Israel’s refusal to recognize marriages performed by non-Orthodox rabbis is a “shame and lost opportunity,” according to the newly appointed head of the Reform movement’s flagship seminary.
“If you’re going to condemn intermarriage as a shanda [disgrace], then the least you can do is create options for people to be Jewishly connected as a family,” Andrew Rehfeld, the president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, told Haaretz this week. It was his first interview with the Israeli press since taking office in April.
Rehfeld is spending the month in Israel meeting with students and faculty at the HUC campus in Jerusalem – one of the institution’s four campuses and the only one located outside the United States. (HUC also has campuses in New York, Cincinnati and Los Angeles.) A professor of political science who previously served as CEO of the Jewish Federation in St. Louis, Rehfeld is the first leader of the 144-year-old institution never ordained as a rabbi.
Couples who wed in Israel outside the auspices of the Orthodox-controlled Chief Rabbinate cannot register as married. The Chief Rabbinate does not recognize marriages performed by Reform and Conservative rabbis or those of certain progressive Orthodox rabbis. Although this sanction has never been applied, rabbis who perform marriages outside the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate could face prison sentences of up to two years.
Rehfeld described as “needlessly inflammatory” comments made by Rafi Peretz, Israel’s newly appointed education minister, equating intermarriage among Jews in the United States with a “second Holocaust.”
“I think political rhetoric matters,” he said. “I think it’s not okay for someone in a leadership position to use language loosely. It doesn’t mean we don’t make mistakes, but in public statements, we need to be careful. So I’m glad to see that in a letter to Jewish Agency chairman Isaac Herzog, the minister did walk back on his comments.”
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The HUC has trained more than 100 rabbis in Israel, many of them today employed as congregational leaders. Unlike their Orthodox counterparts, however, most of these rabbis are not eligible for state-funded salaries. Indeed, the Ministry of Religious Affairs, as a matter of principle, refuses to call them “rabbis,” using the term “community leaders” instead.
Expressing his disappointment with this discriminatory system, Rehfeld said: “I would expect that any rabbi from the liberal movements would be given as much respect and authority as any other rabbi in this country.”
Born in Baltimore, Rehfeld, 52, grew up in a small town near Atlantic City, New Jersey. Before graduating from the University of Rochester with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, he spent a year studying Hebrew at Kibbutz Ma’ayan Zvi in northern Israel. Rehfeld, who is married to a psychiatrist and has two children, was a professor of political science at Washington University in St. Louis. He succeeded Rabbi Aaron Panken, the former HUC president killed in a plane crash last May.
Rehfeld said he was distressed about ongoing attacks against Reform Judaism in Israel, especially by religious leaders and politicians. “It concerns me when for religious or political reasons, other authentic expressions of Judaism are negated,” he said.