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Conservative movement maintains its ban on officiating at intermarriages but urges its rabbis to engage more with interfaith families

(JTA) — The Conservative movement will continue to prohibit its rabbis from performing interfaith weddings, according to a landmark report issued Monday. 

But it recommends an array of changes — ranging from new rituals to updated hiring regulations — that aim to make the movement more open to interfaith families.

The 21-page report — the culmination of 18 months of discussion among a working group of 12 rabbis — comes as the vast majority of non-Orthodox Jews are marrying non-Jewish partners. It is being released amid years of debate in the movement over what role, if any, Conservative rabbis should play in the interfaith weddings of their congregants. 

The document maintains the ban on officiating, saying that the existing standards “represent a commitment to relationships” among rabbis from across the world who have differing opinions on intermarriage. 

It adds that for some rabbis, the intermarriage ban is “connected to their sense of identity as Conservative rabbis” in a world where lines between non-Orthodox denominations may be blurring. Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis are allowed to perform or co-officiate intermarriages. The Orthodox movement prohibits intermarriage. 

But the report recognizes that the approximately 1,600 Conservative rabbis should take a more welcoming approach to intermarried couples and their families — and that not being able to perform those weddings makes that more difficult. To that end, the report recommends “other significant changes that will empower Conservative/Masorti rabbis and congregations to more fully embrace interfaith couples through their pastoral approach and through updated policies.”

“I hope that people will see this report as a step forward in the desire of our movement to engage people of other backgrounds who are part of Jewish couples and families,” Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, CEO of both the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. 

“And that they will see that we are going to work on new approaches in Jewish practice, new approaches within our communities, and new pastoral approaches among our rabbis to be in relationship with and engage members of our communities and their beloved partners,” he added.

Traditional Jewish law, or halacha, prohibits Jews from marrying non-Jews, and the Conservative movement explicitly banned intermarriages half a century ago. But in recent years the rate of intermarriage has increased, and the movement’s standards have changed. In 2017, the movement voted to allow non-Jews to become synagogue members, and the next year, it  allowed rabbis to attend interfaith weddings.

Throughout that time, the movement has tried to signal to interfaith couples that they should feel welcome in Conservative synagogues, even if the rabbi couldn’t perform their wedding. In 2020, the USCJ hired Keren McGinity as interfaith specialist. And some synagogues have found creative ways around the ban on officiation: Recently, a Conservative synagogue in Massachusetts hired a cantor who was ordained outside of the movement — and who can perform interfaith weddings outside the synagogue. 

The report builds on the idea that Conservative synagogues and their rabbis can embrace interfaith families at every point besides the wedding day. It recommends three specific areas where it says the movement can “[move] away from policies built around rabbinic approval and ‘yes or no’ approaches and towards those built around dialogue and shared responsibility with couples and families.” 

The first and most substantive of the three recommendations is to do a fast-track review of “outdated” rabbinic rulings. The movement, according to the report, will reconsider “archaic” rulings that prohibit congregations from congratulating interfaith couples and their families on their engagement, and that bar synagogues from hiring intermarried professionals.

The other two areas are increased pastoral training to welcome interfaith families, and the creation of a “brit,” or covenantal document, to “articulate a positive definition of who Conservative/Masorti rabbis are, instead of relying on standards that are more focused on ‘what we don’t do.’”

The report also discusses offering blessings to couples outside the wedding ceremony itself and helping families affix mezuzahs on their homes. 

“We’ve already started to see creativity among our rabbis, among our colleagues, in terms of rituals that they might develop,” Blumenthal said. “I hope that this report will encourage our colleagues to push their creativity, to welcome these folks into our communities and to create opportunities for them to participate within an ever evolving halacha.”

Those changes come as more and more Jews are getting intermarried. A 2020 study from the Pew Research Center found that between 2010 and 2020, nearly three-quarters of non-Orthodox married Jews wed non-Jewish partners. A majority of Conservative respondents said rabbis should officiate interfaith weddings.

