OTTAWA — At Temple Israel, Ottawa’s only Reform congregation, the times, they are a’changing.
In addition to performing same-sex marriages and permitting interfaith burials, Rabbi Steven Garten is now performing interfaith weddings at the synagogue.
The first such wedding, which took place in April, just happened to be that of the daughter and son-in-law of congregational president, Lorne Rachlis, and his wife, Louise.
The decision, however, was a long time coming, as Rabbi Garten had already performed interfaith marriages at venues other than the temple
“Three years ago, I gave a sermon on Rosh Hashanah saying it was time to take our heads out of the sand, that we had all tried our best to preserve the Jewish people by not participating in intermarriage. The statistics indicated that it was not working for non-Orthodox. In fact, intermarriage rates were increasing,” said Rabbi Garten.
He said that he felt that although the stated aim of the temple is to be welcoming and inclusive, the message that was really being sent was “we are happy you are getting married, but we want nothing to do with you before you are married and then we will charge you an arm and a leg to join the synagogue after you marry elsewhere… nobody could figure out where all our young people were!”
Many congregants agreed that change was necessary. The process of making a formal decision began with a task force being struck. Next, a number of focus groups were organized to give temple members an opportunity to voice their opinions.
“There was an overwhelming sense that this is something the congregation should do, but not an overwhelming agreement about how to do it,” Rabbi Garten said.
He noted that couples must take classes on Jewish life, theology and practice before they get married.
A few members have left the temple over the new policy, but, according to Rabbi Garten, they weren’t opposed to him officiating at interfaith nuptials. Rather, they felt the synagogue should be preserved as a sacred space and those marriages should take place elsewhere.
Rachlis said one-third of the shul’s nearly 400 member families are interfaith couples, so the matter is of utmost importance.
The children of those families are more likely to be raised Jewish if the parents were married at the temple and welcomed into temple life, he said.
An important consideration in making the decision to perform interfaith marriages at the synagogue is to allow the children of members to remain in their familiar faith community and to celebrate their important day in a place of importance to their family, Rachlis said.
His daughter, Diana Rachlis, the first bride to be married to a non-Jewish partner under the chupah at Temple Israel, expressed these exact sentiments.
“I grew up here, had my bat mitzvah here. My whole family is tied to the temple, and I have warm and happy memories of temple,” she said.
She said her husband, Dan Harvey, was very happy to be married there as well. He has been attending classes and enjoys learning about Judaism and its traditions. He is thinking very seriously about converting and will, in the meantime, enjoy participating in temple services and activities.