Menu JTA Search

Reform Lay Leadership Averts Showdown with Rabbinic Body

The lay leadership of the American Reform Judaism movement has avoided a potential confrontation with its rabbinic arm on the issue of intermarriage.

Some 200 trustees of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations overwhelmingly rejected a resolution that would have urged the Central Conference of American Rabbis to rescind its 23-year-old policy against officiation at interfaith weddings.

The vote on the resolution, introduced by David Belin, an honorary vice chairman of the UAHC board who is from Des Moines, was taken Saturday evening, after a day of deliberation on the issue.

In a show of hands, the resolution was defeated by a margin of about 8 to 1.

In practice, while not encouraging mixed marriages, the CCAR has left the question of whether to officiate at interfaith weddings to individuals.

It is estimated that close to half of the 1,400 active Reform rabbis in the United States and Canada are willing to officiate at interfaith weddings. The vast majority of them insist on the couple’s pledge to maintain a Jewish home and raise their children as Jews.

But during the debate preceding Saturday’s vote, it became clear that the issue had little to do with wedding ceremonies.

Some participants described the real issue as a turf battle between the Reform movement’s lay and rabbinic bodies.

“It is a sensitive situation,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the UAHC.

“The tension between our major branches has impeded our work,” he said, adding that if the resolution had been adopted, “it would have been a blow to our fragile unity.”

The Reform movement has traditionally maintained a balance of influence between its lay congregational and rabbinic leadership, Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, said in an interview.

The resolution, if adopted, would have been seen by the rabbis as an infringement of their autonomy and integrity, and therefore “sever the balance,” said Zimmerman, also a past president of the CCAR.

“In terms of economics and power, the lay people are already in control,” and passage of the resolution “would be the last straw,” Zimmerman said.

Rabbis who officiate at mixed marriages were opposed to the resolution “because they don’t want lay people telling them what to think,” he said.

Passage of the resolution would have had a severe impact on the morale of future rabbis studying at the Hebrew Union College, Zimmerman added.

During the debate on the resolution, it was noted that an increasing number of Reform congregations will not hire a rabbi who refuses to perform interfaith marriage ceremonies.

Yoffie said, “Whether a rabbi will officiate at an interfaith wedding should not be the focus of a congregation’s evaluation of its rabbi. Instead, I hope our congregation’s leadership will ask: `Is the rabbi creating a warm and welcoming community? Does the rabbi reach out to unaffiliated Jews and interfaith couples?'”

At the three-day meeting, the UAHC trustees also decided to intensify Torah- centered family and adult education, double the size of youth camp programs during the next decade and move the UAHC headquarters building to another New York location, which has not been chosen.

In an interview, Yoffie talked of his intention to launch a major fund-raising drive to enlarge and intensify the Reform movement’s presence in Israel.

Included in such an expansion campaign would be the opening of new synagogues, modeled on the Tel Aviv facility, enlarging the network of 20 nursery schools and stepping up the training of more Israeli Reform rabbis and teachers.

NEXT STORY