Temple Emanuel
Denver, Colorado

Letters to Congregation

My Dear Friends,

This May I am celebrating the 31st Anniversary of my ordination as a Rabbi. A great deal has changed since I entered the Rabbinate. Reform Judaism is considered by many to be the largest and most successful American Jewish religious movement. Over the past 3 decades, we have championed many important innovations that have radically transformed Jewish life such as:

·         The role of women leadership on the pulpit and in congregations
·         Affirming Patrilineal lineage as a legitimate definition of “Who is a Jew?”
·         Welcoming interfaith households into our communities
·         Outreach to Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered Jews
·         Harnessing the transforming power of music in worship
·         Increased investment in Jewish summer camps and Israel programs
·         Continuing to be a voice of conscience in our nation’s capital
·         Fighting for equality for Liberal Judaism in Israel
·         And many more innovations that cannot be listed in this space.

I am proud to be both a Reform Rabbi and a Reform Jew and I am especially blessed to be able to serve Temple Emanuel. Over the years, our congregation has grappled with many important issues and understood that change – while sometimes difficult – is an essential component of healthy growth.

One area of Temple life that has remained consistent over the years has been that of freedom of the pulpit. From our founding 143 years ago to today, our congregational leadership has made it clear that decisions regarding religious practice are the exclusive prerogative of the clergy. This has not and will not change. And yet, when it becomes clear that change is necessary, I have learned that vital and proactive conversation with congregational leadership is an essential part of the decision-making process. As such, whenever I have contemplated a major change in long-standing congregational practice, I have reached out to trusted leaders to engage their counsel and advice. I am a better rabbi because of this practice.

I tell you this because, after a long period of study, reflection and conversation, I have decided that it is time to change my long-standing practice and will now officiate at inter-faith wedding ceremonies.

My past reasons for non-officiation were based on how I perceived my role in facilitating a Jewish wedding. I felt that I could only officiate if both partners were Jewish. I no longer believe this to be true. In the past, there were many times that I sat with wonderful interfaith couples who wanted nothing more than to partner with me in creating and sharing in a Jewish ceremony that would set the stage for a Jewish home. Try as I might to explain to these couples that the fact that I chose not to officiate should not be perceived as a rejection of their love, commitment and connection to our congregation and people, often my refusal was interpreted as slamming a doorway into Jewish life.  The hurt, anger and rejection that many felt was palpable. All too often, this perceived rejection led to an abandonment of both the synagogue and Jewish life – as well as assuring that many children would not receive a Jewish Education.

Given that recent statistics about intermarriage in the non-Orthodox Jewish world show that anywhere from 50-80% of Jews intermarry, part of my decision to officiate is based on accepting the reality that if I do not officiate, there will be fewer and fewer opportunities to expose couples (and their children) to the joys of Jewish life. In addition, important demographic studies over the past several years have shown that the presence of a rabbi under the Chuppah at an interfaith wedding ceremony greatly increases the probability that the couple will have a Jewish home. But the most compelling reason for changing my position are the hundreds of interfaith households that I have come to know and love over the years who embody the principles of celebrating Jewish life and becoming vital members of the Jewish community.

Temple rabbis and cantors will be able to make their own choices about officiation. I will, however, set up the following criteria for our clergy to officiate:

·         Both partners must affirm their commitment to establishing a Jewish home and raising Jewish children.
·         Any ceremony performed by a member of Temple Emanuel clergy must be exclusively Jewish. There will be no co-officiation with non-Jewish clergy.
·         In keeping with our current policy, no weddings will be performed on Shabbat and/or holidays.
·         Also in keeping with current policy, every couple will be required to undergo a process of pre-marital counseling that will focus on healthy relationship building, creating a meaningful ceremony and providing resources for building a strong Jewish Home together.

I know that some of you will welcome these changes and others will not. I am happy to speak to anyone who wishes to talk further about them. Please know that I did not come to this decision lightly. It was based on many years of soul-searching, study and conversation. I also did not make this change because of any external pressure. The decision was entirely my own.

Thank you for the privilege of serving as your Rabbi. I do not take this blessing for granted. In just a few days we will be celebrating the festival of Shavuot – where we will relive the experience of standing at the foot of Mt. Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. Judaism teaches that Torah is not static. We have survived as a people for over 4,000 years because of our ability to both cherish and question our traditions. I believe that careful and considerate change makes us stronger – as a people, a community and a congregation.

I look forward to seeing you soon.

L’shalom (In peace),
Rabbi Joseph R. Black


Dear Fellow Congregants,

In the life of a Reform Jewish congregation, most change is incremental.  Liturgy and music evolve; programs are created, tweaked and eliminated; clergy, staff and trustees come and go.  It’s all part of the natural rhythm of most religious institutions.  But every now and then, a congregation is presented with the opportunity to make radical, fundamental change.  I believe that Temple Emanuel faces such a moment right now. 

In his enclosed letter to our congregation, Rabbi Black eloquently states the case for his decision to begin officiating at inter-faith wedding ceremonies.  I believe his letter speaks for itself.  However, due to the vital importance of this decision to the future of our congregation, and because we understand that some of you may be uncomfortable with the decision, Rabbi Black and I felt it was important for you to hear from your board of trustees directly about this matter.

First, as Rabbi Black highlights in his letter, our governing policies affirm that freedom of the pulpit has always been, is, and will continue to be an essential aspect of our institution.  This means that as long as our Senior Rabbi acts in accordance with our mission and does not exceed certain management limitations imposed by the board of trustees, the Senior Rabbi has final authority in all spiritual, educational and religious matters.  Our board has clearly granted Rabbi Black the power to make this decision and we affirm and support him in this decision.

I know that this was a difficult decision for Rabbi Black.  He made it only after a great deal of contemplation and consultation with individuals both inside and outside our congregation.  Rabbi Black formally advised the board of his decision, presented his letter at our last board meeting, and asked for feedback from the trustees.  While some questions were asked by individual trustees about the specifics of the new policy, the consensus of the board is that Rabbi Black’s decision to officiate at inter-faith weddings is an exciting, positive change that better aligns our life-cycle practices with our values as a congregation.

Finally, as Rabbi Black also points out, each member of our clergy is free to make his or her own decision about inter-faith officiation.  Steve Brodsky, as our cantorial soloist, will also decide on his own whether to co-officiate with clergy at inter-faith weddings.  However, it’s important to note that since Steve is not an ordained cantor, he will not officiate any weddings by himself. 

Neither I nor Rabbi Black have any illusions that this change will be universally accepted among our congregants.  Speaking personally, my own view on interfaith weddings has evolved over many years, and I now agree with Rabbi Black that it is the right thing for us to do.  But we also know that some of you may not agree, and we understand and respect your concerns.  I do hope, though, that you will appreciate that Rabbi Black is making this change in good faith with the complete support of the board of trustees.   If you would like to discuss this matter further, please contact Rabbi Black directly.

Sincerely,

Mark Idelberg
Board President