Cantor Sarah Freudenberger at a ketubah signing ceremony for an interfaith wedding she officiated in October.

A bold move for a Conservative synagogue: Shirat Hayam’s cantor performs interfaith weddings

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A bold move for a Conservative synagogue: Shirat Hayam’s cantor performs interfaith weddings

Cantor Sarah Freudenberger at a ketubah signing ceremony for an interfaith wedding she officiated in October.

Sarah Freudenberger has spent a lot of time being told “no.”

A year and a half out of college, the “no” came from cantorial schools when she applied for ordination. Months later, when she got engaged, it came from the three rabbis she had worked
with at a Reform temple in Florida, when she asked if they would officiate her wedding.

Both refusals were because – like 42 percent of the married American Jewish population surveyed in a 2020 Pew study – Freudenberger’s spouse is not a Jew. Peter, her husband and the father of her two children, is Buddhist.

Freudenberger now serves as cantor at Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott, and married her husband in 2010. It took time to find a rabbi who would officiate at her interfaith wedding, and it took time to find the right cantorial program that would allow her to get ordained with a non-Jewish spouse.

“It was such a gift to us,” she said of finding a rabbi to do her wedding. “Looking back, I didn’t realize how much it would have affected me personally, how much regret I would have felt, if I hadn’t had a rabbi at my wedding … I can’t untangle my personal experience from my officiant experience. It is the main reason why I know – firsthand – how much of a blessing it is to be able to do that for people.”

Now she passes on this gift to other Jews like her, offering interfaith wedding officiation as Shirat Hayam’s cantor.

Shirat Hayam, an affiliate of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ), has been striving to find ways to include and welcome interfaith families in their community for years. In 2018, Rabbi Michael Ragozin founded the Interfaith Task Force to address an issue identified in the community at that time – non-Jewish spouses of Jewish congregants could not, as it stood, serve on the board of directors. Ultimately, the congregation voted to extend full membership privileges to non-Jewish spouses.

“A couple of generations back, intermarriage was a different phenomenon,” said Ragozin. “[It] may have been more likely to [indicate] walking away from Jewish tradition, Jewish community, raising Jewish kids. But the data today says [otherwise].”

The 2020 Pew survey on American Jews found both that the children of intermarried couples are “increasingly likely” to identify as Jewish as adults; and that, of married couples with minor children, Jews married to other Jews are far more likely than intermarried couples to say they are “raising their children as Jewish by religion.” It’s an issue hotly argued in the Conservative movement.

“Intermarriage and the inclusion of intermarried couples and families are among the most important issues the Conservative- Masorti movement is addressing,” said Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal.

Blumenthal is the joint CEO of the USCJ and the Rabbinical Assembly, two leading organizations of the Conservative-Masorti movement (Masorti is the name of the Conservative movement in Israel/outside of North America).

“Conservative-Masorti rabbis who are members of the Rabbinical Assembly are not authorized to officiate at interfaith wedding ceremonies,” Blumenthal said. “But rather than focusing on intermarriage as a ‘threat’ to Jewish survival – as we did in the mid-20th century – today we are instead exploring ways to engage all couples and families with a Jewish partner in the beauty and meaning of Jewish community and practice.”

In 2020, the USCJ hired Keren McGinity as interfaith specialist – another, like Freudenberger, who has her own personal story of intermarriage. She recently produced an Interfaith Inclusion Guide, a handbook which attests, as Blumenthal put it, to the USCJ’s commitment to “find authentic ways to engage Jews and their beloveds of other faiths and/or cultural backgrounds.

“We have also convened a task force of clergy and lay leaders that will issue a report next year with recommendations on how Conservative-Masorti rabbis and congregations can engage interfaith couples more effectively,” Blumenthal said. “This will align with our mandate to balance tradition and modernity within the framework of halacha [Jewish law].”

Still, as it stands now, rabbis who are members of the Rabbinical Assembly – like Ragozin – risk expulsion should they perform an interfaith wedding. Some rabbis have been expelled or chosen to leave over the matter. Similarly, a congregation could risk disaffiliation from the USCJ should an interfaith wedding be performed on an affiliated synagogue’s property.

Freudenberger, however, was not ordained in the Conservative movement. She was ordained through the Renewal, Philadelphia-based ALEPH Ordination Program in 2022. When she emerged as a leading candidate in Shirat Hayam’s cantor search a few years ago, Ragozin saw an opportunity.

“The lightbulb went off in my head,” he said. “This is how we’re going to signal to the broader Jewish community that’s on the North Shore … to intermarried families, that this is a place in which you belong.”

Before moving ahead with the plan – for a Renewal-ordained cantor to officiate interfaith weddings for the community – Shirat Hayam leaders checked in with the USCJ. The response they got was that that scenario would not require disaffiliation, as long as the service wasn’t held on the congregation’s property.

Blumenthal said that the new task force is examining cases like Shirat Hayam’s, and putting together a report that will “help us frame important questions like the ones that are raised by the practice in Swampscott.”

During the interview process, the cantor search committee asked Freudenberger if she would be willing to officiate interfaith weddings. “That sent me a clear message that the synagogue was interested,” she said. “Not only [that they] wanted to allow it, but [that they were] interested in me doing [interfaith weddings] for the congregation.”

She was hired in 2021.

“We don’t want to be ‘backroom’ about it,” she said. “We want to be open about it … We want to say ‘You’re welcome here, you’re welcome with us, we want you to be a part of our community.’ ”
Since her ordination, Freudenberger has officiated at four weddings – two Jewish-Jewish, and two interfaith.

“People that are coming looking for a Jewish wedding want a Jewish wedding,” she said. “If [our] answer is no, what does that tell them about being Jewish? What does that tell them about being Jewish as a family?”

One Response

  1. The question always remains, by marrying out, which is a terrible trangression of Jewish Law, and a percussor for many more, why do such people still have a desire to have a Jewish ceremony? It’s as foolish as the Reform movement celebrating Hannukah which was partially a win against the Misyavnim, although a Reformed segment of Judaism.

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