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Debatable: Should Our Seminary Admit Students with Non-Jewish Partners?

Daniel Kirzane

In 1999, the Central Conference of American Rabbis affirmed that the Reform Movement is “an inclusive community, opening doors to Jewish life to [all]…who strive to create a Jewish home.” Our Reform seminary, the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, should be the greatest exemplar of this ideal, yet it will not admit any applicant who is “engaged, married, or partnered/committed to a person not Jewish by birth or conversion.”

This policy is antithetical to our Movement’s essential focus on welcoming and Outreach. The Union for Reform Judaism’s Outreach brochure opens with, “Intermarried? Reform Judaism welcomes you” and explains: “The prophet Isaiah said: ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples’ (Isaiah 56:7). We know from the Torah that from the very earliest days, there have been individuals who lived with the Jewish community but who were not themselves Jewish.…You are welcome.”

Outreach is no longer about “turning the tide of intermarriage,” as it was 35 years ago. Today it is about embracing both Jewish and non-Jewish members of Jewish families, affirming their positive contributions to our congregations and religious schools.

I am a child of one of these families, as are many of my classmates. My parents modeled how to build a Jewish family with non-Jewish members, and I have followed their example by building a home committed to the Jewish values of activism, spirituality, and prayer. But had I chosen to build this home with a non-Jewish partner, I would not have been allowed even to apply to be a rabbinical student at HUC-JIR.

I urge the Hebrew Union College to make good on the Reform Movement’s commitment to Outreach by changing its policy and opening its doors to all who strive to create a Jewish home and serve the Jewish people.

Daniel Kirzane is a rabbinical student at HUC-JIR in New York City. Last October he delivered a sermon at HUC-JIR entitled, “Open the Door: Our Reform Duty to Open HUC-JIR to Applicants and Students with Non-Jewish Partners.”


Brandon Bernstein

To what Jewish values should we hold our future clergy and educators accountable? Currently, applicants to HUC-JIR (the Reform Movement’s seminary) are not held to any standards of theological belief, ritual observance, or life choices, except for one: an agreement not to be “engaged, married, or partnered/committed to a person not Jewish by birth or conversion.” This policy is therefore crucial for its significant symbolic value—it is the one and only commitment to living a Jewish life expected by HUC of future Reform rabbis, cantors, educators, and communal workers.

As professional Reform leaders “to be,” we have the freedom of individual choice in our Jewish practice, but we also have a covenantal responsibility to God, Torah, and Israel that extends beyond the self. I do not think it is unreasonable to ask a future Jewish exemplar to choose a Jewish spouse or partner for the sake of this covenant.

While it truly pains me to hear stories of those denied admission because of the current policy, I do not believe that the hardships they describe are sufficient to justify a change in HUC’s policy. Rather, I hope these anecdotes open the door to a Movement-wide conversation that positively articulates the Jewish values to which our leaders and congregations ought to strive. We need to have this difficult conversation before any policy change is considered.

The Babylonian Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 29b) tells of an instance when Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai convinced his colleagues to blow the shofar on Shabbat (prohibited at the time). Afterward, the rabbis attempt to start a discussion as to whether this should be a regular occurrence, but Yochanan promptly quashes the conversation, stating: “The shofar has already been sounded…and we do not discuss after a precedent [has been set].” Do we truly wish to follow Yochanan’s example?

Let us not blow the shofar on this issue prematurely. Instead, let us join in conversation to articulate a common vision for a Jewish future that balances our personal choices with our covenantal obligations.

Brandon Bernstein, a rabbinical student at HUC-JIR in NY, is the Reform Rabbinic Fellow at Columbia/Barnard Hillel.