Rabbis With Non-Jewish Partners: from Daniel Kirzane

While I would like to articulate carefully in the near future my own almost Rabbinic stances on the subject of interfaith families, I am for the meantime very happy to share these words of musar (ethical teaching) and machashavah (Jewish thought), delivered by my friend Daniel Kirzane in his Senior Sermon at the New York campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, one week ago today.

(Also pasted below without formatting.)


Daniel Kirzane

October 11, 2012

Tishrei 25, 5773[1]

HUC-JIR Senior Sermon

Open the Door:

Our Reform Duty to Open HUC-JIR to Applicants and Students with Non-Jewish Partners

My friend Daniel Ackermann[2] spent his childhood summers at Jacobs Camp in Mississippi.  As he puts it, “I was one of those oddball campers who actually liked [limmud].”[3]  Jacobs Camp at that time shared a home with the museum of the Institute of Southern Jewish Life, and when young Daniel took an eye-opening Jewish museum course, he knew he would have to either be a rabbi or a historian.  Later on, he met Rabbi Dr. Gary Zola, and he realized he could be both!

But by that time, Daniel had fallen in love with a Lutheran.

Daniel is a doctoral candidate in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.


And then there’s our colleague Marci Plaut.

Marci was an HUC rabbinical student, beloved by the faculty and active in the community.  But when she and her partner Sam got engaged, she did not celebrate with her friends and teachers.  Because Sam was a secret.  Even though Sam was studying for conversion before they got engaged, Marci knew better than to discuss their relationship at school.

But when Sam converted to Judaism, Marci could at last share her happy news.  She was permitted to get married in our chapel.  Months later, she was permitted to be ordained.

Marci is a rabbi serving a URJ congregation.  Sam teaches Hebrew school.


Perhaps you know someone like Miriam Block.

Miriam grew up in a Reform Jewish community.  She loved her temple’s religious school, and she taught there after she graduated college.  By the time her second child enrolled in this school, Miriam realized her true calling was Reform Jewish education.

Like many of us, this passion led her to HUC’s door.  She signed up for a few classes at the School of Education and, after some time, applied to become a full-time student.

Then, one afternoon at her local Shoprite, her plans came to a screeching halt.  She bumped into a family friend, who worked at HUC.  When Miriam excitedly told her that she had applied to HUC, her friend’s response was devastating: “I didn’t know your husband was converting.”  Miriam’s husband was not converting.

Miriam received her Masters in Jewish Education from Gratz College in Philadelphia.  She works today as a full-time educator in a URJ congregation.


Daniel, Marci, and Miriam are not unique.  Every year, committed Jews arrive at HUC’s doorstep to dedicate themselves to a life of service to the Reform movement.  They seek a degree in Jewish education or ordination as a rabbi or a cantor.  And year after year, a single sentence on the eight-page application stops these seekers dead in their tracks.

It is the policy and practice of HUC-JIR that any student engaged, married, or partnered/committed to a person not Jewish by birth or conversion will not be admitted or ordained.[4]

The door slams shut.


Our school’s application process is open on so many levels.  Firstly, a prospective student does not need to be in a committed relationship to apply, and the gender or sexuality of prospective students is no longer a formal barrier.  Neither is their Shabbat observance, their kashrut practice, nor their stance on interfaith officiation.  Believe it or not, we even have successful candidates who are registered Republicans!  The College’s Admissions Committees know that each of these factors is only one part of a greater whole, and no single item can automatically disqualify an applicant.

Except when an applicant’s partner isn’t Jewish.  In that one case, the conversation is over before it’s begun.


I believe this policy is wrong.  It flies in the face of Reform values and reflects an obsolete and narrow-minded understanding of the Jewish community.  It shuts out those who should be brought in, and the time has come to change it.


