New Voices, the magazine of the Jewish Student Press Service, has an article by Jeremy Gillick on a topic that flew under the radar of the rest of the Jewish media: “would-be rabbinical students [who] question the ban on intermarried students at the Reform and Conservative seminaries.”
Even Reform’s Hebrew Union College, representing the most liberal and welcoming attitude toward interfaith faimilies among the denominations, bans students in relationships with non-Jews:
“Because we believe in the importance of Jewish family modeling,” reads the policy at HUC, the network of seminaries for America’s largest Jewish denomination, “applicants who are married to or in committed relationships with non-Jews will not be considered for acceptance to this program.”
Ironically, the strictures were codified by the non-Orthodox movements in response to the liberalization of their attitudes toward intermarriage in the last 20 years. However, the bans pose a contradiction:
“It’s not clear what the justification is for holding rabbis to different standards than their congregants,” notes Jonathan Boyarin, [a professor of modern Jewish thought at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill]. Sooner or later, some intermarried and religious person would decide to become a rabbi and would undoubtedly be upset when what appeared to be a rabbinically-sanctioned double standard got in the way.
HUC sociologist Steve M. Cohen defends the double standard, saying:
“in-marriage” has historically “been central to what it means to be a Jew.” Its modern importance, he explains, is amplified because of the ongoing population decline among non-Orthodox Jews, which he attributes largely to intermarriage.
Cohen also argues that American Jews put “rabbis at the top of the symbolic hierarchy.” As a result, “it is logical for rabbinical schools to hold rabbis to higher standards.”
Rabbi Yael Shmilovitz, a recent HUC graduate who gave a controversial senior sermon in favor of intermarriage in 2007, differs sharply with Cohen. Rabbis should serve as role models, she says, but “endogamy is not a value to be emulated.” [The ban on intermarried rabbinical students is a product] of “deep-seated Jewish fears of disappearing. It’s about the reluctance to realize that in order to survive we have to change.”
The non-Jewish wife of a man rejected by HUC is among a number of interviews who put the debate in human terms:
The policy struck her as “a profound injustice. What was most upsetting,” she says, was the implication that because of their intermarriage, “we were incapable of Jewish family modeling. I thought, ‘Have they lit candles with us on a Friday night or sat at our seder table? Do they know I recite the Kiddush from memory each week? Have they tasted my matzo-ball soup or David’s challah?’”