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Reform Movement Laity Back Rabbis on Interfaith Weddings

David Belin has long been trying to convince the Reform movement to sanction rabbinic officiation at interfaith marriages, but his colleagues are not interested.

The 4,500 Reform Jews attending the Union of American Hebrew Congregations’ bienniai, which ended Sunday, backed the movement’s rabbinic arm by refusing to even consider Belin’s resolution urging Reform rabbis to officiate at interfaith marriages.

On another controversial marriage issue, the Reform laity also followed the lead of the rabbinic arm in passing a resolution supporting civil marriage for gay and lesbian couples.

During the five-day conference, the dominant issues on the agenda related to spiritual revival and social action.

For the first time in years, matters related to intermarriage were not on the program, though they continue to be central in the life of Reform congregations.

The Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Reform movement’s rabbinic organization, discourages interfaith marriages, but leaves the decision to officiate up to each rabbi.

Nearly half of all Reform rabbis officiate at interfaith unions, according to a 1996 survey by Reform Rabbi Irwin Fishbein.

For most Reform rabbis, though, it is a serious and painful issue.

Belin, a Des Moines, Iowa, attorney who is a lifetime member of the UAHC board of trustees, has been frustrated that the Reform movement discourages such officiation.

His resolution would have pressed the CCAR to rescind its long-standing opposition to its rabbis officiating at interfaith marriages, which its members overwhelmingly upheld at their conference earlier this year.

But Belin’s view was unpopular.

Hundreds of people booed when the resolution was called up for debate, and Belin was roundly hissed when he rose to defend his position.

“More than 75 percent of Reform Jews favor rabbinic officiation at intermarriages,” said Belin, citing research conducted by the Jewish Outreach Institute.

But a majority of delegates voted not to allow Belin’s resolution to be brought to a vote.

“It’s not for us to decide. It’s up to the rabbis,” said Harold Bobroff, a delegate from Temple Sinai in Lawrence, N.Y., whose two children both married non-Jews.

The resolution supporting civil marriage for gay and lesbian couples also encouraged Reform congregations “to honor” monogamous domestic relationships formed by gay men or lesbians.

The CCAR has not yet weighed in with a position on religious “commitment ceremonies” for gay and lesbian couples, but does support civil marriage for them.

While the resolution passed by a margin of about 2 to 1, a member of Temple Emanu-El, in Dallas, spoke against it.

The leadership of the Reform movement “is emphasizing Torah law, and we all know what Torah says on this,” he said. The movement “would rather see a marriage of two men or two women than between people of different faiths.”

The issue of religious pluralism in Israel surfaced repeatedly during the convention, and a resolution was adopted calling on all American Jewish organizations to urge the Israeli government “to extend equal recognition and support to all streams of Judaism.”

Among other resolutions adopted was one that would require a small fraction of the UAHC endowment — 1.8 percent — to be used for community development in impoverished areas.

A resolution was unanimously approved to launch a campaign to help fund congregations in the former Soviet Union affiliated with the Reform movement.

The biennial also approved a change in the schedule of dues most Reform congregations pay to the UAHC and the movement’s seminary, the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

Dues obligations were reduced from 11 percent of a Reform temple’s expenses to 8 percent. Congregational representatives had been trying to lower that sum to 7 percent.

Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, the head of the seminary, reacted angrily to the cuts.

“Remember next time you need an educator that you are cutting your contribution, and don’t talk to me about cutting the budget” of the seminary, he said. “You can’t have it both ways.”

The seminary, which has four campuses — in New York, Cincinnati, Los Angeles and Jerusalem — and trains rabbis, cantors and Jewish educators, is cutting its $22 million budget next year by $1 million, he said.

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