Historically, the Reform movement has always officially opposed marriages between Jews and non-Jews.[5]  First in 1909, then again in 1973 and repeatedly throughout the 1980s and 90s and 2000s, the CCAR and other Reform institutions have unequivocally stated: “Mixed marriages[6] are contrary to the tradition of the Jewish religion,” and American rabbis, therefore, should discourage them.[7]

This is no mere statement of philosophy; it addresses a vital concern of the North American Jewish community.  The numbers are so familiar to us, we can almost recite them by heart.  According to the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey,[8] 47% of Jews who married since 1996 married non-Jews.  As well, survey results suggest that one-and-a-half million non-Jews live in households with people who identify as Jewish.  This means that there may be over a million North American families with both Jewish and non-Jewish members.

This concerns leading authorities in the Jewish community—including HUC’s Steven Cohen,[9] JTS’s Jack Wertheimer,[10] and the American Jewish Committee’s Steven Bayme.[11]  They argue that the presence of these non-Jews in Jewish families threatens the future of the Jewish people.  They claim that these families are turning away from the established Jewish community and failing to foster a commitment to Jewish life in the next generation.  According to their data, only 15% of families with both Jewish and non-Jewish members affiliate with a synagogue.  And less than one third of children with both Jewish and non-Jewish parents are raised as Jews.[12]  As the AJC concluded in its 2007 study of American Jewry, “…the phenomenon of intermarriage has a negative affect on measures of Jewishness, and therefore on Jewish continuity.”[13]  Many who read these numbers are disheartened: They fear that the Jewish people is diminishing, potentially even disappearing, through these families.

Their message is loud and clear: We must reverse the trends of intermarriage.  Jewish professionals have a duty to our people to encourage unmarried Jews to marry other Jews.  And at the same time, we must model this ideal in our own relationships by committing ourselves to Jewish partners exclusively.

The CCAR agrees.  In 2000, the Responsa Committee published its official opinion on whether a Jew in a relationship with a non-Jew can become a rabbi.  The responsum reads in part:

The purpose of our rabbinical function, our teaching, counseling, and leadership, is to help our people make Jewish choices, build Jewish homes, and ensure the transmission of Jewish life and identity to our children.  Mixed marriage tends to frustrate the achievement of these ends. … Since one of the ways in which we convey our teaching is through personal example, a rabbi’s life and home should embody this ideal.[14]

Given this background, the rationale behind HUC’s policy is logical.  Since Jews partnering with non-Jews poses a threat to Jewish continuity, and since Jewish professionals ought to model ideal Jewish behavior,[15] the College therefore exercises the right to regulate the relationships of its applicants and students.  For all intents and purposes, HUC-JIR is the gatekeeper for Reform Jewish professionals, and it fulfills its role in part by forbidding admission, graduation, or ordination to any applicant or student with a non-Jewish partner.


But I cannot accept this!

The CCAR Responsa Committee does not hold a monopoly on Reform Jewish values.  Indeed, its statements about intermarriage undermine the beliefs and experiences of today’s Reform community.  They are outdated and irrelevant, and they need to be discarded.

To me, there are three main reasons why HUC’s admissions policy should be changed.  First, our movement is committed to outreach, and we owe it to our congregants to uphold this commitment.  Second, this policy unduly preferences Jewish descent over Jewish identity.  And third, our community is ready for new leaders who understand personally the experience of building Jewish families with non-Jewish partners.


This policy should be changed because we are committed to Jewish outreach.

In 1978, Alexander Schindler, president of the UAHC, boldly proposed that the movement “open [its] arms to all newcomers”[16] who would seek membership in our congregations.  In its time, this message was one of radical openness, and it heralded a new age of Reform congregational life.

This new age has given birth today to a new generation of outreach.

Thirty-five years ago, Schindler encouraged us to welcome families even though they had non-Jewish members.  He saw outreach as “Reform Judaism’s response to the problem of intermarriage.”  He insisted that he was not “… encouraging intermarriage. Quite the contrary!”  But at the same time, he acknowledged that “… we live in an open society, and intermarriage is [inevitable].”[17]

Compare Schindler’s language with the URJ’s current outreach brochure.  It opens with, “Intermarried?  Reform Judaism welcomes you,” and it continues:

The prophet Isaiah said: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” (Isaiah 56:7) We know from the Torah that from the very earliest days, there have been individuals who lived with the Jewish community but who were not themselves Jewish. … You are welcome.[18]

This is our message.  We no longer speak about “[turning] the tide of intermarriage,”[19] as Rabbi Schindler put it.  Rather, we affirm the positive Jewish choices families are making, even and especially, I’d say, those families with non-Jewish members.  And why shouldn’t we encourage these families?  There are so many of them teaching religious school and writing budgets and patching roofs in temples around the country.  Often, they are our model congregants.

