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Conservative shul takes unique approach to interfaith weddings


alexandra j. wall



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It’s perhaps one of the thorniest issues for a Conservative rabbi: A child of the congregation — who grew up in the synagogue, and was named and bar mitzvahed by said rabbi — has fallen in love with a non-Jew, and is planning their wedding.

“Children of the congregation don’t even ask me because they know I can’t do it,” said Rabbi Gordon Freeman, who retired recently after a long career at Congregation B’nai Shalom in Walnut Creek. “But I do want to share this stage in their lives. It makes me very happy.”

His reference point was the Conservative movement’s ban on its rabbis performing intermarriages. But Freeman came up with a solution, which is in the very early stages of being worked out.

And it happened almost by accident.

Freeman noticed that a lot of congregants were turning to a retired judge in the synagogue, and asking him to perform their children’s weddings, if they were interfaith. “He did all the ones I didn’t do,” said Freeman.

“People liked it because they knew him.”

That judge died last year, leaving a void. But the fact that the process had begun sparked an idea in Freeman’s head.

While some feel inclined to seek out a Reform rabbi who will perform an intermarriage, Freeman feels a civil marriage makes more sense for an intermarried couple because a rabbi has no jurisdiction over someone who isn’t Jewish.

Freeman acknowledged how hard it can be for people to find love these days, and when it happens, it should be celebrated, not scorned. “People who are intermarrying aren’t making this decision because they are anti-Jewish or rebelling,” he said. “They are doing it because they connected with this person.”

He consulted with Larry Katz, another retired judge in his congregation who was serving as the liaison between the board and the rabbi.

In approaching Katz, Freeman hoped to offer couples an option in which they felt blessed by the community and vice versa, that the community would also be able to celebrate the couple, just without the direct involvement of the rabbi.

Freeman has since worked with three retired judges at B’nai Shalom, all of whom are willing to officiate at such weddings. But in working with them, Freeman has been very clear about what is permissible and what is not at such a wedding.

For example, he won’t allow the breaking of the glass, since a non-Jew has no connection to the First Temple, of which the glass-breaking is symbolic. He won’t allow the statement that accompanies the ring exchange, consecrating the bride to the husband according to the laws of Moses and Israel. He will allow a ketubah, as long as they write it themselves.

Katz has been working with Freeman on this issue, and recently officiated at his first such wedding.

“I think it’s an important issue that the Jewish community needs to face directly as opposed to turning their backs on, in the hope it will go away,” he said.

Katz said that he saw his function as providing a wedding, but not a Jewish one.

Rather, he said, “I do see myself in honoring the covenantal relationship that binds people when they do marry and honors their individuality and their backgrounds. I feel that it is my obligation to not allow either of the parties to bring in meaningless tribalism and impose it on the other.”

During his career as a judge, Katz did not marry many couples because he saw marriage more as a spiritual union than a civil one, but in cases like this, he feels he is providing a necessary service.

“The need is there and I would rather that people of my own congregation be able to turn to others within the congregation rather than a stranger.”





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