Rabbi Aaron Brusso, who leads the Bet Torah synagogue in Mt. Kisco, New York, and who chaired the working group that researched and published the report, told JTA that many Conservative rabbis had already adopted some of these customs. The working group’s members held individual and group sessions with around 200 of their colleagues to gather perspectives on the issue of intermarriage. 

“Some of these rituals that we’re doing and talking about are reflective of what some colleagues have already done,” Brusso said. “We’re just going to more evenly distribute the information to make it more mainstream.”

Rabbi Ashira Konigsburg, the USCJ’s COO and the RA’s head of strategy, said that the conversations initiated by the report are themselves a sign of progress for the movement. 

“I would say the previous culture of the organization was not to really be in discussion about this topic,” she said, referring to intermarriage. “So it was a little bit hard to know, actually, where people were going to land.”

Konigsburg added that the movement’s existing policy on intermarriage was too restrictive and does not match the demographic reality of today’s Jewish population.

“If the starting point is ‘no,’ and this is the definitive red line in the sand, then there’s no room to have the conversation within halacha about what could and couldn’t work because the answer is effectively no,” she said. “If the answer is ‘It’s complicated, let’s figure it out together,’ then there’s room within halacha potentially to maneuver. We can at least explore it with the right people.”

One of the tensions that emerged during the working group’s research, which is reflected in its findings, is geographical differences between rabbis across the Conservative movement. Rabbis in Israel and other countries are less open to intermarriage, and the report relays the concern of one Israeli rabbi that policies such as openness to intermarriage in the United States make it harder for Conservative rabbis to be seen as legitimate in Israel. 

This disconnect, along with some Conservative rabbis’ desire to distinguish themselves from their Reform colleagues, is the impetus for the report’s recommendation to create a “brit,” or agreement, to “articulate a positive definition of who we are as Conservative/Masorti rabbis,” rather than focusing on what Conservative rabbis are prohibited from doing. 

“What I would love to see is that we define who we are as a movement and as Conservative/Masorti rabbis through the lens of halacha, and what we do, rather than through what we don’t do, or messages about who we might not include,” Blumenthal said. “That to me, first of all, isn’t authentic to who I am as a rabbi. And I think it is doing a disservice both to people who are interested in being part of our communities and also in terms of the relationships that we can build.”

The post Conservative movement maintains its ban on officiating at intermarriages but urges its rabbis to engage more with interfaith families appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Are 80 Percent of Americans ‘Genocide’ Supporters?

Smoke billows over the city of Khan Younis in Gaza during an IDF ground assault. Photo: Reuters/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

Several Ted Talk fellows, including filmmaker Saeed Taji Farouky, resigned from the public speaking organization to protest the inclusion of Harvard Alumni Bill Ackman and journalist Bari Weiss in an upcoming event, who, they claim, “defend Israel’s genocide in Gaza.”

In 2012, I was selected as a TED Senior Fellow. Today, along with Lucianne Walkowicz @RocketToLulu, I quit all association with TED over their decision to invite genocide apologists Bill Ackman and Bari Weiss to speak. You can read the full letter here:

— Saeed Taji Farouky (@saeedtaji) January 24, 2024

Naturally, The Guardian’s Chris McGreal sprang into action to write a piece sympathetic to Farouky, in a Jan. 24 article titled “Ted fellows resign from organisation after Bill Ackman named as speaker.”

The piece begins thusly:

The Ted organisation has been hit with resignations and criticisms after naming the controversial activist billionaire Bill Ackman, who was instrumental in forcing out Harvard’s president over antisemitism allegations, among its main speakers at this year’s conference.

Four Ted fellows, led by the astronomer Lucianne Walkowicz and the filmmaker Saeed Taji Farouky, resigned from the group on Wednesday, accusing it of taking an anti-Palestinian stand and aligning itself “with enablers and supporters of genocide” in Gaza.

