After months of consideration, Tree of Life-Or L’Simcha’s Rabbi Chuck Diamond, with the backing of his congregation, has decided to perform interfaith weddings.
His first such wedding is set for Aug. 31, 2014.
“It wasn’t an easy decision for me,” Diamond told the Chronicle. “I’m doing it because I think I’m in a position to do it and I think I can have an impact.”
Though he identifies as a Conservative rabbi, Diamond is no longer a member of the Rabbinical Assembly, the umbrella group of Conservative rabbis, which is opposed to interfaith weddings.
“The Conservative movement, I think, struggles with this issue,” Diamond said in an interview. “Basically, the policy is to try to be as welcoming as possible before the wedding, and welcoming as possible after the wedding, but for that particular day it’s ‘well, sorry we can’t be involved.’ I think that’s a policy that’s doomed for failure.
“The Rabbinical Assembly is clear that if you participate in an interfaith wedding, that those are grounds for expulsion,” he added. “Being that I’m not a member of the Rabbinical Assembly, I’m in a special position again where I think I can act. I don’t have to worry about being kicked out of an organization I don’t belong to.”
Stressing that he won’t be a rabbi for hire, Diamond said he would only perform weddings for couples who agree to raise their children Jewish and keep a Jewish home.
And he intends to serve interfaith families within his own congregation, though he would consider officiating for couples referred to him by his colleagues.
“The final decision in terms of participation is at my discretion of course,” he said.
There are approximately 400 families at Tree of Life-Or L’Simcha, Diamond said. “We have a lot of people who have been touched by this. … There were a lot of people whose kids were married outside the faith or people themselves, so it’s touched a lot of families.”
One year ago, Diamond said he wasn’t prepared to take this step, but that was before he traveled to Ukraine and Israel on a Jewish Federations of North America rabbinic mission. He visited Babi Yar, where thousands of Jews were shot to death and heard in Israel how thousands more from the former Soviet Union were struggling for acceptance as Jews.
Those encounters affected him, he said, as did a statement by Israeli President Shimon Peres: “It is not important that your grandparents are Jewish, but more important that your grandchildren are Jewish.”
“That quote resonated within me and led me to start thinking about the reality that we face here at home,” Diamond said.
He was referring to the high intermarriage rate among Jews, which, as gauged by the Pew survey, stands at 58 percent.
Diamond said he is not alone in this move. “Tree of Life-Or L’Simcha and I are going down this path together.”
According to Michael Eisenberg, president of the congregation, Diamond announced during his Yom Kippur sermon this year that he was prepared to begin interfaith weddings — an announcement his congregants busily discussed at a kallah following the morning service.
The response, he said, was overwhelmingly positive. Some members, who had dealt with interfaith marriage in their own families, were in tears, he recalled.
He said the executive committee and board of trustees have since approved Diamond’s decision.
“We’re looking to do what’s best for our congregants,” Eisenberg said, “to keep the next generation Jewish.”
Diamond said he’s still working through the details of an interfaith wedding — what he can and cannot do — while talking with the couples he’s agreed to marry about what their ceremonies would look like.
But he already has a few ideas.
“It’s Jewish style ceremony,” he said. “What does that mean? They’re not being married according to the laws of Moses and Israel, but they could do the chupah. The chupah is the symbol of their future Jewish home together, which they have committed to having.”
“I see it right now as fluid,” he said of the process. “This is new to me and the congregation. We’ll see how it goes and make whatever changes we think we need to make.”
His first interfaith wedding will be for Heather Friedland and Michael Barto. The couple has been dating for three years.
“My mother and I approached Rabbi Chuck to ask if there was any way that he would consider performing an interfaith marriage,” Friedland, who grew up at Tree of Life, said in an emailed response to the Chronicle. “Originally, I thought, as well as heard from others, that there was no way that he would do it. My mom thought we should ask just in case. We were so excited when the rabbi told us that he would consider it.”
Had Diamond turned down their request, “we probably would have attempted to find a Reform rabbi,” Friedland said. “In the worst case scenario, we would have been married by a nondenominational officiator.
“In my opinion, this would have been extremely detrimental, not only to my fiance and myself, but to my extended family and our future family as well,” she added. “We would have had to leave my family and TOL and attempt to find a Reform synagogue on our own. This could have possibly caused us to become disconnected from my parents and siblings and force our future children to belong to a separate congregation. I would have felt alienated and hurt.”
She called Diamond’s decision to perform the ceremony “open minded,” which will now “allow us to stay connected to my home synagogue as we prepare to engage in many simchas such as getting married and raising our children.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)