The Debate Over Intermarried Rabbis

Photo: Goldie Milgram

Photo: Goldie Milgram

A debate is burgeoning over whether it is right for liberal Jewish seminaries to accept and ordain students who are in serious relationships with non-Jewish partners.

Historically, and currently, most liberal Jewish seminaries have not welcomed those who are inter-partnered with non-Jews and yet feel called to become Jewish clergy. The truth is that the existence of intermarried, now termed “inter-partnered”, Jewish clergy goes back to at least the 1980s. This may surprise those now caught up in the uproar that has been occasioned by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC), since its decision to change seminary policy to normalize admission of inter-partnered candidates, all other criteria being equal. The previous policy being that “The RRC does not ordinarily admit or graduate as a rabbi a student married to, or in a committed relationship with, a non-Jew.”

The first time I met an intermarried rabbi was in the early 1980’s. The cruise ship rabbi’s “Holiday Welcome Event” included a chance for each guest to say their name and something about themselves. Most gave their town or, if Jewishly affiliated, their synagogue’s denomination and name. Two were non-Jews: one a new crewmember from the Philippines who had come out of curiosity, and another who awkwardly said her husband was out on an excursion with friends. She introduced his children, and explained she’d brought them to services since she is helping him to have a Jewish home and raise them as Jews, because their mother had died before she and he married.

The last to introduce herself was the rabbi’s wife, standing at the candles ready to light them with him, and she said: “That’s okay. I’m not Jewish either. But I sure do love my sweet husband Rabbi …. We first met and were introduced on the golf course where we live. You know, they say one’s third marriage is the charm and ours definitely is, given this is our tenth anniversary.”

“How could this be? An intermarried rabbi!?” I was quite taken aback. The rabbi looked a bit nonplussed himself at her forthrightness and quickly declared the Hanukkah lights to symbolize “the importance of ensuring religious freedom for all.” Together they led us in chanting the traditional blessings for the Festival of Lights.

For a long time those Jews inter-partnered with non-Jews would hide their familial orientation while in seminary. Some had a double issue, and would, of necessity, remain in the closet about their gender orientation. For others, second and third marriages are contributing factors, as it can be hard to find new Jewish partners later in life and in far-flung places of work. Often for the inter-partnered the only upfront alternative appeared to be training at generally far-less rigorous Jewish or ‘interfaith ordination’ options, such as the one-year Ordination as an Interfaith Minister program of the All Faiths Seminary, founded in 1998 by Rabbi Joseph Gelberman. He also founded The New Seminary together with Reverend Jon Mundy in 1981.

Cautionary Tales

It was 1992 when Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, founder of Jewish Renewal, and then often an adjunct faculty member at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, was among the self-appointed members of an independent, non-institutionally-affiliated committee conferring rabbinic ordination to Tirzah Firestone, even as she was married to a Christian minister. Today a prominent Jewish author, teacher and speaker, her story can be found in With Roots in Heaven: One Woman’s Passionate Journey into the Heart of Her Faith.

Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi once described to this interviewer his process for deciding whom to accept into rabbinic studies. I recall him explaining:

It is like that of a violin-maker testing the resonance of candidate pieces of fine wood. You have to know you are right about such a decision deep in your soul. One must feel the resonance and be able to imagine the person in his or her fullness years hence.

In her memoir Rabbi Firestone states that her husband inspired her return to Judaism, but that their marriage ultimately fell apart because of his faith. She later married an innovative Jewish philanthropist, and long-served as founding rabbi of Congregation Nevei Kodesh in Boulder, Colorado.

Despite mounting internal pressures, most liberal seminaries, including the largest, Hebrew Union College, still maintain strict standards regarding inter-partnering with non-Jews, at least for their students. It is, indeed, essentially impossible in an open society to predict or control with whom mature adults will fall in love and commit to after ordination or after divorcing an earlier partner. It is also more difficult for homosexual clergy to find Jewish partners, as they are a minority within a minority to begin with.