This is certainly the story in my home community of Roanoke, Virginia.  My own father, raised a Methodist, volunteered his time with our building committee long before he converted when I was 20 years old.  And I know that there are others in this room with similar stories.  These families are our families.  Our Jewish and non-Jewish parents have demonstrated how to create a vibrant Jewish family with non-Jewish members.  We are proof positive that it can be done.

We are the exceptions to the CCAR’s conclusion that “mixed marriage tends to frustrate … [building] Jewish homes.”[20]  How many additional exceptions wait at HUC’s threshold?  How many of these exceptions have followed the example of their parents in building a Jewish home with a non-Jewish partner?  And as this trend continues, how long will it be until we are no longer considered exceptional?  The time has come to open the door.


Secondly, I argue that this policy should be changed because it preferences Jewish descent over Jewish identity.

When our movement boldly embraced patrilineal descent, we highlighted the distinction “between descent and identification.”[21]  Both descent and identity are part of Jewishness, but the difference between them is critical to today’s Jewish community.

Descent is conferred genetically.  A person has Jewish descent if he or she has at least one biological parent who is Jewish.  This status confers automatic acceptance into the Jewish community.  Conversely, a person with no Jewish biological parents, even when adopted from birth by two Jews, does not have Jewish descent.[22]  Certainly they may join the Jewish community, but this joining is not automatic.

Distinct from Jewish descent is Jewish identity.  Identity comes from within; it is not granted by one’s parents.  While most people today who identify as Jews do have Jewish descent, our movement has argued that descent is not required for Jewish identity; you can identify as Jewish even without Jewish parents.  Of course, this is the basis of Jewish conversion, but Reform Judaism goes even further.  In our movement, people who identify as Jews and who live as Jews in a Jewish community are accepted fully as Jewish.[23]  It doesn’t matter who their parents are or even, ultimately, whether they have formally converted.  Jewish identity supersedes Jewish descent.

And yet, HUC’s policy is concerned primarilywith descent.  Remember Miriam Block, the teacher who applied to HUC with two children enrolled in Reform religious school?  The HUC Admissions Committee would not even consider her application because of her husband’s descent.  They disregarded the fact that he was raising two Jewish children and regularly attending religious services with his wife.  Miriam was considered unfit to be a Reform Jewish educator because of her husband’s bloodline.

To put it another way: When an applicant approaches HUC, our Admissions Committee will ask her only one question about her partner if she has one: “Does your partner have Jewish descent?”  If the answer is no, the applicant is immediately rejected.  It doesn’t matter how robust the partner’s Jewish identity may be; if she hasn’t formally converted—even though the CCAR has stated that such a conversion is unnecessary[24]—the applicant cannot be admitted.[25]

This stance ignores the fundamental importance of Jewish identity.  It reduces an applicant’s eligibility for a Jewish profession to her partner’s pedigree.  Former HUC President Kaufmann Kohler in 1893 called focusing on Jewish descent a “primitive national standard.”[26]  Our movement abandoned this archaic principle long ago; it’s time for our seminary to catch up.


This policy should be changed because we are ready to embrace new models of leadership.

In 2007, Barbara Friedman, former chair of the HUC Board of Governors, wrote of our school, “Our students must understand how the changing demography of Jewish life in North America will impact their work, and as an institution we must be challenged to respond most effectively to this changing landscape.”[27]  Friedman calls on the College-Institute to train new leaders for new demographic realities.  These leaders must be able to teach, engage, and inspire Jewish families with non-Jewish members.  Who is better qualified than those with first-hand experience?  Who can counsel us best on the challenges and rewards of building a Jewish family with a non-Jewish partner than colleagues who have done just that?  We are ready for a new generation of leaders.

