'We want to signal to them that this is where they belong'

To welcome interfaith couples, US Conservative synagogue hires cantor who can wed them

While most clergy in the denomination aren’t allowed to perform interfaith weddings, Sarah Freudenberger’s temple takes advantage of a loophole to send an inviting message

Cantor Sarah Freudenberger at a ketubah signing ceremony for an interfaith wedding she officiated in October 2023. (Courtesy Freudenberger via JTA)
Cantor Sarah Freudenberger at a ketubah signing ceremony for an interfaith wedding she officiated in October 2023. (Courtesy Freudenberger via JTA)

Jewish Journal of Greater Boston via JTA — Sarah Freudenberger has spent a lot of time being told “no.”

A year and a half out of college, the “no” came from cantorial schools when she applied for ordination. Months later, when she got engaged, it came from the three rabbis she had worked with at a Reform synagogue in Florida, when she asked if they would officiate her wedding.

Both refusals were because – like 42% of married American Jews, according to a 2020 Pew study – Freudenberger’s spouse is not a Jew. Peter, her husband and the father of her three children, is Buddhist.

It took time to find a cantorial program that would allow her to get ordained with a non-Jewish spouse — just as it had taken time before she found a rabbi who would officiate at her interfaith wedding, which took place in 2010.

“It was such a gift to us,” she said. “Looking back, I didn’t realize how much it would have affected me personally, how much regret I would have felt, if I hadn’t had a rabbi at my wedding.”

She added, “I can’t untangle my personal experience from my officiant experience. It is the main reason why I know — firsthand — how much of a blessing it is to be able to do that for people.”

Now, Freudenberger says she is passing on this gift to other Jews like her by offering interfaith wedding officiation as the cantor of Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott, Massachusetts.

She can’t preside over the ceremonies inside Shirat Hayam’s building, because the congregation is part of the Conservative movement of Judaism, which bars its member communities from hosting interfaith wedding ceremonies. But because Freudenberger did not attend a Conservative seminary and is not part of its clergy associations, she is free to officiate the weddings elsewhere.

The arrangement illuminates how a changing rabbinic marketplace is opening doors for interfaith families at Conservative synagogues, where the movement’s prohibitions around interfaith weddings have imposed barriers to welcoming intermarried couples.

Illustrative: Social worker and health care chaplain Chava Monastersky staffs the interfaith chaplaincy at the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest in Seattle. (Gregory Gutterman Scruggs/Times of Israel)

“Intermarriage and the inclusion of intermarried couples and families are among the most important issues the Conservative-Masorti movement is addressing,” said Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Rabbinical Assembly, two leading organizations of the Conservative-Masorti movement. (Masorti is the name of the Conservative movement in Israel/outside of North America.)

“Conservative-Masorti rabbis who are members of the Rabbinical Assembly are not authorized to officiate at interfaith wedding ceremonies,” he said. “But rather than focusing on intermarriage as a ‘threat’ to Jewish survival – as we did in the mid-20th century – today we are instead exploring ways to engage all couples and families with a Jewish partner in the beauty and meaning of Jewish community and practice.”

In recent years, the movement’s standards on intermarriage have shifted. In 2017, Conservative institutions voted to allow non-Jews to become members of synagogues. The following year, it removed a ban on its rabbis attending interfaith weddings.

In 2020, the USCJ hired Keren McGinity as interfaith specialist. She recently produced a handbook on interfaith inclusion that Blumenthal says is a vital step in shifting the status of interfaith families within the movement while holding firm on matters of traditional Jewish law, or halacha, which forbids Jews from marrying non-Jews.

Blumenthal said the movement has established a task force that will recommend further steps for welcoming intermarried couples. He said the task force, composed of clergy and lay leaders, will aim to “balance tradition and modernity within the framework of halacha.”

Shirat Hayam has been striving to find ways to include and welcome interfaith families in its community for years. In 2018, Rabbi Michael Ragozin founded an Interfaith Task Force to address an issue challenging many in the community at that time – non-Jewish spouses of Jewish congregants could not serve on the board of directors. Ultimately, the congregation voted to extend full membership privileges to non-Jewish spouses.

“A couple of generations back, intermarriage was a different phenomenon. Intermarriage may have been more likely to walk away from Jewish tradition, Jewish community, raising Jewish kids,” said Ragozin. He noted that today, the data says otherwise.

The 2020 Pew survey of American Jews found that Jews married to other Jews are far more likely than intermarried couples to say they are raising their minor children as “Jewish by religion.” But it also found that the adult children of intermarried couples are “increasingly likely” to identify as Jewish — and that two-thirds of intermarried couples today say they are raising their children with a Jewish identity.

As that data was emerging, long-standing patterns in rabbinic hiring were changing rapidly. In recent years, the number of people seeking to attend denominational seminaries, including the ones operated by the Conservative movement, has fallen sharply, creating a gap between the number of synagogues seeking rabbis and cantors and the number of applicants on the job market. Meanwhile, non-traditional, often low-residency programs have grown — including the Aleph Ordination Program where Freudenberger was ordained in 2022.

Aleph is affiliated with the Jewish Renewal movement but its graduates work in all kinds of synagogues. And when Freudenberger emerged as a leading candidate in Shirat Hayam’s cantor search, Ragozin saw an opportunity.

“The lightbulb went off in my head,” he said. “This is how we’re going to signal to the broader Jewish community that’s on the North Shore, that’s looking at Shirat Hayam for the North Shore – we’re going to signal to intermarried families that this is a place in which you belong.”

Before moving ahead with the plan – for a Renewal-ordained cantor to officiate interfaith weddings for the community – Shirat Hayam leaders checked in with the USCJ. The response they got was that that scenario would not require the synagogue to disaffiliate from the movement, as long as the service wasn’t held on the congregation’s property.

Blumenthal said the new task force is examining cases like Shirat Hayam’s, and putting together a report that will “help us frame important questions like the ones that are raised by the practice in Swampscott.”

During the interview process, the search committee asked Freudenberger if she would be willing to officiate interfaith weddings.

“That sent me a clear message that the synagogue was interested,” she said. “They not only wanted to allow it, but were interested in me doing them for the congregation.”

She was hired in 2021.

“We don’t want to be ‘backroom’ about it,” she said. “We want to be open about it, we want to tell people about it. We want to say ‘You’re welcome here, you’re welcome with us, we want you to be a part of our community.’”

Since her ordination, Freudenberger has officiated at four weddings – two between Jews, and two interfaith.

“People that are coming looking for a Jewish wedding want a Jewish wedding,” she said. “If their answer is no, what does that tell them about being Jewish? What does that tell them about being Jewish as a family?”

A version of this story originally appeared in the Jewish Journal of Greater Boston and is reprinted with permission.

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