Training Considerations

Rabbi Marcia Prager, an RRC graduate with a second ordination from Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, has served as founding dean of the rapidly expanding ALEPH Ordination Program (AOP) since 2002 and also serves as director of the Rabbinic Ordination Program. This Jewish Renewal seminary offers a full, comprehensive curriculum of study and practice embracing both traditional and innovative, or experiential, learning modalities. Based on experience with acceptance of a few inter-partnered students into their programs over the years Rabbi Prager emphasizes:

When a Jewish clergy person’s partner is from, or takes on another religion, this is the most challenging of circumstances. Also challenging is a biologically Jewish partner who is alienated by virtue of whatever accrued experiences of the past are obstacles to being open to a more engaged Jewish life. Seminaries must engage these issues. Whole families and partners must be embraced and supported during the years of seminary training and beyond, and most especially when we are navigating the unique circumstances of inter-partnered Jewish clergy. Inadequate support can produce really tragic consequence for marriages and families, which is the opposite of the intention.

Jewish clergy training is for those who are seeking to dramatically deepen their role and commitment to Jewish life and practice. Seminaries are places that pull you in. The soul commitment is huge and the time commitment as well. Increasingly with evening classes making family commitments difficult to fulfill, partners and family can be left wondering “Where’s my place? Do I belong to this? What’s going on here?” At ALEPH we found the need to provide partner and family support programs to help mitigate this. We offer partner/spouse support groups and, as our seminary model has a number of weeklong retreats, we encourage whole families to attend and find friendship and support with each other. Sometimes non-Jewish partners of students become so engaged in the beauty and power of what Judaism has to offer that they choose to “join the tribe,” and of course are welcomed with great delight.”

When seeking out a Jewish life-partner, Rabbi Prager wanted to be able “to immerse in the full mythos and shared spiritual practices and meanings of my tradition.” She married JTS graduate, Cantor Jack Kessler. “But,” she also noted, “years ago a different set of norms were considered obvious, and what is obvious changes.”

Evolution of Admissions Policies

Today, extrapolating from the Pew study, well over 71% of American Jews are inter-partnered with non-Jews. Accordingly, what is relevant to them is going to be relevant to the evolution of Judaism. In 1994 Rabbi Shohama Wiener became the first woman in history to be president of a Jewish seminary—The Academy for Jewish Religion (AJR), founded in 1956, today with students between two coasts of independent campuses. The AJR seminaries prepares students to work with every kind of Jewish orientation and do not have denominational affiliations. During her tenure Rabbi Wiener maintained a policy of ordaining Jewish clergy who were single or in committed relationships with Jews only, and did not tolerate faculty facilitation of intermarriages. Students in relationship with non-Jews were admitted on rare occasion with understanding of the above policy.

Currently the head of Hashpa’ah–Spiritual Guidance for ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal and co-rabbi for Your Shul by the Sea, on City Island, New York, Rabbi Wiener told me: “Currents have shifted and I now fully support ALEPH’s approach.” Today, websites at AJR campuses on both coasts of America indicate: “The spouse, or partner, of an applicant to a program leading to ordination or certification must be Jewish.” The Reform Movement’s HUC-JIR website reads: “HUC-JIR will only admit, graduate or ordain candidates who, if in a committed long-term relationship, are in such a relationship with a Jewish partner.”

Despite a lack of consensus among its clergy, based on a multi-year process of study and consensus of faculty and lay support, when on September 30th the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College announced revocation of its “Non-Jewish Partner” policy, Rabbi Michal Woll, who pushed for the change became concerned it would be misinterpreted as designed to boost the admissions pool. Not from her point of view, as she recalls:

It was already a very active issue when I began at RRC in 2001. It was during a community day of learning about the issue’s impact that I shifted from ambivalent about, perhaps even uninterested is more accurate, to becoming clearly against the policy. I was divorced from a Jew and unattached at the time.

The original concerns were the difficulty of finding Jewish-Jewish relationships for GBLTQ persons wanting to become Jewish clergy, and it was at least equally difficult for single students living in rural areas as well as those who have divorced seeking partners after ordination.

As originally with women and GBLT persons, it is taking time for clergy with non-Jewish partners to gain acceptance in the Jewish clergy job market. Rabbi Woll is presently married to a practicing Catholic, Jon Sweeny, co-wrote Mixed-Up Love: Relationships, Family, and Religious Identity in the 21st Century. When one congregation backed out of a potential rabbinic position with them after learning of her intermarriage, she moved on to serve Ann Arbor Reconstructionist Congregation, which proved open to her status.