Only five months ago, Debbie Abelson, director of HUC Admissions and Recruitment, met with senior HUC administrators.  At that meeting, Abelson and her staff were explicit about their vision for recruitment at the College.  They submitted an official recommendation that what is called our “intermarriage policy”[28] be removed and that we openly advertise this change of position.[29]  Abelson believes that this message will appeal to potential students like Daniel and Miriam who can enrich our school and contribute significantly to our movement.  We are ready for active student outreach.

After all, aren’t we always on the lookout for cutting-edge leadership?  Nearly fifty years ago, HUC President Nelson Gleuck urged the Board of Governors, “I have been saying and reiterating for years that either we move ahead with vision and boldness … or we must inevitably go backwards.  There just isn’t any standing still.”[30]  With vision and boldness, Rabbi Glueck inaugurated the first women rabbinical students.[31]  But the longer we stand still on the issue of admitting students with non-Jewish partners, the more of our next generation’s leaders will slip away from us.  With vision and boldness, we must be ready to shape the Jewish future.


The time has come to overturn the current policy.

I propose that we remove from every HUC application any mention of a partner’s Jewish status.  Let each prospective student receive an application and a fair chance at admission.  And let each current student create a Jewish home with Jews or non-Jews.

If our community is concerned about potential rabbis’, cantors’, and educators’ Jewish home-lives, let’s be clear about specific expectations.  Let our policy state plainly that admitted students must demonstrate a commitment to building a Jewish home without referring to the Jewish status of a partner.  No longer should we dictate how our students may choose to build Jewish families.


This change will not be simple or quick.

The first step is listening.  For years, conversations about this policy have taken place in the shadows.  The time has come to bring them out into the light.  I invite faculty, students, and administration to engage in meaningful dialogue; let us be honest about our opinions and open to truly hearing one another.

The second step is study.  I call on the Student Association, the faculty, and the administration to select representatives who will jointly explore this topic.  This group should work with our sister organizations—the CCAR, the ACC, and NATE—as well as the URJ and our lay leaders on HUC’s Board of Governors and Board of Overseers.  Our representatives should uncover the most relevant factors in this discussion and ultimately make an official proposal.

The final step is action, and I am grateful that members of HUC’s leadership are able to join us this morning.  Thank you all for engaging thoughtfully in this discussion.  As well, I turn to our president, Rabbi David Ellenson, and express my gratitude to you for your openness to all sides of this challenging conversation.  You have kindly welcomed me into your office to discuss this policy and many of the important issues surrounding it, and I thank you for being here this morning.  Your presence demonstrates your ongoing commitment to crafting a shared vision for our beloved institution.  I urge you and your administrative team to consider our communal conversation, and I am confident that you will act with the best intentions for our school, our movement, and our people.


In 1999, the general body of the CCAR affirmed on behalf of the Reform Movement: “We are an inclusive community, opening doors to Jewish life to [all] … who strive to create a Jewish home.”[32]  Our seminary should be the greatest exemplar of this ideal.  We should open admission, graduation, and ordination to all applicants and students regardless of their partner’s Jewish status.

This is the Reform thing to do.

This is the right thing to do.

End notes

[1] Today is the yortzeit of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, the Berditchever Rebbe.  He is known for his stunning compassion and loving acceptance of the most marginal members of his society.  His model may inspire us to reach out as he did to those usually passed over in our Jewish communities.  The Berditchever Rebbe’s radical acceptance is demonstrated in this story, told in Hasidic Tales: Annotated & Explained by Rami Shapiro (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2011. p. 149).

Reb Levi Yitzchak was once accosted by a highway robber known for his violence and acts of depravity.  The thief grabbed Levi Yitzchak by his coat and dragged the rebbe from his coach.  Pushing him up against the coach door, the man shouted, “Do you know who I am?”

“Yes,” the rebbe said calmly, “and I must admit to being envious of you as well.”

