Beginning in 2016, the BJ community engaged in a serious examination and inclusive dialogue about contemporary Jewish identity, belonging, and community.
Grounded in both Jewish tradition and the inclusiveness that are fundamental to BJ’s identity—and informed by our members, as our partners—BJ is embracing a significant change in how we approach the future of Jewish life.
It is the commitment of our rabbis to guide all members of BJ—individuals, couples, and families—in strengthening our shared connection to Judaism. As a result of this yearlong process, BJ launched a new initiative in 2018: The Jewish Home Project, which provides our community with enhanced resources and programs to assist in creating and strengthening vibrant Jewish families and shaping BJ’s next generation. Part of this commitment is a shift in emphasis in the way we relate to all BJ members and families, including how we invite in interfaith couples who have made the conscious choice to lead Jewish lives.
We are proud to celebrate and officiate at the weddings of interfaith couples who are committed to creating Jewish homes and raising any children as Jews. Drawing from traditional Jewish sources, rituals and symbols, we will create a new Jewish wedding ceremony for these couples.
We will continue to hold to the traditional matrilineal definition of Jewishness. We are not prepared to depart from k’lal Yisrael (the total Jewish community) by independently adopting a different approach in defining Jewish identity. In other words, we are not changing the halakha definition of who is a Jew. As rabbis, we have the space to decide whom we officiate for, and there is no concern about the validity of such marriages in the larger Jewish world. However, we don’t want to put BJ members in the situation of having their Jewish identity questioned or contested beyond the BJ community.
We take these steps with deep loyalty to the Jewish past and with unwavering commitment to the Jewish future. We will embrace a renewed sense of inclusiveness toward those who seek to be part of our community.
We want to thank the members of our JIBC Task Force led by Moshe Horn and Robin Fleischner, as well as the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, Adena Phillips Consulting, and Resetting the Table, for their invaluable partnership in the Jewish Identity, Belonging, and Community process.
Continuing the Conversation: JIBC First Conclusions and Next Steps
What did the Jewish Identity, Belonging, and Community process set out to accomplish?
JIBC was a yearlong process that created a forum for the BJ community to discuss and grapple with the changing needs of our community and the realities of American Jewish life today.
Our goal was to create a meaningful dialogue about what it means to be Jewish and to lead purposeful Jewish lives. We engaged members through input forums facilitated by Resetting the Table, online conversations, fireside chats with the rabbis, and lectures hosted in partnership with the Shalom Hartman Institute. BJ members shared their own stories online and through BJ Talks. Throughout the year, we have been incredibly moved by our community’s deep engagement with each of these JIBC gatherings and programs. The feedback, questions and reflections shared by many of our members have significantly shaped our rabbis’ thinking and approach to how, together, we will build a thriving Jewish future.
What is the Jewish Home Project?
As part of BJ’s commitment to the whole community, we will be launching a new initiative, the Jewish Home Project. We will provide BJ members with enhanced resources and programs to assist them in creating and strengthening vibrant Jewish homes and in shaping BJ’s next generation. This will include new support programs for individuals, couples and families, resources for daily Jewish living, a more robust conversion program, and rich Jewish education courses. BJ is seeking funding for this initiative to build staff and meaningful programming in as intentional a way as BJ has for other core initiatives.
Will B’nai Jeshurun rabbis officiate at the weddings of interfaith couples?
Beginning in 2018, BJ rabbis plan to officiate at the weddings of interfaith couples who are committed to creating Jewish homes and raising any children as Jews. Drawing from traditional Jewish sources, rituals and symbols, the rabbis will create a new Jewish wedding ceremony for these couples.
BJ has a long history of engagement in social justice, and for nearly four decades, has carved a unique path which weaves together Jewish tradition and contemporary life. How do the recent decisions regarding Jewish identity and interfaith families fit into this trajectory?
BJ welcomes Jews from every stream of Judaism, with deep respect for each person’s struggle to find their own level of observance, and a deep commitment to halakha as the expression of our spiritual and moral values. Within this framework, and inspired by the spirit of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and others, the BJ rabbis find within halakha a powerful motivation to engage community and modernity with intention, love and compassion. In the 1980s, BJ created an AIDS support group, and welcomed LGBT Jews into our kehillah with open arms. By the early 1990s, BJ led efforts for Jewish clergy to officiate same-sex commitment ceremonies (and later marriages when they were declared legal in New York State), deciding to break with the Conservative movement to do so. Years later, the movement caught up with BJ on the matter, however the rabbis and BJ leadership chose to remain independent, perhaps portending future moments of inflection such as now.
Is intermarriage permitted under halakha?
Our rabbis look at every issue from a basis in Jewish teachings and Jewish law. We also acknowledge that Jewish law must be interpreted and applied in relation to realities and with both commitment to and compassion for future generations. We do not subscribe to a restrictive view of halakha that considers texts and precedents as the only factors that define our decisions; rather, we understand halakha as a living and dynamic system.
With Jewish law and Jewish tradition in mind, there are boundaries that BJ will not cross, but we also believe that there is today, just as there has been through the centuries, enough flexibility and porousness in those boundaries to accommodate a reimagined path forward together.
This is a step that is not being taken lightly, and is guided by BJ’s deep commitment to building a vibrant Jewish future that honors centuries-old Jewish traditions.
Our rabbis are continuing to engage in study with scholars and other rabbis, as we further define ritual parameters for weddings and other life-cycle events that are in harmony with halakha and best serve the BJ community.
Will BJ rabbis marry any interfaith couple?
As always, BJ rabbis will only officiate at the weddings of BJ members and their children. BJ rabbis meet with each interested couple to discuss their connection and commitment to Judaism and approach to Jewish life. Upon determining that a couple is committed to a Jewish future, a Jewish home, and to raising any children as Jews, our rabbis will look forward to celebrating their marriage. Our goal is to understand and meet the unique needs of every couple so we are inclusive of all those who plan to be part of the Jewish future.
Will BJ rabbis officiate alongside non-Jewish clergy?
We have undertaken this process as a way to become a more welcoming community to interfaith couples and to celebrate and officiate at weddings for couples who have committed to a Jewish future. As such, it would not be appropriate to co-officiate with clergy of other faiths.
Are people who define themselves as Jewish by patrilineal descent considered Jewish at BJ?
Jewish identity is traditionally defined by matrilineal descent, and we are holding to that traditional definition. The BJ rabbis are not prepared to depart from k’lal Yisrael (the total Jewish community) by independently adopting a different approach in defining Jewish identity that may not be acknowledged in other Jewish communities. BJ doesn’t want to put any members in the situation of having their Jewish identity questioned or contested beyond the BJ community, for instance if they were to move and join another synagogue elsewhere, or wish to be involved in Jewish rituals and ceremonies elsewhere.
At the same time, BJ is strengthening our engagement of patrilineal Jews in our community by seeking out ways to be inclusive of anyone committed to the Jewish future. For patrilineal Jews who live Jewish lives, and for patrilineal children, we will continue our practice of having them visit a mikvah to remove any ambiguity both within and beyond the BJ community. Our rabbis are here to answer any and all questions about that process.
What are the next steps for JIBC?
The JIBC process has officially come to an end, but the conversation around strengthening Jewish traditions among the next generation is only just beginning. As always, our rabbis’ doors are open for questions and conversation. In the coming weeks, BJ will host gatherings to discuss moving forward together and ways this shift in our framework will unfold, particularly through the Jewish Home Project.