PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Judaism's Reconstructionist movement announced Wednesday it will allow rabbinical students with non-Jewish partners to become rabbis, a decision that ends years of debate and that officials anticipate will help retain students who go on to become "wonderful rabbis."
The change at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in suburban Philadelphia comes after a faculty vote last week. It revokes a longstanding ban on admitting or graduating students with a non-Jewish partner. Students were allowed to graduate if their partner chose to convert.
"We know that there are inter-partnered Jews who are passionate about living Jewish lives," college President Deborah Waxman said. "We understand these passionate Jews to be part of our Jewish future."
Waxman said the old policy forced out students who would have made "wonderful rabbis."
About 60 percent of Jews who married between 2000 and 2013 had a non-Jewish spouse, according to the Pew Research Center. The college, which represents the seat of Reconstructionism, graduates eight to 10 rabbis per year.
Although students were made aware of the policy before applying, the program takes five or six years. "Along the way, things happen," Waxman said. "People fall in love."
That's what happened to rabbinical student Mychal Copeland, whose relationship became serious during her studies and forced a decision at her graduation in 2000. Her partner ultimately converted.
"We wanted to deal with it on our own timeline and not have the external pressure on us ... but the process was much more complicated because of the policy," Copeland told The Associated Press.
Copeland, a rabbi now married to her partner, has been lobbying to get the policy revoked.
Reconstructionism is the fourth-largest movement in American Judaism. It teaches that every generation must reconstruct Judaism to be relevant and meaningful for its time. The U.S. and Canada have more than 100 congregations.
Rabbi Lester Bronstein of Bet Am Shalom Synagogue in White Plains, New York, part of the Reconstructionist movement for nearly 60 years, said he's very disappointed with the change. Though his congregation has long welcomed intermarried couples, Bronstein said he sees his job as encouraging people to create Jewish homes as families.
Intermarried couples who want to create a Jewish home "generally are looking for a very clear model of commitment for making a Jewish home, which you generally see when both partners (rabbi and spouse) are Jews," he said.
His synagogue's leadership plans to review its relationship to the Reconstructionist movement.
"We are not going to pick up our marbles and go home," he said.
The rabbinical college currently serves 44 students at its campus in Wyncote. Officials said federal law prevented them from disclosing how many might be affected by the policy change.