New fellowship aims to reach multifaith couples

Rabbi Karen Bogard of Central Reform Congregation was one of 11 rabbis selected for the InterfaithFamily Rukin Rabbinic Fellowship Program. 

By Eric Berger, Associate Editor

About three years ago, Rabbi Karen Bogard had to make an uncomfortable decision. 

She had received a request from a cousin who had been Bogard’s maid of honor. The cousin wanted Bogard to officiate at her wedding. But for Bogard, there was an issue: Her cousin was marrying someone who was not Jewish. 

And Bogard had just started working at a Conservative synagogue; that Jewish movement does not allow its rabbis to perform interfaith weddings.

So Bogard had to tell her cousin no.

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“It was probably one of the hardest things I have had to do,” said  Bogard, 35. “Whereas I thought in theory I would be fine not doing multifaith weddings, in reality, it’s not who I am, and it broke my heart to have to tell her no.”

Bogard has since left the synagogue and now works at Central Reform Congregation in the Central West End. 

She is also dedicating herself to making interfaith couples and families feel welcome in the Jewish community and was selected earlier this year to participate in the InterfaithFamily Rukin Rabbinic Fellowship Program. 

During the two-year program, which includes a stipend, she and rabbis in 10 other cities will organize meetups for interfaith couples and workshops for couples to discuss how they want to incorporate their religious traditions into their lives. 

“We believe that ultimately, as a result of the fellowship’s impact on rabbis and interfaith couples, the Jewish community as a whole will become more welcoming and inclusive, and more interfaith couples will connect with the Jewish community and make Jewish choices,” Rabbi Robyn Frisch, the director of the fellowship, wrote on eJewishPhilanthropy.com.

The 2013 Pew Research Center study of American Jews found that among Jews who had married since 2005, almost six in 10 had a non-Jewish spouse. 

In response to the trend, the number of rabbis in the Reform movement who officiate at Reform weddings has gradually increased in recent decades. In 2012, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Reform rabbinical group, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that about half of its 2,000 rabbis perform interfaith weddings.

But there has long been a debate among non-Orthodox rabbis about how best to keep Jews marrying outside the faith involved with the Jewish community without diluting Jewish traditions.

Orthodox rabbis do not officiate at interfaith weddings; the Conservative movement in 2017 reasserted its ban on rabbis performing intermarriages but, in a letter, called on its clergy to “go out of their way to create multiple opportunities for deep and caring relationships between the couple and the rabbi.”

Bogard attended the Reform rabbinical seminary and, as a student, co-officiated with a Quaker minister at a multifaith wedding.

“It felt good, but there are some rabbis who fall on either side of the line,” said Bogard, who is married to Rabbi Daniel Bogard, who also works at Central Reform. 

Karen Bogard said some Reform rabbis don’t perform interfaith weddings because the Jewish liturgy for the ceremony does not include wording for a non-Jewish person.

“I’m not saying rabbis don’t have very good, heartfelt reasons for their answers, but I think it’s hard for these couples, when they hear this response, they feel judged or they feel alienated,” she said. 

In addition to now being willing and able to officiate at interfaith weddings, Bogard plans to hold a four-week class in June for multifaith couples called Love and Religion. 

“I will be facilitating conversations about questions like, what are the blessings of being in a multifaith couple? What are the challenges? What are you looking for in support from your family? And how do you get support from your family?” said Bogard, who next year will lead programs geared toward multifaith families.

“I think there has been a lack of programming for these kinds of families. They discuss different issues like, how do you have both Christmas and Hanukkah in a household? … And there are lots of really important discussions that they are having that I feel that we could help with.”

About a year after her cousin’s wedding, Bogard called her to tell her that she was leaving the Conservative congregation and to apologize for not officiating the wedding. 

Her cousin never got upset with her, but Bogard thinks, “If I had been able to say yes, it would have been a very different relationship that they would have with Judaism.”

Bogard is preparing to officiate at a wedding alongside a Lutheran minister. The clergy have met to create a ceremony that “takes the most important pieces from a Jewish wedding and the most important pieces from a Lutheran wedding and creates an outline of how it could look.”

She explained the goal is “removing those pieces that would seem uncomfortable to someone who isn’t Jewish because they aren’t bound to the laws of Moses and Israel and coming at it from a language of love.”