“2024 main stage speaker Bill Ackman has defended Israel’s genocide and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people and has cynically weaponised antisemitism in his programme to purge American universities of Pro-Palestinian freedom of speech,” the pair wrote to Chris Anderson, who leads Ted, and Lily James Olds, director of the fellows programme. [emphasis added]

Later, in his own voice, McGreal adds:

Ackman has taken stridently pro-Israel positions, including justifying the scale of the attacks on Gaza in which more than 25,000 Palestinians have been killed, mostly civilians, and the forced removal [sic] of about 2 million Palestinians from their homes. [emphasis added]

First, as we noted on these pages recently in response to an op-ed in The Guardian on the row at Harvard, the university’s president, Claudine Gay, didn’t resign over antisemitism allegations, but over dozens of reported examples of plagiarism throughout her academic career. Further, the role of Ackman, an alumni and donor who’s Jewish, according to detailed reports in both The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, was minimal.

McGreal later notes that Farouky and the other Ted fellows who signed the letter, also called out Bari Weiss. The letter describes Weiss, a political centrist and feminist who’s the founding editor of The Free Press, as having “a long, sordid, and well-documented history of anti-Palestinian speech.” But, if you follow the link in the letter, it shows that the “evidence” of Weiss’ “anti-Palestinian” speech — even if we accept that criticizing Palestinians is a moral crime — is non-existent.

Further, the letter reveals that what Farkouky and company mean when they accuse Ackman of being a “supporter of genocide” is the fact that he expressed support for Israel’s war against Hamas, the proscribed antisemitic terror group that engaged in the worst massacre of Jews since the Holocaust.

To put Ackman’s view in perspective, a recent Harvard CAPS-Harris poll showed overwhelming American support (80%) for Israel in its war against Hamas, with 74% agreeing that Hamas’ attack on Israel was genocidal in nature. So, per Farkouy’s logic, 80% of Americans are extremist “genocide supporters” who should be banned at Ted Talks.

Unsurprisingly, we found that its Farouky who appears to have extremist views. On Oct. 8, the day after Hamas’s massacre, Farouky posted on X his view that while Hamas’s “indiscriminate killing and kidnapping” was not justified, terrorist violence against Israel (in general) is indeed justified, necessary, moral, and legal.

We can understand two things simultaneously 1) armed resistance to occupation and colonisation is legitimate, both morally and legally, and a necessary part of the liberation movement, and 2) indiscriminate killing and kidnapping is both immoral and illegal.

— Saeed Taji Farouky (@saeedtaji) October 8, 2023

Two months later, he affirmed his support for violent resistance.

The west bank is internationally recognised occupied territory. Under international law, occupied people have the right to armed resistance and defence. This also isn’t Hamas. Jake just makes it absolutely clear that anything short of total Palestinian surrender is unacceptable.

— Saeed Taji Farouky (@saeedtaji) December 6, 2023

Since The Guardian has been pushing the Palestinian-led “Israeli genocide” libel continually since Hamas’ mass murder, rape, torture, and mutilation of Jews on Oct. 7, it’s not at all surprising that they’ve published a piece legitimizing a narrative effectively characterizing anyone who supports Israel’s right to defend itself as a genocidaire. Are we all “genocide supporters” now?

Adam Levick serves as co-editor of CAMERA UK — an affiliate of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis (CAMERA), where a version of this article first appeared.

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Old songs have new meanings after Oct. 7 — and new music helps the heartbroken

(JTA) — After a week of witnessing the pain and resilience of Israelis in war time I went to Jerusalem’s Yellow Submarine music club. I was driven by a prayerful hope to find some solace during the war, along with communion, with fellow heartbroken folks for whom words were failing.

The last time I went to Yellow Submarine was almost a decade ago. It was also wartime. I was visiting Israel for the summer with my family when conflict broke out with Gaza. Rockets flew, fear reigned and the heartache of war weighed heavily. That was the night I first heard the Israeli singer-songwriter Daniela Spector, an artist I never heard before whose lyrics and haunting voice are now part of my inner soundtrack.

