Rabbis at influential NY shul to officiate intermarriages

New policy at B’nai Jeshurun aims to welcome the participation of interfaith families within the bounds of Jewish law

J. Rolando Matalon (R), the senior rabbi at B’nai Jeshurun synagogue in New York City, seen in a video from June 15, 2017. (screen capture: YouTube)
J. Rolando Matalon (R), the senior rabbi at B’nai Jeshurun synagogue in New York City, seen in a video from June 15, 2017. (screen capture: YouTube)

NEW YORK — Rabbis at B’nai Jeshurun, an influential nondenominational synagogue in New York City, will officiate at the weddings of interfaith couples who commit to creating Jewish homes and raising Jewish children.

The new policy, which was announced at the synagogue’s annual meeting Thursday night, is intended to welcome the participation of interfaith families within the bounds of Jewish law, or halacha. Interfaith couples will not not sign a ketubah, the traditional document sealing a marriage between a Jew and a Jew, but a ritual contract called a tenaim, a traditional engagement agreement that lays out the conditions of marriage.

“We are embracing a significant change in how we approach the future of Jewish life at BJ,” J. Rolando Matalon, the synagogue’s senior rabbi, said in a video shared with congregants, according to the Forward. He called the decision a “shift in emphasis in the way we relate to and invite in intermarried couples.”

The synagogue’s rabbis also announced that they will continue to hold to the traditional matrilineal definition of Jewish identity, in which a child is considered Jewish at birth if its mother is Jewish by birth or choice. Patrilineal adults and children will continue to immerse in a mikvah as part of a conversion ceremony at the synagogue.

B’nai Jeshurun, known as “BJ,” is a large and trend-setting congregation on the Upper West Side of Manhattan that has led a renaissance of sorts among tradition-minded, egalitarian worshipers living in that heavily Jewish section. Although the synagogue has roots in the Conservative movement, it is unaffiliated with any denomination and has set its own course between the liberalism of Reform and the stricter traditionalism of Conservativism.

Bnei Jeshurun synagoguesin New York's Upper West Side (photo credit: CC BY-SA 3.0, by Americasroof, Wikimedia Commons)
The Bnei Jeshurun synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side (photo credit: Americasroof/Wikimedia Commons/File)

For example, the Reform movement has embraced patrilineal descent, while Conservative rabbis affiliated with their movement may not officiate at intermarriages.

The BJ decision comes amid a renewal of the debate over the growing numbers of interfaith marriages involving Jews. Last week, the Jerusalem-based Jewish People Policy Institute published a study saying that barely 40 percent of Jews are marrying Jewish spouses and that among non-Orthodox Jewish-American adults, only 32 percent were raising their children Jewish in one way or another. Only about 8 percent of grandchildren of intermarried couples are being raised as “Jews by religion.”

In an essay in the Forward, one of the study’s authors, Steven M. Cohen of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute for Religion, noted the dilemmas facing rabbis, especially in the Conservative movement, who are torn between upholding Jewish “norms” and encouraging interfaith couples to engage in Jewish life.

This month, the leader of another influential New York congregation, Lab/Shul, also announced that he will officiate at weddings between Jews and non-Jews following a learning series ahead of and after the wedding ritual. Although ordained in the Conservative movement, Rabbi Amichai Lau Laurie said he expects to resign its Rabbinical Assembly in favor of a policy that he wrote “may enable more rabbis to welcome more people into our community with open arms.”

B’nai Jeshurun announced its new policy after a yearlong series of classes and discussion on the topic to prepare the community and earn its buy-in. In 2012, its rabbis apologized to the congregation and leadership for the tone and the process of a letter affirming a controversial vote by the United Nations to upgrade the Palestinian delegation to observer-state status.

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