“You dare to jest at my expense?” the man screamed, his lips almost touching Reb Levi Yitzchak’s nose.  “What do you mean—you envy me?  What is there about me, a dangerous felon,  that you, a sainted rabbi, should envy?”

“Our sages teach,” the rebbe said, “that God so loves the sinner that one who repents of his sins out of love of God has all of his wickedness counted as deeds of merit.  Now take myself: My sins are few and minor, and whatever good God credits me with is not helped by these transgressions.  But you!  You are famous for wicked deeds.  If you were to repent out of love for God, no one could match you in merit!  And for this I envy you!”

That said, Reb Levi Yitzchak grabbed the robber by his lapels and begged him so compassionately to repent that the thief’s heart melted, and he returned to God right then and there.

[2] Actual name used with permission.

[3] Personal correspondence.

[4] In the “Affidavit and Certification” section of the HUC-JIR application for cantorial, rabbinical, and education students.  The statement begins with the phrase “I understand that” and is followed by a “yes/no” check-box.  October 2012.

Note that as of October 2012, the FAQ section of the HUC-JIR admissions website states: “We recognize that in today’s Reform and liberal Jewish communities there are many passionate, knowledgeable leaders who demonstrate a strong commitment to the Jewish people. However, at this time applicants who are married to or in committed relationships with non-Jews will not be considered for acceptance to the Rabbinical, Cantorial or Masters in Education programs.” Available: http://huc.edu/admissions/frequently-asked-questions.

[5] It should be noted that, at a conference in Brunswick, Germany in 1807, a convention of Reform rabbis affirmed the Napoleonic Sanhedrin’s determination that Jews could marry non-Jews.  This conference, which did not have the Sanhedrin’s original wording available, concluded: “The marriage of a Jew with a Christian, marriage with adherents of monotheistic religions generally, is not prohibited, provided that the laws of the state permit parents to raise the children of such a union also in the Jewish faith.”  However, since there were no German states in which children of a mixed marriage could be raised as a Jew, this statement had no practical bearing.  (Meyer, Michael. Response to Modernity: A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988. p. 135.)

[6] The current admissions policy is rooted in the Reform movement’s outlook on what have been labeled “mixed marriages” or “interfaith families.”  Traditionally, these terms refer to families where a Jew is married to a non-Jew, with or without children. I prefer the term “Jewish families with non-Jewish members,” and I seek to include in this phrase multiple family constellations.

[7] A 1973 CCAR resolution as well as the CCAR responsa “Reform Judaism and Mixed Marriage” (1980), “Marriage with a ‘Messianic Jew’” (1981), and “Rabbi Officiating at a Mixed Marriage” (1982) all cite this language from a1909 CCAR resolution, affirming and upholding it.  The 1997 responsum “May a Jew Married to a Gentile Serve as a Religious School Teacher?” reaffirms a 1979 statement that “Judaism resists mixed marriage because it weakens the fabric of family relationship and the survival potential of the Jewish community.”  The 2007 responsum “On Homosexual Marriage” reminds its readers “we as a Conference and as a Committee have resolved that these concerns [i.e., outreach, compassion, and inclusion] do not warrant our officiation at mixed marriages.”

[8] “The National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01.” p. 18-19. Available: http://www.bjpa.org/Publications/details.cfm?PublicationID=8140.

[9] Cohen refers to “the intermarriage problem” in “Seeking a Third Way to Respond to the Challenges of Intermarriage,” an address delivered at the CCAR convention in 2008. Available: http://www.bjpa.org/Publications/details.cfm?PublicationID=642.

[10] Wertheimer co-authors with Steven Cohen, “It is a sad fact that within two or three generations, intermarriage, in the large majority of cases, will be a way out of Jewish life” in “What is So Great about ‘Post-Ethnic Judaism?’” (Sh’ma, March 2011). Available: http://www.bjpa.org/Publications/details.cfm?PublicationID=8577.

[11] Bayme writes, “there is very little good news about intermarriage” in his article “Intermarriage and Jewish Leadership in the United States.” Available: http://www.bjpa.org/Publications/details.cfm?PublicationID=8255.