From the very beginning of this war, music has been a lifeline for me and many others. I listen to Israeli radio — usually on Fridays to fill my house in suburban New Jersey with the spirit of a country where everyone shifts into some form of sabbath mode every Friday. But since the start of the war, I have been especially connected to Galatz, Israeli army radio, with its constant stream of news and talk shows and its sister music channel Galgalatz.

Silly pop songs take on deep meaning when requested by someone from the front lines, or by their girlfriend or boyfriend back home, or their kid who loves to sing that song with them. Or how about the daily radio show “Habaita” — “Come Home” — which plays the favorite songs of the kidnapped? Some of the songs have become ubiquitous because of their use in videos showing the reunion of soldiers and their families, a bright spot in a country with so much darkness.

I returned to Israel this month as an organizer of the Jewish Studies Scholars Faculty Solidarity Mission. I hadn’t heard of the artist performing when I went back to the club, hoping for another night of surprises and of words and music that could take me somewhere deep. It was Sivan Talmor’s first performance since Oct. 7, and she spoke to my heart, sharing the cliché that is a cliché because it’s true: Old songs have new meanings now.

Throughout the show she was funny, she overshared and was vulnerable. She told us about her husband who was away on reserve duty, how she took her two kids and moved in with a friend whose husband is also fighting. One night, they took their guitars and went out to a park and began playing with friends. A crowd gathered and they sang some more. They sang the nostalgic songs of their youth — one of which she played with her trio at the Yellow Submarine.

Maragalit Tzanani’s 1986 hit “Naari Shuva Eli” — “My Boy, Return to Me!” — is about a girl waiting for her boyfriend to return. She waits at the bus stop all night long only to reach daybreak without him. Despite it all, the girl sings to her God, beseeching Him to watch over her boy. “Please, God, take care of him,” she sings.

This classic song of love and heartache sounds different now. I imagined that each time Talmor repeated the refrain about “his curls being coated with the dust of the road,” she was thinking of her husband, one day coming back from the war, his curls dirty, his body broken and ready for comfort. The crowd sang along with every word.

Talmor invited us into her own therapy session on stage. She requested a shot of arak from the stage and shared another story: A female reservist wrote to her saying that her song “I Am Not Afraid” was keeping her strong on her way to the front.

At one moment towards the end of the evening, Talmor prayed. I was happily surprised to see this artist who seems to belong to the tribe of free-spirited Israeli secularists, a tribe with deep roots in this miraculous, heartbreaking country, address her audience in prayer. She prayed for the return of the hostages, for the safety of the soldiers, including her husband serving on the front lines, and she prayed for peace in Gaza. Someone in the audience called out that her son was fighting also, and then another mentioned a loved one.

Talmor asked for their names, and she prayed that Ido and Oded and all of the soldiers and the hostages return safely. She prayed that the sense of connection felt throughout the country would not be lost, that the nation would not lose the realization that you can feel a bond with your neighbor without thinking the same way as him, that we emerge stronger from this crisis because of the power of our people.

Then Talmor played “Hof,” or “Shore,” which is something of a hit in Israel. A few days later, she shared on Instagram that her husband in Gaza managed to pick up a signal on his transistor radio and heard this song that she wrote about him, about their love, and for that moment they were together again.

At the beginning of the show Sivan told us that she used to feel most at home on an airplane and that now she knows where home is.

The Israel that I found throughout my travels and intense conversations was an Israel that is awakened, ready to help, to solve problems, to be there for each other. And to create their way through pain, loss and confusion. As one sign I saw prominently displayed in Tel Aviv — “United, anew.” After a year of tearing their society apart, Israelis are finding strength and vitality in coming together, in being there for each other and creating something new.

This trip to Israel was different. I saw more pain, and more togetherness, than ever before. And through it all, I was reminded that music is a story we tell ourselves when we have no words. Israel’s wars have always had songs that become closely associated with them. For me, Sivan Talmor will forever be a defining sound of this moment.

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Is There Hope for a Democratic Iran?

