KENOSHA – The march of time has given us an interfaith marriage revolution, at least within liberal Judaism.
Interfaith marriage remains unacceptable in Orthodox circles. Conservative Judaism suffered some criticism for stirring things up last year, when the movement released a statement opposing interfaith marriage but welcoming interfaith couples. Reconstructionist Judaism has historically been lenient on intermarriage.
The Reform movement, the largest denomination in American Judaism, has turned more lenient over time. A 2012 Haaretz story reported that about half of Reform rabbis were believed to be officiating at interfaith marriages. It had been 36 percent in 1997, according to the New York Times.
The Reform movement has “moved away from the debate of whether we should or should not officiate,” Steven Fox, chief executive of the movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis, told Haaretz in 2012. “It’s part of the world we live in.”
Even as many who are observant consider interfaith marriage off the table, within liberal Jewish circles there’s been a growth in acceptance of interfaith marriage. This cultural journey makes Rabbi Dena Feingold’s interfaith marriage story – which includes a Holocaust-era rabbi who stood up to Hitler and Feingold’s revolving-door relationship with the Wisconsin Council of Rabbis – an interesting bit of local Jewish history.
Feingold has led Beth Hillel Temple in Kenosha for decades. In the 1980s, she left the Wisconsin Council of Rabbis amid controversy over her intention to perform interfaith marriages as a local rabbi; later, the group accepted her back in.
The astonishing Rabbi Swarsensky
Before that brouhaha, there was the influence of one unusual man. Rabbi Manfred Eric Swarsensky spoke out “repeatedly and heatedly” against the Nazis in 1930s Germany, according to “Mensch: Biography and Writings of Manfred Eric Swarsensky,” published in 2009.
Swarsensky “was called to Gestapo headquarters on several occasions and repeatedly warned to desist his blasphemy of the government,” according to the book. “He refused and continued to give hope that this abnormal and abhorrent government would soon be over.”
He later saw his synagogue burned during Kristallnacht, before he was taken to a concentration camp. He ultimately fled to America, where he founded Temple Beth El in Madison.
Feingold grew up in Janesville and her family synagogue was – wait for it – Temple Beth El in Madison.
Swarsensky was ejected from the Wisconsin Council of Rabbis because he performed interfaith marriages, according to Feingold and the book. He was out of step on the issue, even among progressive rabbis, and it made him an outlier in Wisconsin and Chicago.
“Rabbi would have none of it,” according to the book. “He felt this was essential for the survival of Judaism and he said to his intimates, ‘I do it for the Jewish mothers.’”
Feingold recalled: “It was going to help save Judaism. He felt that not doing intermarriages would push people away.”
Feingold confirms the book’s report: “He would and did travel anywhere in the state to perform a Jewish ceremony for couples of mixed religious backgrounds who requested it.”
This all had an influence on Feingold. She developed an interfaith marriage policy decades ago when she started in Kenosha, a policy that she keeps to this day.
The couple has to:
- Agree to raise any children as Jews.
- Create a Jewish home, with no non-Jewish religious symbols including a Christmas tree.
- Be members of the congregation or one must be a child of a member.
Also, the non-Jewish person has to agree to study Judaism, to help create a Jewish home. Feingold will not officiate with clergy of another faith.
“The chuppah is the symbol of the Jewish home,” she said. “I feel that if a couple can agree to those things and they are in fact creating a Jewish home they can in fact stand under a chuppah.”
“I see myself as in fact presiding over the creation of a Jewish family.”
Membership in the congregation has not always been a requirement, but decades ago she started avoiding marriages for non-members.
“It was taking me away from this community and my family,” she recalled. “I just realized at some point, why am I doing this? It wasn’t meaningful.”
Under her requirements, she’s performed nine interfaith marriages while leading her Reform synagogue in Kenosha since 1985.
The problem came with the first one, in 1987.
Feingold was the first woman to join the Wisconsin Council of Rabbis, which had a rule against members performing interfaith marriages. Yet she saw the rabbis as her local peers and she attended all the meetings back in the mid-1980s.
In 1987, when she had been secretary of the Council for about a year, she showed up at a spring meeting in Milwaukee with a message. She remembers it went something like this: “I just want to let everyone know I’m going to be doing an interfaith marriage in a month. I guess I have to resign.”
It hadn’t come up before; this was her first request from her congregation.
She was pregnant with her first child, so help came from among the other rabbis to cart boxes of minutes and records for the Council into the meeting. She was turning them over.
“So a discussion ensued,” Feingold recalled. “I didn’t preannounce that I was going to do this.”
David Brusin, the rabbi who led Reconstructionist Shir Hadash at the time, remembers the 1987 meeting: “There was a very heated discussion. I don’t think there was any disrespect in that meeting. It was just a discussion.”
Brusin remembers the meeting had “more of us who were liberal.”
Feingold remembers two schools of thought from that 1987 rabbis’ debate:
- “We’ve always had this policy. We like you very much but this has always been our policy.”
- “Times are changing. Are we going to sit in judgment over how other people do their rabbinate? Why should we sit in judgment about another rabbi’s policies?”
Ultimately, point number 2 won the day and the rabbis present voted to change the Council’s policy to allow its members to perform interfaith marriages.
Settled, right? Not so fast.
An uproar soon followed. Several rabbis threatened to leave the Council, if it would allow a member to perform intermarriages. These objecting rabbis tended more toward Orthodoxy, though Brusin remembers at least one Orthodox rabbi wanted to change the policy so that Feingold could stay. Brusin remembers him as “a kind and generous man.”
At a subsequent meeting, with previously absent members now present, the Council once more turned against allowing a member to perform an interfaith marriage. Memories are fuzzy now, more than 30 years later, and it’s not clear if Feingold offered to resign given the discord or if she was ejected. What is clear is that Feingold was soon out of the Council and interfaith marriage was prohibited.
“It’s very old history now,” Feingold said. “I guess one thing I learned is that in an organization like that if you’re ever going to suggest a change in policy … let people know ahead of time.”
Years later, the policy changed again and she was invited to rejoin the Council. Feingold thinks this was in the late 1990s and she later became president of the group.
“I feel like there’s more acceptance now,” Feingold added. “I know they were conflicted about it. People were doing kind of interim steps.”
“I think the reality of American Jewish life now is that people see that a rabbi’s decision to not do an intermarriage is not saving the Jewish community from disappearing,” she said.
Brusin did not perform interfaith marriages in the 1980s but later relented on the issue. He’s only performed a handful, under limited circumstances, with requirements somewhat similar to Feingold’s. He said smaller communities like Kenosha tended to grapple with interfaith issues before large communities like Milwaukee did.
He said that with time, he came to realize that many couples don’t think about religion as they approach marriage. He decided it was his role to bring it up.
“I found myself being very confused on why I was refusing to do it, why I was saying no,” he said of interfaith marriage. “It became clear to me that when they were committed to having a Jewish home, and there was not going to be another officiant involved, that it was then going to be the right thing to do.”
Brusin added, “Dena was way ahead of us.”
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By the numbers: Intermarriage rate for U.S. Jews
2013: 58 percent
1970: 17 percent
Source: New York Times, Pew Research