[12] “The National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01.” p. 18-19. Available: http://www.bjpa.org/Publications/details.cfm?PublicationID=8140.

[13] Sheskin, Ira and Arnold Dashefsky. “Jewish Population in the United States, 2007.” p. 156. Available: http://www.bjpa.org/Publications/details.cfm?PublicationID=2036.

[14] CCAR Responsum: “May a Jew Married to a Non-Jew Become a Rabbi?” Available: http://data.ccarnet.org/cgi-bin/respdisp.pl?file=6&year=5761.

[15] The previous statement of the current admissions policy, found in the “Program Requirements” section of the 2011 application to the HUC-JIR New York School of Education, states: “Because we believe in the importance of Jewish family modeling, applicants who are married to or in committed relationships with non-Jews will not be considered for acceptance to this program.”

[16] “Shindler’s 1978 Speech Establishing Outreach.” Available: http://urj.org/about/union/history/schindler/?syspage=article&item_id=61140.

[17] All quotes in this paragraph from Shindler, Alexander. “Address to the ULPS of Great Britain,” February, 1995. Reprinted in The Jewish Condition: Essays on Contemporary Judaism Honoring Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler. Ed. Aron Hirt-Manheimer. New York: UAHC Press, 1995. p. 248-249.

[18] “Intermarried? Reform Judaism Welcomes You.” Available: http://urj.org//life/interfaith//?syspage=document&item_id=13609.

[19] “Shindler’s 1978 Speech Establishing Outreach” (see above).

[20] See above, “May a Jew Married to a Non-Jew Become a Rabbi?”

[21] CCAR Responsum: “Patrilineal and Matrilineal Descent.” 1983. Available: http://data.ccarnet.org/cgi-bin/respdisp.pl?file=38&year=carr. Emphasis added.

[22] CCAR Responsum: “Adoption, Conversion, and ‘Patrilineal’ Descent.” 2007. Available: http://data.ccarnet.org/cgi-bin/respdisp.pl?file=2&year=5767.

[23] Take the case of two adult sisters who had been adopted into a Jewish home when they were 9 and 11 years old.  The CCAR Responsa Committee affirmed that although neither of these women had Jewish descent, their active life in the Jewish community authentically demonstrated their Jewish identity.  CCAR Responsum: “Conversion for Adopted Children.” 1999. Available: http://data.ccarnet.org/cgi-bin/respdisp.pl?file=1&year=5759.

[24] “Among us as Reform Jews, if no formal conversion took place during infancy then the act of raising the child as a Jew is tantamount to such conversion and nothing else needs to be done. … In fact, a formal conversion would now be redundant.”  CCAR Responsum: “Jewishness of an Adopted Child.” 1989. Available: http://data.ccarnet.org/cgi-bin/respdisp.pl?file=118&year=narr.

[25] I base this understanding on a personal conversation with an HUC-JIR faculty member who is a former administrator.

[26] Meyer, Michael. Response to Modernity: A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988. p. 280.

[27] Friedman, Barbara. “A Changing Landscape.” Sh’ma, November 2007. Available: http://www.bjpa.org/Publications/details.cfm?PublicationID=6914.

[28] As found on the HUC-JIR Admissions FAQ page. Available: http://huc.edu/admissions/frequently-asked-questions.

[29] Personal conversation.

[30] Quoted in Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion at One Hundred Years. ed. Samuel E. Karff. Hebrew Union College Press, 1976. p. 171.

[31] Rabbi Sally Priesand, the first woman rabbi ordained by a seminary, described Nelson Glueck as a “major force” in ensuring her successful ordination from HUC-JIR. See Nadell, Pamela. Women Who Would be Rabbis: A History of Women’s Ordination 1889-1985. Boston: Beacon Press, 1998. p. 162-165.

[32] “A Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism.”  Available: http://ccarnet.org/rabbis-speak/platforms/statement-principles-reform-judaism. Emphasis added.


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4 responses to “Rabbis With Non-Jewish Partners: from Daniel Kirzane

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