The Executives at CBS Should Have Asked Rabbi Schindler
We must remove the 'not wanted' signs from our hearts. We are opposed to intermarriage, but we cannot reject the intermarried. And we cannot but be aware that in our current behavior, we communicate rejection. - Rabbi Alexander Schindler, 1978
In 1972, CBS aired Bridget Loves Bernie, a romantic comedy that got its basic plot inspiration from a popular Broadway 1920s play, Abie's Irish Rose. The televison show portrayed an interfaith relationship between Bridget (Meredith Baxter), an Irish Catholic teacher, and Bernie (David Birney), a Jewish cab driver. The first lines of the pilot clearly established the religious divide:
Bridget: "You know, this is crazy. I don't even know your full name!"
Bernie: "Bernie... Steinberg. What's yours?"
Bridget: "Bridget... Teresa... Mary... Colleen.. Fitzgerald."
Bernie: "I think we have a problem..."
Bridget and Bernie eventually elope, and the show placed in the top five ratings for its season. However, CBS wasn't happy with the deluge of letters from viewers who objected to the intermarriage theme. According to blogger Tim Rose,
You would think, especially after the turbulent '60s, America might accept such a television series. Bridget Loves Bernie was slotted in the half-hour immediately following All in the Family , and achieved enough viewer interest to become a top 5 success on all of television for the season. Archie Bunker was, for most people, lovably WRONG in his attitudes, demonstrably so. . . But when Bridget Loves Bernie presented disagreements many families were currently dealing with (prominently featuring religion as a sticking point), all of a sudden tradition, religion, and faith take on [sic] a slightly different color.
Unhappy with the negative publicity and hate mail, CBS cancelled Bridget Loves Bernie, giving it the distinction of being the highest-rated television show ever to be cancelled after one season.
While mainstream America watched Bridget Loves Bernie, albeit a group who wrote letters of protest, what was the Reform Jewish response? Bridget Loves Bernie raised touchy topics, not only about religious differences, but on political alignment, social class, and racial prejudice. These are issues that the Reform Movement and the Religious Action Center have historically handled with insight and sensitivity, advocating nonpartisan political platforms that reflect the Jewish values of social justice ― the core of who we are.
During the Bridget Loves Bernie years, the Union for Reform Judaism (then Union of American Hebrew Congregations) had a leader who faced the surging tide of intermarriage head-on. On December 2, 1978, Rabbi Alexander Schindler gave a groundbreaking Outreach speech to the UAHC Board of Trustees. He did not mince his words.
I begin with the recognition of a reality: the tide of intermarriage is running against us. The statistics on the subject confirm what our own experience teaches us: intermarriage is on the rise... Dealing with it does not, however, mean that we must learn to accept it. It does not mean that we should prepare to sit shiva for the American Jewish community. On the contrary, facing and dealing with reality means confronting it, coming to grips with it, determining to reshape it.
In this remarkable speech, Rabbi Schindler went on to clearly outline what the Reform Movement needed to do in response, basically laying the groundwork for all of the interfaith outreach initiatives that we continue to offer today.
Although I doubt that the executives at CBS consulted with Rabbi Schindler before they put the kibosh on Bridget Loves Bernie, I'm certain that if asked, he would have explained that when an interfaith couple marry, Reform Jews do not sit shiva or turn their backs. Rabbi Schindler insisted that our response, in fact, should be quite the opposite.
I suspect that Bridget and Bernie would have been grateful to Rabbi Schindler― for not letting us bury our heads in the sand, and for showing us how to open our arms in welcome.