An interfaith 'I do' can be hard to gain: Judaism: some rabbis won't perform marriages when one partner is not Jewish. In other congregations, cantors authorized to conduct weddings may officiate.

January 05, 1998|By DAWN FALLIK | DAWN FALLIK,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Jenn Gallay wants to stand under the traditional Jewish wedding canopy and hear the glass break when she gets married in the fall. But because her fiance isn't Jewish, many rabbis would refuse to marry the couple.

It's a dilemma facing interfaith couples and religious communities nationwide. According to the Jewish Outreach Institute in New York, more than 60 percent of Reform Jews and 25 percent of Orthodox Jews are marrying outside the faith.

In November, the nation's largest gathering of Reform Jews killed a resolution that would have supported rabbis' participation in interfaith weddings, even though about a third of the rabbis said they would perform such ceremonies.

The Columbia Jewish Congregation has taken a novel approach to the interfaith dilemma by giving several cantors the authority to perform marriages.

It's an option Gallay has taken advantage of, hiring CJC cantor Jan Morrison to conduct her wedding in a ceremony that will include traditional Jewish elements without making Gallay's fiance, Eric Sarlin, an atheist, refer to God.

That satisfies Gallay, who wanted a way to combine the symbolic aspects she desired with the nontraditional beliefs of her partner.

"We had decided a long time ago that we would have a Jewish wedding for me, but I don't want him to be uncomfortable," she said.

The 27-year-old Columbia native knew about the CJC policy because the congregation's former rabbi, Martin Siegel, had conducted wedding ceremonies for her father and brother to non-Jewish spouses.

Siegel, retired and unaffiliated with any traditional Jewish movement, was one of the few rabbis in the state who would marry interfaith couples in the early 1970s. He said interfaith marriage is an issue the Jewish community needs to address because of the large percentage of Jews marrying outside the faith. At CJC alone, about 20 percent of the couples are interfaith.

"I didn't want the interfaith couples to feel rejected from Judaism. I heard of one man who couldn't find a rabbi to marry him, and he left Judaism altogether, and I thought, 'We need to get organized, the Jewish community has got to find a way to deal with this,' " Siegel said.

So many requests

After a few years, Siegel said, he had so many requests for weddings that he felt they were taking away from his other duties with the congregation. He looked for an alternative.

CJC took advantage of a Maryland law that allows any official of a religious order to perform a marriage ceremony if the official is authorized by the religious body, such as the congregation. Cantor Siegfried Rowe was one of the first CJC cantors to be given that authority and has been performing weddings since the late 1970s. Rowe, like other CJC cantors, meets with couples several times before he will agree to marry them. During the sessions, they discuss religious views and how the couple would raise children.

"This isn't an ideal thing, but it's happening, and we can't sit by idly," he said. "Two people of different faiths can live together just like two people with different careers and different cultures can live in peace. It just takes work."

Rowe and other cantors who officiate at interfaith weddings say they feel that if the couple wants Jewish elements in the wedding, they will continue to practice Judaism in the marriage. A 1995 study supported that view. The Jewish Outreach Institute found that 63 percent of interfaith couples who were married by a rabbi were raising their children as Jews. When a rabbi did not officiate, the number dropped to 28 percent.

Rabbi Jonathan Perlman of Beth El Congregation in Pikesville disagreed with Siegel's approach. As rabbi of a Conservative synagogue, he will not marry interfaith couples.

If a member of his group wants to marry outside the faith, Perlman said he would refer the couple to someone who would provide the service -- but not before trying to persuade the couple not to marry or to encourage the non-Jew to think about converting.

"You have to realize that there is life before and life after the wedding," Perlman said. "You have to find a way to make them understand why you cannot marry them, but you also have to make it clear that the congregation is open to them and you want them to keep in touch."

The practice of allowing cantors to officiate at weddings is not a common one, and Rabbi Steven Pik-Nathan, who succeeded Siegel at CJC, said the policy is under discussion. Pik-Nathan, a Reconstructionist rabbi, said he would marry interfaith couples if he felt that they would have a Jewish home -- but said he would not co-officiate at a wedding with clergy of another faith.

"I don't want CJC to be seen as a place to go that would marry anybody," he said.

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