Rabbi Howard Tilman of Congregation Beth Israel in Scotch Plains has been selected as a member of the fourth cohort of the Rukin Rabbinic Fellowship, an 18-month, one-of-a-kind learning opportunity created and sponsored by 18Doors.
The fellowship allows a small group of rabbis to become more comfortable and skilled working with people in interfaith relationships. Rabbi Tillman will join 25 other rabbis in exploring a wide array of topics related to these issues.
18Doors is a one-stop shop of resources for all aspects of Jewish life that can be adapted to interfaith couples. “The website, 18doors.org, has everything from basic information about Judaism to conversation starters for people in interfaith relationships, to personal accounts of experiences and much, much more,” Rabbi Robyn Frisch of Villanova, Pennsylvania, the director of the Rukin Rabbinic Fellowship, said.
18Doors is committed to working with interfaith couples, their children, and grandparents. Its online resources include a wedding planning guide, printer-ready inclusive wedding programs, and a script builder for interfaith couples who are not being married by Jewish clergy but still want to incorporate Jewish elements into their ceremonies.
18Doors isn’t limited to weddings, instead including information on all aspects of Jewish life — bar and bat mitzvahs, funerals, unveilings, baby namings, conversions, and couples counseling. Its referral services help interfaith couples find rabbis and cantors who will work with them. “We want interfaith couples to be connected with Jewish clergy who celebrate what they’re doing, not clergy who will say no to them,” Rabbi Frisch said. She believes that diversity and inclusion are good for the Jewish people and is committed to helping individuals, couples, and families of all kinds to feel comfortable doing Jewish things and engaging with the Jewish community.
In an email interview, Rabbi Tilman talked about how changes in Jewish life brought him to 18Doors. “I have been active in the Conservative movement for my entire life and have experienced these changes in several ways,” he said. “When I applied to rabbinical school in 2009, I mentioned that intermarriage seems to be a viewpoint that’s changing for many people. I was a little bit worried that even mentioning that crossed a line, but thankfully it did not prove to be an obstacle.”
The conversation he’ll be continuing within the cohort began in rabbinical school, he continued. When he was a student, “we had several conversations among our class discussing whether officiating at interfaith weddings was right or wrong. At the time, seeking to show our halachic worth and our rabbinic standards, most of us agreed that we would never be comfortable officiating at such weddings.
“But as is often the case, things look very different in theory than in practice.”
Rabbi Tilman has spent nine years working in two Conservative synagogues and has been in several real-life situations that have led him to reconsider his views. “Congregants who want me to officiate at their child’s wedding; member families who want both Jewish and non-Jewish parents involved at b’nai mitzvah celebrations; even something as simple as including news of engagements in synagogue newsletters,” he said. “In many of these situations, I’ve struggled to find a reason to say no.”
On the question of non-Jewish parents coming up to the bimah when their children become b’nai mitzvah, he’s clear. Both parents are involved in raising their children, he said, and both have been involved in preparing them for becoming b’nai mitzvah, “so yes, you both can stand there as your child is called to the Torah.
“Finding ways to say ‘yes’ seems like a much more respectful solution that reflects most of our values as well.”
But he’s not comfortable with everything, he said. “The one line I’ve found I’m not ready to cross yet is the question of officiating at wedding ceremonies.
“As it stands now, I’m not permitted to do so due to standards set by the Rabbinical Assembly” — the organization for Conservative rabbis — “but if that expectation changes, I’m not sure how I would react.
“I still feel that my rabbinic ordination qualifies me to officiate and sanctify a Jewish wedding, but can that apply if one partner is not Jewish? I know that many interfaith families have found ways of living richly engaged Jewish lives, but I still hope that Jewish families can be wholly embracing of our traditions and communities.
“Don’t I need to reflect that aspiration in my practice?”
Rabbi Tilman hopes that by participating in the Rukin rabbinic cohort, he’ll be able to refine and challenge his viewpoints by engaging in conversations with colleagues who find themselves not only in similar situations, but also in drastically different ones. “Every decision I’ve made thus far has been based on real life situations, so I hope that exposing myself to more situations will help me understand what my views and comfort levels truly are,” he said.
The fellowship begins in mid-October with the first of two retreats. It includes monthly webinars with leaders in the field of interfaith inclusion as well as other ways to discuss the issues.
Members of the cohort chose the topics of small, targeted discussion groups; they’ve focused on officiation, who can sit on synagogue boards, other synagogue policies, and how to work with families practicing more than one religion in their home. They bring real-life cases to the group as they learn from and for the real world.
Each member of the cohort will be expected to come up with a capstone project as a culmination of the fellowship. They’ll create curricula, write articles for Jewish press, or assemble more resources for interfaith families.
Rabbi Tilman already is seeing changes.
“Over the six years at my current synagogue, we have already begun including announcements of interfaith weddings in our newsletters,” he said. “We have worked to create additional ways for non-Jewish parents to participate when their child becomes b’nai mitzvah. A few years ago, I officiated at our first interfaith aufruf. We have recently updated our membership structure and bylaws to be more inclusive of interfaith families.
“All these decisions were received well and felt good in the moment. But I don’t know what the future holds for any of us. I am hoping to lead my congregation in thinking through these matters in the coming years, and I know that the guidance and experience from across a rabbinic cohort will help me prepare for that process.”
As a 2023 Rukin rabbinic fellow, Rabbi Tilman will learn alongside colleagues from across the United States, and one from Toronto. The fellows in the cohort were ordained by the Academy for Jewish Religion, the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, Hebrew College, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Jewish Theological Seminary; and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.
Often teachers become students. Rabbi Frisch has found that happens to her as she leads the fellowship.
“Working with the fellows has changed not just my policies for working with interfaith couples, but also how I work with Jewish-Jewish couples,” she said. “For example, I always told couples that they should use kosher white wine at their wedding.
“The white wine was the first thing I learned about in my first practical rabbinics class, back in 1995,” she elaborated. “It should be white in case it spills.
“But talking with the fellows made me realize that requiring kosher wine — made only by Sabbath-observant Jews — for couples where one partner isn’t Jewish felt offensive. And if it’s offensive for interfaith couples, and I don’t oppose interfaith relationships, why should I insist that Jewish-Jewish couples use kosher wine at their wedding?
“So now I explain to all the couples I marry that what makes wine kosher is that nobody who isn’t Jewish has been involved in the making of the wine, and I let them make their own decision as to whether they want to use kosher wine.
“I still highly recommend that they use white wine,” she added.
“Another thing I started doing with interfaith couples a few years ago was that if the couple wanted, I’d meet with the couple and their parents a few weeks before the wedding. I did this because in many cases the parents of the partner who isn’t Jewish had never met a rabbi before, perhaps had never been to a Jewish wedding, and may be struggling with their child’s decision to marry someone of a different religion — just as many Jewish parents do — and to have Jewish clergy officiate their wedding.
“It turned out that I found this to be so beneficial that I now offer to do it with Jewish-Jewish couples as well,” she continued. “Throughout the fellowship, we encourage the fellows to look at their personal policies and boundaries when it comes to people in interfaith relationships and determine where they might be open to change.”
Learn more about 18Doors at 18doors.org.