Why My Rabbi Had to Leave the Conservative Movement to Officiate My Wedding

When a rabbi can’t marry a rabbi to another Jew, there is something amiss.

I met Rabbi Barry Cytron 15 years ago in the living room of the Hebrew House at Macalester College. I was a junior, just back from a semester abroad, and he was the newly-appointed campus rabbi. Our Jewish community was small but vibrant, and on that Friday night we were packed in tightly for prayer, which is probably why Rabbi Cytron was able to hear me sing. He tapped me on the shoulder, said hello, and asked if I would lead High Holy Day services next fall. Having no idea what that would really mean, I agreed. With his help, I threw myself into studying nusach — liturgical melodies — and deepening my understanding of prayer. A few months later, I stood before my community as a leader and felt fully alive.

When people ask me why I decided to become a rabbi, I often start with this story. There were certainly other moments, before and after college, beckoning me to the rabbinate, but Rabbi Cytron sits at the center. We kept in touch after I graduated, through my time serving in AmeriCorps in the Twin Cities, a year in rural China, a year of major mid-20s discernment, and the six years of rabbinical school that followed. When I was ordained, he flew from Minneapolis to Philly to join my family in celebration, even offering me private blessings alongside my parents during the graduation ceremony. I tell him regularly that he’s my rabbi, and I mean it.

When my fiancé Adami and I got engaged earlier this year, we talked a lot about what kind of rabbi we’d want to officiate our wedding. As a rabbi myself, I know more rabbis than I can count, but Rabbi Cytron just felt right. He was the rabbi I’d been in relationship with the longest, he walked a line between traditional and contemporary that suited my partner and me, and it happened that he and my fiancé shared a hometown. He’d been nothing but congratulatory when I’d shared the news of our engagement. But there was a significant hiccup. Rabbi Cytron was a Conservative rabbi, ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary, and a member of the Rabbinical Assembly (RA). He wasn’t allowed to officiate interfaith marriages. My marriage, according to the Conservative movement, would be interfaith.

So I took a deep breath, and, knowing that the answer would probably need to be no, wrote an email:

To my surprise and delight, Rabbi Cytron wrote back saying that he planned to leave the RA to officiate his own daughter’s wedding later that year, and that he would love to officiate mine as well. I nearly cried as I told Adami the news, but then I found myself giggling at the absurdity of it all.

I’m in the minority of modern Jewish-American marriages, because I’m marrying a Jew. 70% of non-Orthodox Jews (and the majority of American Jews are not Orthodox) marry interfaith these days. My fiancé isn’t religious now, but he was raised in a Jewish Day School and an Orthodox shul, and he was born to a Jewish mother in Jerusalem. His Jewish bona fides are pretty much unquestionable. No no, the “interfaith” piece of our marriage wasn’t my partner. It was me, the rabbi.

As I’ve written about in the past, I’m patrilineal. I was raised in the Reform movement by a Jewish father and a Quaker mother. I attended Jewish preschool and weekly Hebrew school from age 2 to 18, celebrated my bat mitzvah and confirmation, was actively involved in religious life in college (even, you may recall, leading High Holy Day services my senior year), and — oh — went to rabbinical school. I’m currently the rabbi of a flagship Reconstructionist synagogue on the upper west side of Manhattan. I’m Jewish. But, to put it crassly, I’ve never dunked. I never went to the mikveh to formally convert or “affirm” my Jewish status. According to the Reform, Reconstructionist, and Renewal movements of Judaism, I’m a Jew because I have a Jewish parent and was raised Jewish. But to the Conservative movement, and certainly to Orthodox movements, I don’t count as a Jew because I wasn’t born to a Jewish mother. Therefore, to the RA, my wedding — rabbi to Jew — will be interfaith.

One of the qualities I admire most about Rabbi Cytron is his ability to meet each person where they are with just the right level of encouragement to keep growing. As a young adult, I was grateful for all of the ways Rabbi Cytron was present in my life, and for all of the ways that he affirmed me as a Jew and as a Jewish leader. Never once did he suggest that my Jewish identity was lacking. If he had — if, as a college student just coming into my adult Jewish self, I’d been told that my Jewish upbringing wasn’t enough — I don’t know that I would be a rabbi. And I’m not the only one. In the decade that Rabbi Cytron served as campus rabbi, he inspired nine students to go to rabbinical school, which is really saying something considering that US News once ranked Macalester the college with students “most likely to ignore God on a regular basis.”

Still, even knowing how encouraging Rabbi Cytron was of my path, I knew that he would probably never be able to officiate my wedding. I remember thinking in my 20s, long before I met my fiancé, how unfortunate it was that the rabbi I knew best and loved most wouldn’t be able to be my rabbi on one of my most important days.

I didn’t assume that I would end up marrying a Jew (or a man, for that matter). I’m so glad I fell in love with a partner as wonderful as Adami. And I don’t believe that our home is any more inherently Jewish simply because we’re both Jews. What makes our home Jewish is our intentional choice to engage Jewishly, which is exactly what my parents — an interfaith couple — chose to do when I was young, and what so many interfaith couples choose to do today. In our modern world, intentional choice is far more important for religious identity building than the faith either partner brings to the relationship.

In every serious relationship I’ve had, my Judaism has been central. It’s never been a question that I would have Jewish ritual in my home and (eventually) raise Jewish children. In some ways, doing that with a Jew is easier. I don’t have to explain what Rosh Hashanah is or why we light candles on Friday nights. But in other ways it’s just as hard. My fiancé doesn’t believe in God and isn’t all that drawn to ritual. Our approaches to Judaism, and what’s important within Jewish practice, are different. Our shared Jewish life is a reflection of what’s natural and what’s new for both of us.

I don’t envy the Conservative movement’s position of having to try to balance strict adherence to Jewish law with the sociological evolution of the United States. I do know that when movement policy means a rabbi can’t marry a rabbi to another Jew, there is something amiss. I know that interfaith families are the present and future of every progressive Jewish movement, and the choice of the Conservative movement to bar its rabbis from fully celebrating those marriages is harmful. I know that my rabbi shouldn’t have to leave the movement he’s been a part of for his whole life — 80 years — to perform his daughter’s wedding, and my own. And I know that, by choosing welcome and love and connection at every opportunity, Rabbi Cytron is making the Jewish world better. May I be so worthy as to grow into a rabbi like him.

Rabbi Emily Cohen

Rabbi Emily Cohen is a rabble-rousing rabbi and artist. She's usually found in Brooklyn with her partner, cat, and lots of coffee. You can keep up with her latest at www.rabbiemilycohen.com.

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