A police motorcycle burns during a protest over the death of Mahsa Amini in Tehran. Photo: Reuters/West Asia News Agency

In today’s Iran, a country teetering on the brink of the abyss and nearing total destruction, the sorrowful and fragmented society is desperately crying out for movement, cheer, and hope. The once vibrant nation now finds itself engulfed in despair, anxiety, protest, and anger, effectively trapped in a stagnant cesspool from which escape seems an insurmountable challenge.

The root cause of this dire situation is a despotic religious government, which, through its rigid and wretched governance, has devastated the entire country, leaving its people in a state of hopeless entrapment.

The religious octopus’ facade has cracked, revealing deep rifts between the detested and corrupt divine government and Iranian society.

Reflecting on the events since 1979, particularly after the decade of Ayatollah Khomeini’s tyranny that saw Ayatollah Khamenei succeed him and ascend to absolute power without the people’s consent or vote, it’s evident that Iranian society has repeatedly risen against its oppressors. Nearly 18 times, the people have mobilized in protest against religious despotism and swamp-like situations, only to be met with brutal repression, resulting in countless deaths and injuries. Each failed uprising has left the society more fragmented, intimidated by the regime’s overwhelming force, and ultimately finding itself in despair.

This cycle of protest and repression has been exacerbated by the regime’s crackdown on any semblance of dissent, employing executions, imprisonments, and fines to instill fear among the populace. The aim is clear: to solidify the prison that is Iran today. Despite this, there is a simmering unrest beneath — a clear indication that the current situation is untenable.

My previous article for The Algemeiner,Does America Have a Plan Once Iran’s Supreme Leader Dies?,” raises a crucial question about the future of Iran and the international response to its impending political vacuum. The impending death of Ali Khamenei and the question of succession could potentially trigger an “internal” transformation, offering a glimmer of hope for change. However, those within the regime’s inner circle are likely to seek to maintain their grip on power, sidelining public opinion and democratic aspirations in favor of military and security governance. The impending power struggle and internal rifts following Ali Khamenei’s death, and the ensuing succession crisis, are critical factors to consider

The religious government, with its extensive control over society, represents a significant barrier to Iran’s progress. The question then becomes: what will happen to Iranian society, especially the disillusioned young, non-religious generation, when this barrier finally collapses? The road towards democracy and the post-Islamic Republic era is fraught with challenges, including the enduring legacy of the 1979 upheaval and the resistance from those who cling to the past.

Programs encouraging society towards democracy and transitioning towards a post-Islamic Republic era may better start from this point, but a thousand other obstacles remain, including the remnants of participants in the 1979 upheaval who do not want the new generation to move past 1979 and Khomeinism.

Iran’s transition to democracy requires time, patience, and the emergence of dedicated, patriotic leaders capable of guiding the nation through its countless obstacles. These leaders must confront not only the remnants of the regime, but also secessionist threats, opportunistic revolutionaries, and forces of division. The transformation of a society accustomed to tyranny and fragmentation into one governed by democratic principles cannot happen overnight.

The notion that Iranians will seamlessly transition to a democratic system post-regime collapse is overly optimistic. The opposition, marked by its own issues of greed and disunity, seems ill-prepared for the future.

In the transition towards a stable and democratic Iran, the nation requires patriotic, firm, and compassionate leaders to navigate through the challenges posed by remnants of the oppressive regime, secessionist threats, and divisive forces. These leaders must guide Iran from the chaos of its current state towards genuine democracy and freedom, overcoming the naivety that a smooth transition will occur immediately, and addressing the deep-seated issues and expectations of a society on the brink of catastrophe.

Erfan Fard is a counter-terrorism analyst and Middle East Studies researcher based in Washington, DC. He is in Middle Eastern regional security affairs with a particular focus on Iran, counter terrorism, IRGC, MOIS and ethnic conflicts in MENA. He graduated in International Security Studies (London M. University, UK), and in International Relations (CSU-LA). Erfan is a Jewish Kurd of Iran, and he is fluent in Persian, Kurdish, Arabic and English. Follow him from this twitter account @EQFARD

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