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I Used To think Jews Should Marry Jews, Now I Officiate Interfaith Weddings

My journey to becoming a rabbi who officiates interfaith marriages wasn’t straightforward, and early in my career I said “no” to engaged couples. I felt that I had to uphold a tradition, and relied on “numbers” to show me the importance of Jewish people only marrying Jewish people.

I grew up in the suburbs of St. Louis in the 1980s and 1990s, surrounded by Jews. My grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins didn’t live far. All of my parents’ closest friends were Jews. And at my public school, my best friends were also Jews.

We were involved in our Reform synagogue and celebrated Jewish life at home. I was surrounded by Jewish culture. We talked about Israel at the table and our parents expected my brother, sister and me to travel there as teens. While I knew some kids from school or synagogue who had one parent who wasn’t Jewish, interfaith marriage was not something I really thought about.

I majored in Jewish Studies in college, was involved with Hillel and spent my junior year abroad in Israel. I applied to Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC) in 2002 and was accepted. I learned about interfaith marriage and I studied the 1990 survey of American Jews in a Jewish sociology class. I was taught interfaith marriage means fewer American Jews.

At HUC in Cincinnati, I don’t remember discussing interfaith marriage except in sociological terms. I don’t recall having debates about officiation (let alone ordination of fellow students in interfaith marriages). I knew some of my classmates chose to officiate marriages of a Jew and someone who was not Jewish, but I relied on what I was taught (“the numbers). Plus, at the time, I thought I was upholding a tradition of what Jewish marriage was (even though my Reform movement has already evolved in its notion of Jewish marriage).

I didn’t struggle with the question of interfaith marriage as a young rabbi because the senior rabbis were sent the interfaith couples (“mixed” they would say). I was also an associate rabbi at a synagogue in a city where no Reform rabbis officiated interfaith marriages.

I did have my own struggle when two of my dearest friends asked me to officiate at their wedding, and when an aunt asked my mom if she should approach me about my cousin’s wedding. I said no to both requests. I believed I was upholding something.

As my career progressed, I got to know families with parents in interfaith relationships. I was with them at the baby namings and on the bima, at the hospital bed and by the grave. I was with all types of Jewish families trying to find meaning in our chaotic world through our shared tradition. These Jewish families were not just numbers in a survey. They were souls striving for holiness. My thinking began to change.

When I was hired as the rabbi at Temple B’nai Or in Morristown, New Jersey, in the summer of 2019, something finally clicked for me. Everyone, Jewish and Jewish adjacent, has their own story—their path to holiness—and I realized it is my role to help them along that path. A couple who asks me to officiate their wedding wants Jewish language and traditions to guide the love that brought them together. And I could finally say that I was honored to do that for them.

Being a part of the second cohort of Rukin Rabbinic Fellowship with 18Doors over the last two years has helped me open my heart even further to hear everyone’s story. I learn from scholars and colleagues in the field who influence me to rethink my assumptions about who and what constitutes “the Jewish community.” 18Doors has helped me think about a Jewish future that isn’t trapped in history, and instead grows from our past.

Michael holding a guitar at his congregation.

Two of my congregants—both of whom aren’t Jewish and are raising Jewish families with a Jewish partner—recently came to me with an idea of honoring interfaith families during a Shabbat service at Temple B’nai Or. I knew it had to be focused on hearing the stories of our families. We put out the word that we wanted to hear stories of interfaith families, and people sent them to us. During the service, we had people of all backgrounds reading the words of our congregants. Words of feeling welcome and words of feeling alienated. Words of struggle and words of spiritual fulfillment. Laughter and tears echoed in the sanctuary. We heard the words of our neighbors, our family members, our friends. This is our Jewish community.

This was Shabbat P’kudei, the last Torah portion of Sefer Sh’mot—the Book of Exodus. At the end of the parashah, God’s Presence comes to dwell in the sanctuary our ancestors built in the wilderness. That night I felt a Presence, and I thought of the words of the prophet Isaiah who dreamt about the Temple in Jerusalem being an open place for everyone searching for holiness. As he puts it, “a house of prayer for all peoples.” All people in their individuality with their own stories. Our Jewish story has room for this diversity. It is only made richer because of it.

Rabbi Michael Satz

Rabbi Michael Satz is the rabbi of Temple B’nai Or in Morristown, NJ. Ordained by HUC-JIR in 2007, he has served communities in Cherry Hill, NJ, San Diego, CA, and Toronto, ON, but his native St. Louis is always in his heart. Rabbi Satz studies and teaches about the literature and practice of Mussar, the Jewish study of virtue. He also loves to play classic country songs on guitar and until a recent knee injury, practice the Israeli martial art of Krav Maga. He is married to Rabbi Janice Elster and together they have two boys, Eitan and Ami.