The trainee rabbi who sees hope in mixed marriages

The Jewish community should make interfaith couples welcome, says Lex Rofeberg, who is a partner in one himself


Like  many American Jews, Lex Rofeberg is in a mixed-faith marriage. But unlike most, he is studying to be a rabbi.

While intermarriage is typically viewed as a threat to the diaspora, he views it rather as an opportunity, which can add to the diversity of modern Jewish life.

“Having lived in a relationship like mine, and been in touch with a lot of other people in similar kinds of relationships, we do ourselves a disservice if we think the axis of good/bad Jewish relationships are, on the one hand, those that are with Jews, and on the other, those that are with non-Jews. It’s not helpful to see things that way.”

At 29, he is on the frontier of American Jewry, one half of the organisation Judaism Unbound, which has recoreded 200 podcasts on innovation and new ideas in the world’s largest diaspora community. His Unbound partner Dan Libenson was at Limmud too.

From a Reform family in Milwaukee that went to synagogue every few weeks, Mr Rofeberg, 29, says that what most shaped his Jewish outlook were non-denominational organisations such as summer camp and the youth movement BBYO. “College is when the floodgates opened, I participated in every Jewish thing on campus - Hillel, Jewish fraternity. I majored in Jewish studies.”

His university, Brown, in Providence, Rhode Island was also where he met his wife Valerie, who is from a Christian background. The couple have settled in the city.

Now he is pursuing his rabbinic studies with Jewish Renewal, the movement that puts emphasis on personal spiritual exploration. “I’m undeniably associated with Jewish Renewal but I think of myself mostly as a Jew who floats between different kinds of spaces,” he says. “I get my kicks of Jewish variety rather than Jewish consistency.”

While he understands the historic fears associated with intermarriage, the narrative of threat, he says, is “thankfully, becoming less powerful”.
What matters ultimately is what an individual is willing to give to Jewish life rather than who they are married to.

“All of us know plenty of Jews in a relationship with Jews who are not deeply embedded in Jewish life,” he says.

By contrast, “my wife is supportive, loving  and in many ways knowledgeable.  It is astonishing to look on a relationship that involves people who have shared (Jewish) holiday experiences, who go to Jewish institutions all the time together, and think that is a danger…

“When you are with someone who is not Jewish and they are seeing a ritual for the first time, or even the second or third time, they don’t take it for granted in the same way. We have these really rich conversations. She’ll make references to Hebrew terms a lot of my Jewish friends don’t understand.

“It has helped me build a sense of what do I love about Judaism - and what don’t I. What are the things I want to change, what are the things I want to hold for the next millennium.”

Rather than discourage those in interfaith relationships, the message should be “you are also on this team”. 

And as for the Jewish partners, he says, “I know many people who are not Jewish who teach in Jewish Sunday schools, who are actively involved as committee members of synagogues.”

But the Jewish community could be more open, he believes.

“I think we do this self-fulfilling prophecy, where we look around and say most Jews in interfaith relationships aren’t spending time in our Jewish institutions. But it is because we set up barriers to that  - both for leadership especially, but even for participation.

“The norm for a lot of communities is you’ve got somebody at a front of a room delivering a dvar Torah regularly about how intermarriage is going to destroy the Jewish people. It’s not long before the intermarried folks in the room don’t want to come back to that room.”

At Limmud, he spoke on Judaism and sport, and digital Judaism. He had to reschedule a couple of sessions so he could leave to be back home in time to spend Christmas Day with his wife’s family.

After a talk on intermarriage, a number of people in interfaith relationships came up to him to say that it meant a lot to them to discuss their situation without representing it as a threat.

“We shouldn’t  be trying to calculate which kinds of people are most likely to be useful to our future,” he says. “We should just be letting people who want to contribute to our future to contribute.

“We need to look at all members of the Jewish people as possessing immense potential to bring incredible Torah, their own unique wisdom, to Jewish life.”


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