11/22/16

Why I’m Saying No, for Now, to Love: An Open Letter from Amichai

Dear Lab/Shul Community,

I’m writing this letter to you all mid-air today, on my way to Israel for three weeks, looking forward to quality time with family and friends. I’ve gone pescatarian so no turkey, but this is a precious opportunity to be with loved ones sharing gratitude for all our blessings, even those that come, at times, as challenges. 

The main purpose of my trip is focused research and writing on a topic that’s much on my mind and on the minds of many: new models for more sensitive integration of multi-faith families within our community and the greater Jewish world. 

I’d like to share with you a bit about this research project, with some news about this topic as it relates to my rabbinate, and an invitation for continued conversation as soon as I’m back. This letter is a little long and I appreciate your trust and patience. 

These past ten days have shown the blessing found in deep partnerships between friends from other faiths and cultures as so many of us came together to cast circles of listening and reflection, vowing safety, solidarity and support. In churches and mosques, public parks and living rooms, we’ve gathered with brothers and sisters to sing, pray, share concerns, hope, and plan. We are all called to rise to the human and humanistic needs of these new times, transcending that which divides us to focus instead on what we cherish in common and which brings us more strongly together. 

Our deepening partnerships with other leaders and communities of faith reflect the faces of our evolving community, where so many of us share lives and homes with those of other heritages, faiths, races or cultures.

Lab/Shul is an everybody friendly community. What we are is a reflection of who we are. Our open access approach enables so many different people from all walks of life to be part of this family and feel at home. All are fully welcome at all our rituals and all our lifecycle events. Along with my co-leaders on the ritual team and on our board, I am proud that Lab/Shul is among other pioneering congregations and organizations that choose love over fear in creative responses to the emerging diverse reality of our multiple identities and choices. 

And yet, for these past six months since my ordination I’ve been struggling with a challenge of conflicting loyalties, impacting my rabbinate and my ability to be in service to each and every one of you who wishes to get married. 

Just before my rabbinic ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary this past May I met with our leadership team and board of directors to share this challenge: Will I officiate weddings between Jews and those of other faiths? 

Prior to my studies at JTS I officiated many weddings including several between Jewish newly weds and those of other faiths who were both committed to building a Jewish home together. I created a process of learning and ritual making that invited each couple to come up with their own entry point into the type of Jewish life and home that spoke to them, their values and needs. Many of you in our community are included in this happy list of couples who became families, often becoming my personal friends and core members of our emerging communal circles. 

When I chose six years ago to be ordained as a rabbi in the Conservative movement, I knew that one of the key issues for me would be the movement’s policy prohibiting affiliated rabbis from officiating at intermarriage weddings. I chose the Conservative movement because of my conviction in its agility and ability to honor our history and tradition while evolving to adjust to modern needs and values. On this complex issue, also, I was sure, a wise and healthy process would emerge to offer options that would meet our needs with dignity, creativity, continuity and courage. 

11138562_388038868047615_799770234219258682_n

By spring 2016, as my ordination came closer, it was clear that no new policies have emerged although the conversations calling for some major changes seemed to gain momentum. When I met with our board of directors I shared with them my intention to work on this issue from within the movement, teaming up with rabbinic colleagues to research and come up with viable solutions that will reconcile long held Judaic norms with our demanding new conditions. After much deliberation I decided that upon my ordination I would join the Rabbinic Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis. This decision impacts my rabbinate and my communal leadership role.

Lab/Shul is a non-demoniminational community, not affiliated as Conservative or any other denomination. Like others at this time, we are held by standards that do not comply to any one voice but rather by a fusion of several liberal approaches that define the times. My decision to be part of this denomination’s rabbinic arm has implications for my personal life as a rabbi, but it also carries implications for my public role as a communal leader. 

Joining the Rabbinical Assembly enables me to join the inner ranks of the movement’s decision makers, but at a price. Although I firmly believe that in many cases weddings between Jews and those who love them should be blessed as sacred unions of great benefit to Jewish continuity and life, I took upon myself the movement’s ban on rabbinic officiation of intermarriages.

How can I continue to serve my everybody-friendly community while holding myself accountable to this standard? What do I tell the couples now calling on me to stand with them under the canopy on their day of sacred vows? 

