In May, congregants of Temple Emanuel received a letter in the mail from their rabbi. He wanted to share some big news.
"I have decided that it is time to change my long-standing practice, and [I] will now officiate at inter-faith wedding ceremonies," Joe Black wrote.
Up until this year, Black had taken a more conservative stance on interfaith marriage. A rabbi for 32 years and the head of Denver's largest synagogue for nine, Black would only marry two Jews, and if someone in the faith wanted to wed a gentile, that person would have to convert before he would preside over the wedding.
"I felt that my role as a rabbi was to officiate at Jewish ceremonies," he says. "When I've told [couples] no, people who I've loved, people who are close friends, people who are family, that was painful for me to do."
Rabbis in Colorado have been officiating interfaith weddings for more than a decade, but Black's decision is monumental because he oversees one of the oldest and largest synagogues in the state. He says his decision came over ten years of reflection and the fact that interfaith couples are becoming increasingly common. Additionally, he says he's met many interfaith couples that "embody the principles of celebrating Jewish life" and "[become] vital members of the Jewish community."
Black is no longer an outlier among fellow Reform, or more liberal, rabbis, 84 percent of whom perform interfaith marriages, according to a recent study by InterfaithFamily.
To congregants who were attracted to the synagogue for its mostly open-arms approach to members, Black's decision is a step in the right direction.
Matt Zuckerman and his wife, Michelle Prevost, met with a rabbi at Temple Emanuel to discuss their wedding plans in October 2016, just after Zuckerman joined the temple. They didn't know it at the time, but Temple Emanuel's other clergy were expected to fall in with the synagogue leader's views on interfaith marriage. That meant that for as long as Rabbi Black was not officiating interfaith weddings, neither could the rabbi whom Zuckerman and Prevost wanted to officiate their wedding.
During the meeting, Prevost told the rabbi she wasn't going to convert to Judaism.
"You could hear the record scratch," Zuckerman recalls.
Prevost has since decided to convert to Judaism, but that moment sticks with the couple to this day. "We found the temple to be a very welcoming place. That's why the policy was a surprise,'" she says.
"Temple Emanuel has a history of being assertively welcoming to interfaith families. But Rabbi [Steven] Foster [Black's predecessor] would not officiate [interfaith marriages]," says Adam Morris, the rabbi of Temple Micah in Denver, who has been officiating interfaith marriages since 2003. "Given Emanuel's place in Denver's history, it's significant."
Established in 1874, Temple Emanuel's congregation began with just 22 members. In 1882, congregants constructed their building and became the "first major Jewish synagogue in the Denver area," according to the Denver Public Library. One of its first rabbis, William S. Friedman, dedicated himself to interfaith dialogue to promote "better understanding between Jews and non-Jews." Nowadays, Temple Emanuel counts 2,000 member households.
Black says that in the ’80s and ’90s, Foster was at the forefront of reaching out to couples in the synagogue who were of mixed faiths. He started a program called Stepping Stones to a Jewish Me, which helped interfaith couples prepare for their weddings and also facilitated discussions around raising a Jewish family. But there was a disconnect. Interfaith couples were accepted into the congregation, but Foster would not officiate interfaith marriages.
According to Brian Field, a rabbi and founder of Judaism Your Way, an organization that has been performing interfaith marriages in Colorado since 2004, some in the American Jewish community have taken a fatalistic approach to interfaith marriage. "Some people say that intermarriage inevitably leads to an abandonment of Judaism and is kind of like a silent Holocaust that is continuing," he says. Still, at least 44 percent of American Jews are married to non-Jews, according to the Pew Research Center.
For interfaith couples in Colorado that have wanted a Jewish wedding, rabbis like Field, who officiated Zuckerman and Prevost's wedding, and Temple Micah's Morris have been filling the gap.
"Saying no outright to a couple inhibits the potential of that relationship. I do this because I feel and believe that my job is about cultivating relationships," says Morris.
Black won't allow a priest or another religious figure to co-officiate the wedding, the couple has to study with him and commit to fostering a Jewish household and raising their children in the Jewish faith, and he will not officiate a wedding on the Sabbath or a Jewish holiday.
"Some of my closest friends and family members are in interfaith marriages, so I know it's possible," says Black. "And in order for it to be successful, you need to be connected to a congregation. And this is another way to open that door."
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.