Rabbi Deborah Waxman, the first lesbian to head a Jewish seminary and the first woman to serve as president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, explains the philosophy of Mordecai Kaplan that undergirds such significant changes in seminary policy:

It is incumbent upon every generation to reconstruct Judaism to be relevant and meaningful for their time….Otherwise qualified inter-partnered candidates will now be considered as part of the regular, rather than exceptional, admissions pool. The admissions staff has advised me that some excellent candidates have been disqualified because of that policy. We want to cease policing the intermarriage issue and instead welcome Jews and those who wish to join us in bringing meaning, justice and hope to our world.

RRC graduate Rabbi Geela Rayzel Raphael, who serves Temple Israel of Leighton, PA is married to another ordinee of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Rabbinic Pastor Simcha Paul Raphael. A Rabbinic Pastor is, in essence, trained for Jewish chaplaincy. She views removal of the “Non-Jewish Partner” clause as:

The right thing to do. We are going to need rabbis with interfaith sensitivities just like I can have empathy for people with adopted children because I have one. And, I do think it is hard to find love and love should be supported. We shouldn’t be penalized for those with whom we fall in love. Additionally, for those of us who trained to serve in the Jewish community and then marry, we are at higher risk for infertility and the pool of available partners is smaller, as well.

Rabbi Marcia Prager informs me during the interview that Rabbi Ed Stafman, the current president of the inclusive OHALAH Jewish clergy association has a spouse who is not Jewish but who has been very much “onboard as an engaged partner-in-the-work.”  Rabbi Staffman has served Congregation Beth Shalom, the Reform synagogue in Bozeman, Montana, beginning before he was ordained by ALEPH in 2009. As Rabbi Marcia Prager says:

We have come to trust that the ways in which these exceptionally committed people will find to serve will be a match for their unique blend of gifts and story.

Current Statistics

Pew study statistics reported in What Happens When Jews Intermarry that

among U.S. adults ages 65 and older who had one Jewish parent, 25% are Jewish today (including 7% who are Jews by religion and 18% who are Jews of no religion), while 75% are not Jewish (meaning that they currently identify with a religion other than Judaism or that they do not consider themselves Jewish in any way, either by religion or otherwise). Among adults younger than 30 who have one Jewish parent, by contrast, 59% are Jewish today, including 29% who are Jews by religion and 30% who are Jews of no religion.

And the same Pew study article also reports that

Just 6% of Jews from the Silent Generation [of the fifties] say they had one Jewish parent, compared with 18% of Jewish Baby Boomers, 24% of Generation X and nearly half (48%) of Jewish Millennials. The result is that there are far more Jews of no religion among younger generations of Jews than among previous generations.

And yet,

The Jewish retention rate of people raised in intermarried families appears to be rising. That is, among all adults (both Jewish and non-Jewish) who say they had one Jewish parent and one non-Jewish parent, younger generations are more likely than older generations to be Jewish today.


“Propinquity breeds,” my father, Samuel Milgram, used to say, “so be sure to go out with only Jewish people and someone will emerge who is meant to be with you—body, mind and soul.” What will our generation of liberal Jewish parents and grandparents soon be saying? Perhaps:

Look at the beautiful Jewish family the new rabbi and her non-Jewish wife are able to create. I hope you will elect for Judaism to infuse your Jewish family life, too, given your upbringing and inheritance of Judaism as one of longest continually existing world wisdom cultures.

Or, as Rabbi Geelah Rayzel Raphael said when I ask her about intermarriage and her own children. “I tell them I want Jewish grandchildren. And, I will love them no matter what. I will love them absolutely.”

In every generation so many things change. Inter-partnered Jewish clergy may well become the next, new, inclusive policy wave across liberal Jewish life. It remains to be seen if Jewish clergy who inter-partner with non-Jews will gradually become the majority presence and, if this will prove to be a blessing.

The Philadelphia Jewish Voice will watch admissions, ordination and hiring trends and keep you up to date. Comments and Op-Ed submissions are most welcome.


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