Intermarriage under the Chuppah

The question of how to engage intermarried couples has long been on the radar of Jewish institutions. But in Ottawa, the question of whether a Jew could marry a non-Jew under a synagogue’s chuppah has been moot. Until now.

I recently spoke with Rabbi Garten of Temple Israel, Ottawa’s only Reform synagogue, about the congregation’s policy shift. There has been one intermarriage wedding conducted by the shul — last October. And more are slated for this spring.

As Rabbi Garten recounted, he had long been quite comfortable with Temple’s stance against officiating at intermarriages. “I believed that rabbis not officiating would be making a significant value statement about the preservation of Judaism.” But he gradually “came to the conclusion that that initial premise was no longer true. After lots of research and lots of reading, I wasn’t sure that if liberal Judaism was to survive, that that belief and policy was in the best interest of the Jewish people.”

So during a High Holiday sermon a couple of years ago, he invited his congregation to begin a deliberative process on the issue.

These days, intermarriage is less likely to signal a conscious break from the values of one’s heritage. Instead, it is an almost inevitable function of Jews now having been fully integrated into the wider society. As a result, Jewish institutions need to take a hard look at their practices.

Neither Conservative nor Orthodox rabbis perform intermarriages. Rabbi Garten estimates that around half of U.S.-based Reform rabbis do. But he estimates that in Canada, he’s among only two or three rabbis who now do.

Why not simply encourage conversion? “We do,” Rabbi Garten said. “Every year I end up converting people who have been in long term marriages. I don’t believe if you force people to convert for the sake of marriage…that it is as meaningful as the experience I’ve had with men and women who convert 15-20 years after the marriage: they want to be Jewish.”

Temple Israel stipulates that the non-Jewish partner cannot be practicing another faith, that the couple must pledge to create a Jewish home, and participate in a six-session Pathways to Jewish Life course prior to the wedding. As with all weddings conducted by Temple, there are membership requirements as well.

I asked longtime member Lynne Oreck-Wener for her reaction. “I’m extremely pleased. It shows me that we’re inclusive, that we’re engaging people from the outset.” She added, “Why would we say you’re not good enough to get married here, but we want you to engage with everything else?

Karen Beiles has been a member for three years. She described “Temple Israel’s longstanding commitment to inclusiveness” as leading to “affiliation for many families who otherwise would not…be engaged in Jewish community life….” The new policy, she says, “ is a natural next step in stregthening Jewish identity within families that include a non-Jewish partner.”

Critics might see the policy as a violation of the longstanding and still widespread Jewish value of marrying within the faith — despite the soaring intermarriage rates actually occurring across North America. There is certainly some value to the idea of standards, particularly since Judaism is based on elaborate codes of conduct governing everything from the mundane to the moral.

But Rabbi Garten is similarly critical of some community standards that don’t seem to reflect the authentic experience and lifestyle of many.

For instance, he cites the problem of shuls which require that strict kashrut be observed at weddings. He sees this as potentially counterproductive. “Shuls set up these policies which they think express Jewish values, and [a given] young couple [may say that] this doesn’t express our values, and [the result is that] they want to have nothing to do with the synagogue.”

As Rabbi Garten’s personal journey suggests, one should ask what is precisely the value that is being promoted? Is it inmarriage for its own sake, or inmarriage for the purpose of preserving Jewish communal life? If the latter is the goal, then new possibilities for inclusion may appear. Reform Judaism, not being bound to halacha in the same kind of normative way as are more conservative denominations, is well placed to ask these questions.

Daisy Soderstrom has been part of the Temple community since she was a child. She calls the new policy a “very good decision,” suggesting that it will serve to keep more Jews within the Jewish community.

Daisy’s own story is instructive. “I married an atheist who was brought up Catholic.  We were…disappointed not to be married at the synagogue or by my rabbi, but found the Unitarian Congregation was happy to marry us.” Their wedding involved various Jewish symbols including a chuppah, the shevah brachot, and a ketubah pledging to create a Jewish home.

“I was more understanding of being denied by the synagogue for our wedding,” Daisy continued. “But I remember how nice it was at the Unitarian Congregation, and thinking ‘If it doesn’t work out for us as a family to stay with Judaism, we should definitely come here.’”

**a version of this essay appears in the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin** Image

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