June 14, 2018

To the Congregation Beth Israel Community,

We write to share a significant outcome from our latest Board of Directors meeting. Two nights ago the members of our Board approved a new policy regarding interfaith weddings at our Beth Israel campus.

The policy reads as follows:

In regards to officiating at interfaith weddings in the Beth Israel synagogue and throughout its grounds, the Rabbi shall use his/her discretion in performing marriages between Jews and non-Jews. This is the sole decision of the Rabbi who has freedom of the pulpit.

With great respect to the customs and traditions of Congregation Beth Israel, the following are guidelines that CBI requires its clergy to follow when considering the officiation of a wedding between a Jew and a non-Jew at Congregation Beth Israel:

The Rabbi will:

only officiate for congregants or family members of congregants.

officiate a fully Jewish ceremony no matter who is under the huppah.

not co-officiate with religious leaders from other faiths.

only officiate interfaith weddings for couples who already have/plan to have a Jewish home and raise a Jewish family.

only officiate interfaith weddings for couples where the non-Jewish partner does not regularly practice another religion.

require all couples to attend pre-marital counseling sessions with the Rabbi during the engagement year.

encourage all interfaith couples to take the Rabbi’s Introduction to Judaism class.

As you can imagine, this is a momentous decision in the history of our Beth Israel community. Since the establishment of our congregation back in 1908, there has never been an interfaith wedding ceremony in the synagogue. Founded by Russian Jews from Skapiskis (Skopishok), a small town in northeast Lithuania, the builders of Beth Israel were Orthodox in practice. Our membership gradually became more Conservative in style during the tenure of Rabbi Frederick Gartner. It was at this time when the mikvah in the basement of 2200 Broadway was removed and women were no longer required to sit apart from men at services. After much soul searching following Rabbi Gartner’s retirement, Beth Israel officially joined the Reform movement in 1986 and ever since then has been led by Reform trained rabbis.

The demographics of our community are certainly a far cry from who we were just a few decades ago. As of September 2017, our membership consisted of 74 interfaith families, 80 all-Jewish families and 80 single-member households. Many of the 80 Jewish families include converts to Judaism. We have continued to grow and now count around 250 families.

This policy recognizes the realities of who we are. For many of us, this new policy will be welcomed with Kol sason v’kol simcha, shouts of joy and shouts of gladness. It reinforces our commitment to being an open, welcoming, and inclusive Jewish community and perhaps more importantly, it validates the many families in our community that include a member who is not Jewish. This is their home too and we are a richer congregation because of their participation as well as their support of their Jewish loved ones.

At the same time, congregants will also be taken aback by this new policy. Please be assured that we did not take this decision lightly. We certainly did not adopt this policy to “lower the bar” or “water down” Jewish life in Bellingham. On the contrary, studies have shown that when a rabbi officiates the wedding of an interfaith couple, they are three times more likely to raise Jewish children and live a Jewish life compared with intermarried couples who married under other auspices (85% v. 23%).[1] According to this same study, intermarried couples married by a Jewish clergy officiant are more highly engaged in Jewish life than intermarried couples who had other forms of officiation. And in terms of membership growth, 34% of intermarried couples with sole Jewish clergy officiants join synagogues, compared to 41% of in-married couples, and 7% of intermarrieds with other non-rabbinic officiants.

The bottom line is that when we support interfaith marriages and offer to officiate at their weddings in the synagogue, we communicate loud and clear that their union is not destructive to the Jewish community, but rather a blessing. We are grateful for all of our members, Jewish or not, and want to convey our heartfelt appreciation for everyone’s dedication to the growth of the Beth Israel community.

At the same time, we have already heard voices of concern in our community; and our goal, as always, is to be inclusive rather than divisive. The policy enjoys the strong support of the board, but we need to hear from the whole community and give our members an opportunity to weigh in. In many institutions, there is a 30-day public review period for new policies, and this often promotes healthy dialog. The board came to its decision after a careful and deliberative process, but we have registered the concern that this process, initiated at the annual meeting, has not allowed for full participation. Therefore, we invite the membership to review the policy and to reach out and let us know your thoughts. Given that summer is upon us, and many congregants have long-standing family or travel plans, we are not putting a specific time limit on this public review, but want to provide appropriate space for feedback. Please reach out to either of us, to members of the CBI executive board, and to leaders of the Ritual Committee. We respect the fact that both the substance of this policy, and the process that led to its adoption, are appropriate matters for broader input.

We encourage you to read the policy in order to understand what an interfaith wedding will look like at Beth Israel. As we hope you will see, this policy does not change the fabric of who we are. It will not have any influence on how we conduct services or celebrate festivals. It will, however, be a sign to our diverse community that everyone is welcomed in our spiritual home.

As mentioned above, if you have any questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to reach out directly to either of us. We will gladly meet you for coffee and talk about the process and why this step was taken to reinforce Beth Israel’s bright future. You may also reach out to any member of the Ritual Committee, which was unanimous in its recommendation of the policy voted on by the Board of Directors. The members include: Steve Ban, Rena Zeigler, Roby Blecker, Miriam Davids, Cora Boothby, Dan Ohms, Andrea Shupack, and Geraldine Reitz.

With overwhelming respect to all of our Beth Israel community,

Steven Garfinkle
Rabbi Joshua Samuels

[1]Brandeis University Cohen Center: Under the Chuppah: Rabbinic Officiation and Intermarriage, Oct 2016