make lightly, a change I haven’t rushed into, but a change whose time has come. What doesn’t change is my desire to act for the good of this synagogue and its members. What doesn’t change is my desire to do the right thing -- as I can best determine it – for this community and for our people. What doesn’t change is my conviction that we have to do what is in the interest of building a vital Jewish future. But where once I saw my role as being a kind of gatekeeper, now I see it as being a welcoming host, someone to open the door wide for anyone who truly desires to enter and contribute to a stronger, better Jewish community.
To those of you who say: “It’s about time,” to those who say “I wish you had made this decision years ago,” I say this: Over the years, I know my position has been a source of hurt and pain to some of us in this room. Let me tell you: it pains me to know that I have been the cause of frustration, anger and feelings of rejection in people I love. It pains me to know that there are families in this congregation who continue to feel the sting of my refusal to officiate at your simcha. It pains me that there are families no longer in this synagogue because of the position I have taken.
To all of you, I say publicly on this day of soul-searching, I am truly sorry. In retrospect, I wish I had come to my present position years earlier. But I cannot undo what has been done. I cannot go back and change what was. I can only begin today to change the future.
I have to tell you: it was tempting to say: I’ve done it one way for 35 years; it’s just too late in the game to change now. But I decided I’d rather be flexible than unbending. I’d rather be willing to say the world has changed so I have to change as well.
I guess it all came clear to me in a conversation last year with my son, Josh, now a young rabbi in New York City. We were discussing his own attitudes toward officiating at interfaith ceremonies and I said to him – to his enormous surprise, I think – that if I were a young rabbi starting out today, I would certainly officiate. And the more I thought of it, the more it seemed clear to me: if it would have been right at age 30 it should be equally right at age 60. If it were right at the beginning of my career, it should be equally right in its latter stages. Because the world has changed. The Jewish people has changed. This synagogue has changed. I have changed. And change is nothing to be feared. It is to be embraced.
So now, if a couple comes to me and says: "Rabbi, we are in love. One of us is Jewish; the other is not. But the non-Jew does not practice another religion and together we are committed to creating a Jewish home. If we have children, we will raise them exclusively as Jews. Even before that, however, we want to make our home Jewish. We are willing to study and learn more about Judaism. The one who is not Jewish cannot convert to Judaism now. The one of us who is Jewish may not have engaged Judaism very much as an adult, but if you will help us Rabbi, we would still like to work towards fashioning a Jewish home. Will you work with us? If we commit to a Jewish future, will you officiate at our wedding?"
Now, for the first time and beginning today, my answer to such a couple will be, "Yes. Yes, let's talk. And if you are true to your word about learning and making yourselves a place in the Jewish world, I will be honored to officiate at your wedding."
I cannot tell you…how much I look forward…to responding in this way.
My friends, today, Yom Kippur, is about having faith in our capacity to change. Just stop and think for a moment about the words we said and sang last evening on the most sacred night of the year. The words of Kol Nidre say: For all the promises and vows we made in this last year but were unable to keep, we ask to be forgiven. Please God, we say, give us a clean slate; let us begin again, so we can reform and refashion ourselves in better, more authentic, more loving ways.
Kol NIdre says to us – we CAN change. That is the fundamental truth about this day: we can change. And so we will. This synagogue will change. This Jewish community will change. This rabbi will change. And I pray: may all these changes – in the world and in ourselves – bring us blessing.