Why Does My Interfaith Relationship Disqualify Me From Rabbinical School?

The Reform movement welcomes interfaith families, yet apparently I'm still not qualified to lead just because of who I love.

I’ve wanted to be a rabbi since I was 14. I didn’t — and still don’t — know entirely what to think about divinity or halacha (Jewish law) or how to approach 4,000 years of Jewish history, but I knew that nothing felt better than existing in Jewish spaces. My rabbi growing up was like a second mother to me, and my classmates from diverse Jewish backgrounds were my siblings. My synagogue provided more consistency in my childhood than almost anything else, and as a ninth-grader, I knew that I wanted to be a part of that forever — and to provide that for other people.

These plans were not challenged when I came out as queer, both in gender and sexuality and as I’ve medically transitioned, nor were they contested as I’ve explored romantic relationships with people of different genders, both Jewish and non-Jewish. In fact, I have been consistently praised by my community for “being an example of what the future of Judaism can look like” and told that I am a natural-born leader. So on I went to become a regional songleader in NFTY SoCal, then a camp counselor, and now a Jewish educator with a degree in Judaic Studies that I plan on taking to rabbinical school, as has been the plan since I became b’nei mitzvah.

Having just graduated from college this August, I began to seriously look at rabbinical schools that I might want to apply to. My first choice was Hebrew Union College, the Reform rabbinical school that has produced many incredible and accepting rabbis who have been instrumental in my personal Jewish journey. I actually started looking into this school when I was 15, and when I entered my freshman year of college, I friended the admissions director on Facebook just to be safe.

This time was a more serious “looking into,” so I went to HUC’s website to read application requirements — and I was immediately crushed. I almost started crying as I read that the school “…will only admit, graduate or ordain candidates who, if in a committed long-term relationship, are in such a relationship with a Jewish partner.” All my life, my community had told me that no matter who you are or who you love, you are equal in our community and according to the Divine. But now it feels like I’ve been betrayed, lied to, misled.

I thought of the non-Jewish and very queer man that I am in a loving, committed partnership with currently. I thought of how he encourages me to go to Torah study on Zoom every Tuesday afternoon and remembers to arrange his schedule so we can light Shabbat candles together on Friday evenings. He has helped me set and clean up every event that I have planned as a board member of our local synagogue’s Queer Chavurah (the LGBTQ+ equivalent of the Brotherhood and Sisterhood at the Reconstructionist congregation where I teach and serve on the QC board) and put the mezuzot on each doorframe in our shared home. I thought of how he supports my commitment to my faith and my people every day by reaffirming that who I am does not have to conflict with who I love; that we as queer people and an interfaith couple do not need to sacrifice our happiness or love for the comfort of others.

Then I thought about my friend, the daughter of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother, whose family was routinely shunned from Jewish communities which led to her being raised secularly. As an adult, she has reinvested herself in Jewish life but has time and time again been told that she does not belong because her mother is not a Jew. Perhaps the worst of these emotional assaults was what I witnessed this past December, when we were studying together at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. A Jewish man had the audacity to say that intermarriage was “finishing Hitler’s work by destroying the Jewish people through assimilation.” In one breath, this man accused my friend’s parents and me of being murderers and claimed that this woman who is dedicating her life to honoring her Judaism is not a Jew. I assured her that in our community she was safe; she is equal and she is one of us, no matter what. But now I’m not so sure if that’s true.

Upon learning of Hebrew Union College’s policy, I took to Twitter to vent my frustration, expecting my few followers to “like” my tweet. I was immensely surprised to see that within 24 hours, nearly 1,000 people had responded. In one day, I had people harassing me to make my boyfriend convert, saying I’m not really a Jew, that I’m uneducated or undedicated to my Judaism, and a number of other offensive and untrue accusations. Many critics cited a study claiming that children of interfaith couples are less likely to live Jewish lives, but it does not account for adult children who seek out Judaism later in life or define what “Jewish life” even means. I responded to these critics that we need to change how we as Jews approach interfaith issues; perhaps if we stopped alienating these families and making their children feel invalidated, they might want to stick around more. That if we had clergy that represents human and Jewish complexity, including LGBTQ+ and interfaith clergy, they might feel like there is a place for them in our community.

But for every negative comment, I had hundreds of people sending love and support, thanking me for publicly speaking about the bigotry that they have experienced and saying that they can’t wait to come to my congregation (when it exists). Rabbi Adam Allenberg, the admissions director of HUC, also reached out to me, kindly offering to hear my concerns and talk about my interest in the school. After speaking for an hour on Zoom, we ended up agreeing on most of the issues about why such a policy is problematic and how it can actually harm our community. He assured me that there are voices within the school — alumni, students, and staff — who continue to raise concerns about this policy and who wish to see it amended and/or removed, but that such a change requires a thoughtful review and comment process. When reached out for comment specifically about this article, he added, “There are many voices, as well, who wish to see the policy remain exactly as it is. While the majority of the American Jewish community does not take issue with such relationships, and many parts of the community actively welcome such families, this consensus does not seem to extend to Jewish clergy in the same numbers.”

I don’t expect every rabbinic school to accept candidates in interfaith relationships, contrary to the beliefs of many angry Orthodox folks on Twitter. I would never dream of asking a more traditionally halachic movement to accept me, a queer 20-year-old in a relationship with a non-Jew, as a rabbinical candidate. However, given that the Reform movement has outwardly stated that interfaith families are welcome in the pews and their checks are welcome in Torah schools, I would expect the Reform movement to consider me as a suitable leader within their movement.

Because you can say that these families are equal and welcome, but true equality means equal access to resources and positions of power. If I, a qualified candidate based on my experience, degree, and knowledge, am no longer eligible because of who I love, then I am not equal. This hypocrisy within the movement stings more than homophobic insults and anti-Semitic slurs that I have been assaulted with. When I have been discriminated against before, the Jewish community was there for me. Now it is among my own people that I no longer feel secure for something that I have always been taught was to be accepted at all costs: love.

Header image: Kubkoo/Getty images.

Ezra Samuels

Ezra Samuels (they/them/theirs) is a recent graduate from the University of Oregon where they earned their bachelor’s degree in Judaic studies. They work in childcare and Jewish education with their sights set on the rabbinate and they are a member of Elite Dance Company in Eugene, Oregon.

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