I shared this conflict with the members of our board, along with my intention that within 12-18 months I will either be able to demonstrate progress towards policy change – or will part ways with the movement’s Rabbinic Assembly.

I also decided that until I make this decision I will refrain from officiating all and any weddings, regardless of who the partners are. While my ritual and rabbinic co-leaders at Lab/Shul will continue to serve the needs of our community, including officiation of all weddings, I prefer to take some time saying no to all until I can say yes to all. I refuse to lie to couples or to come up with excuses for why I am unable to honor, at this time, all forms of union. I am grateful that our community has such great co-leaders and creative ways with which to welcome all such inquiries. I have committed to meet with each couple and be supportive as needed on each journey, excluding, for the time being, the actual officiation. 

yk2_-0048

It wasn’t an easy conversation. Our board is composed of several dedicated people who are intermarried or whose children are in interfaith relationships, and whose families are vital players in our community. This decision impacts me directly and is of personal importance to my own pursuit of love and happiness. But the conversation was honest, heartfelt and respectful, leading to a series of continued learning sessions in home salons held in recent months where we joined together to examine data, share our dreams and look at what’s at stake as changes are suggested to our ancient ways of life. I’ve also been engaged in continued exploration and discussion on these topics with rabbinic colleagues, scholars and thinkers from a wide array of backgrounds and perspectives. 

Today an opinion article is being published in JTA, co-written by me and my friend and colleague Rabbi Adina Lewittes. It was written in response to interesting recent research and in the context of our shared work towards faster solutions. I hope you’ll read it HERE for a closer look at what we are proposing. 

In the coming weeks I plan to focus on one aspect of this issue that I think has a solution for my rabbinate and perhaps for many others who are likewise looking for a way to rise with love and trust to this challenge. Now more than ever we can figure out solutions that are based in “and/both” thinking rather than the binaries of “either/or.” My work will focus on the research of a biblical model for membership in the Jewish community by those who were not born as Jews and who don’t choose to convert yet decide to live with us and be part of our family. This flexible and fluid status, honored by our ancestors but largely forgotten and disregarded for many generations, offers me a way to equally honor and stand by both traditional obligations and modern needs. 

I look forward to sharing my research in the coming weeks and inviting you all to meet with me, our leadership and guest scholars for ongoing learning sessions focused on this issue, our questions, intentions and next steps, together. Stay tuned for details on the where and when. 

13934598_564311033753730_4439314776559608742_n

We live in a time of tremendous changes that impacts all of life upon this planet. More than any other generation preceding us we are trusted, for better and for worse, with more daily choices and digital abilities to craft the lives we want to live. 

Jewish life in the 21st century is equally evolving at a fast pace. It is shared by many who choose innovation as a way to chart our progress and by many others who prefer to preserve our ways of life as once was. We have options, as once suggested by Rabbi T. Zeldin, of living in forts or living in ports. 

Both these and those, as we are taught in the Talmud, are sacred, valid, and divinely blessed paths. 

Less than a century ago women started taking greater leadership positions within our community. Just a decade ago the Conservative Movement voted to admit LGBTQ students into rabbinic training programs. These and other changes are reflective of our fast changing times and I believe the next phase includes new positions that reflect our post-ethnic multicultural reality and offer brave and beautiful options that will honor all our ways of love. 

If we come from love and trust rather than from fear and anxious worry we will see this as a blessing. We will see this as a win/win for humanity, for Judaism, for our community and for each and every soul and household built on the foundations of respect, responsibility and recognition of the sacred truths within us all that bind us as a family, together. 

In the days ahead many of us will sit at tables with family and friends, offering our thanks for a life of bounty and probably discussing what’s at stake for our people, our country, and our highest hopes. Some conversations may be easier than others. I hope that we all find the ways to look each other face to face, heart to heart, as we engage in honest dialogue about what troubles us, what we share in common and how we can find more ways to live up to our highest virtues of justice, dignity and love – for all. 

I look forward to these conversations with you, my community, my friends and partners in innovation, in the months and years ahead, as we find new ways to live up to our oldest aspirations and celebrate, together, our many paths to life and love. In the meanwhile please don’t hesitate to contact me with response and questions: [email protected]

I thank you for your patience and trust as we co-create community and life together. 

With love, 
Amichai