Hebrew Union College changes admission requirements
A change of policyCollege ordains Reform rabbis and cantors

Hebrew Union College changes admission requirements

Announces plans to accept rabbinical students with non-Jewish partners

Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion has announced plans to accept students with non-Jewish partners. (Photo by ajay_suresh,  creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons)
Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion has announced plans to accept students with non-Jewish partners. (Photo by ajay_suresh, creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons)

Cantor Kalix Jacobson remembered the advice given by a friend who learned of their decision to attend Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music.

“Brush up on your Hebrew, read the sheet music, interpret it without embellishment, and, oh yeah, he said, ‘Be careful who you date,’” Jacobson recalled.

The friend warned, “If you are dating someone who isn’t Jewish, hide it.”

Those remarks were offered as part of Jacobson’s d’var Torah at Temple Emanuel of South Hills just one day after HUC-JIR, the Reform movement’s rabbinic seminary, announced that it would begin admitting and ordaining students in relationships with non-Jews.

In a June 20 online statement, President Andrew Rehfeld, Provost Rabbi Andrea L. Weiss and Board Chair David B. Edelson wrote, “The religious identity of a student’s applicant’s partner will no longer disqualify students for admission or ordination.”

The decision, they wrote, came after a multi-year effort to reevaluate admissions and ordination requirements for rabbinic and cantorial students.

In the future, clergy students will be expected to “commit to meaningful and substantive Jewish choices, including maintaining an exclusively Jewish home and family, and will add a new provision that students with children are expected to raise them exclusively as Jews engaged with Jewish religious practice, education and community.”

The decision, they continued, brings HUC-HIR into alignment with alumni who perform intermarriages for couples who agree to maintain Jewish homes and raise their children in the Jewish faith. It also aligns HUC-JIR with the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the American Conference of Cantors.

In an interview cited by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Rehfeld said the policy change reflected the school’s educational values, as well as recent data undercutting the idea that intermarriage is a death knell for Jewish identity.

“We’re not backing down from the statement that Jewish endogamy is a value,” Rehfeld said. “But we are saying that a prohibition around Jewish exogamy … is no longer rational because intermarriages result in engaged Jewish couples.”

The decision is also keeping with the movement’s conception of who is Jewish. Traditionally Jewish identity has been conferred by matrilineal descent and conversion. Reform Judaism, however, considers a child Jewish if either of their parents is Jewish and the child is raised with a Jewish identity.

For Jacobson, HUC-JIR’s decision falls in line with what is taught in Torah. Jacobson drew lessons from Parshat B’ha’alotcha in which Miriam and Aaron speak out against Moses for having an interfaith marriage. God calls the two to the tent of meeting and reprimands them for their evil speech.

The HUC-JIR decision, Jacobson said, is a welcome change that embraces the history of the movement.

“Reform Judaism was originally an assimilationist movement in Germany,” Jacobson said. “And while I am glad that there has been a return to tradition in the last 20 years, I am also glad that we embrace that there is a lot we can learn from non-Jews.”

Jacobson noted that the new policy will mean that many who felt unable to serve in Jewish leadership — those living in areas with less dense Jewish populations, people of color, gay, trans or converts, all of whom are far less likely to marry another Jew — will no longer have to hide their relationship for fear of being turned away by the school.

“We are a movement focused on inclusion, on welcoming the stranger, on tikkun olam,” Jacobson said, before concluding by welcoming with opening arms those who will join Jewish leadership who could not do so before.

The Chronicle reached out to several area Reform Jewish clergy who did not respond to requests for an interview or declined to comment. PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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