Birthright Israel, Jewish Wedding Ceremonies, and Jewish Commitment

Tucked away in the new Birthright Israel study released yesterday by the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis is a very important discussion about Jewish wedding ceremonies and Jewish commitment among intermarried couples. (I discussed the main findings of the study in a separate post.)

The study authors write:


“Marrying a Jewish person is not the only measure of Jewish commitment. Although such a commitment is difficult to assess, the nature of the wedding ceremony is an additional indicator of Jewish commitment, particularly for intermarried couples. Although not a perfect predictor of future choices, decisions about officiation and wedding rituals provide a window into the place of Jewishness in the lives of these individuals.”

Of intermarried respondents in the study, about half had no clergy, Jewish or otherwise, at their wedding. But among those who had religious officiants, “an estimated 65% made an unambiguously Jewish choice by having a rabbi or cantor alone officiate.” Moreover, at weddings of interfaith couples with a rabbi present, 93% had both a huppah and a ketubah, and another 4% had one or the other.

The authors conclude: “When intermarried participants who chose a Jewish wedding ceremony are added, figuratively, to those who married a Jewish person, the overall propensity for ‘marrying Jewishly’ increase to include the vast majority of married [Birthright Israel trip] participants.” Participants had a 72% chance of marrying a Jew, and those who married a non-Jew had a 31% chance of being married by a rabbi alone. “Consequently, participants had a very high likelihood of being married in circumstances where Jewish identity was predominant.”

The likelihood of a non-trip participant being married in circumstances where Jewish identity is preeminent were lower, but not insubstantial – they had a 46% chance of being married to a Jew, and those who married a non-Jew had a 34% chance of being married by a rabbi alone.

These findings are very heartening to us at InterfaithFamily.com. In early 2008 the first studies appeared that showed a correlation between having a rabbi officiate at interfaith couples’ weddings and their later Jewish engagement. But I’ve never seen a study that acknowledges and recognizes that the nature of the wedding ceremony and of wedding officiation in particular is an indicator of Jewish commitment for intermarried couples.

One of IFF’s important activities is our Jewish Clergy Officiation Referral Service. We offer a free, high quality referral service to a list of over 325 vetted rabbis and cantors and we are responding to 100 requests for help a month from all over North America (and a few beyond). Coincidentally, at the same time the Birthright Israel study was released, we sent out one of our routine feedback requests. Here are two of the responses we received yesterday:

“Unfortunately, we had no success in finding someone willing to participate in our son’s wedding. Our daughter will say Hebrew prayers during the ceremony. I understand a rabbi’s feeling of not wanting to participate, but I am saddened to see our son pushed away from our family’s religion.”
“I wanted to take this opportunity to say thank you for helping me find a rabbi to officiate our ceremony. We had our wedding at the end of July and thanks to the help from your site, it was a wonderful day.”

Another of IFF’s activities is our Resource Center for Jewish Clergy, which helps rabbis and cantors address questions arising from intermarriage, including – but not limited to – the question of officiation. The RCJC offers “for clergy only” articles and videos, clergy conference/workshops, and one-on-one consultations.

IFF wants to support all rabbis who are welcoming to interfaith couples whether or not they officiate at their weddings. We respect rabbis’ decisions and would never say that the decision not to officiate is wrong. But the purpose of our Jewish Clergy Officiation Referral Service and in part of our Resource Center for Jewish Clergy is to minimize if not eliminate the “turnoff” experience that many couples report when seeking Jewish clergy to officiate. We find a good deal of validation of our approach in the new Birthright Israel study, and applaud the study authors for reporting on the significance of wedding ceremonies where Jewish identity if predominant.

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2 thoughts on “Birthright Israel, Jewish Wedding Ceremonies, and Jewish Commitment

  1. Dear Friends:

    I’d be a bit wary of any findings of the most recent Birthright Study.

    Here are the comments I posted in the Forward in response to an article about the study:
    ——————————————————————————————————————
    As the Coordinator of the Half-Jewish Network, the largest organization for adult children of intermarriage, I question the statistics in this study.

    In March 2009, Birthright courageously released a report showing that its trips are essentially a failure — only a very tiny percentage of Birthright trip participants start visiting Jewish communal institutions regularly after they return from the trips.

    I thought it was very brave of Birthright to release the report.

    Many Jews were shocked, as millions of dollars are spent on Birthright, and it is presented as a cure-all for disaffiliated younger Jews and intermarriage.

    Here is the link to that report:

    http://www.brandeis.edu/cmjs/pdfs/comstudy032609.com.pdf

    Birthright got a lot of flack for this.

    Now Birthright has released a new report based on surveys of people who went on these trips between 2001 and 2004, which claims that the Birthright trips are a success.

    The new report claims that people return from the trips as pumped-up Israel advocates, zealous Jews, and avoid intermarriage:

    http://ir.brandeis.edu/bitstream/handle … sequence=9

    The report claims that children of intermarriage are less likely to intermarry if they go on these trips. I would expect a large sample of adult children of intermarriage to back up such a major claim.

    But I can’t find anywhere in the report a figure for the number of children of intermarriage who actually went on these trips.

    The only lengthy mention of adult children of intermarriage made me immediately suspicious of the report’s claims:

    “Participants with intermarried parents were over three times more likely to be married to a Jew than nonparticipants with intermarried parents. Although statistically significant, the estimates for nonparticipants are based on extremely small cell sizes: Among married nonparticipants,  there were only 19 cases with intermarried parents, of which 14 were intermarried and 5 were inmarried.”(page 27).

    Let’s see — a total of 21,649 people went on these trips between 2001 and 2004. The study interviewed of these 1,223 participants, who were compared to a smaller population of “nonparticipants.”

    If the Birthright study features only 19 married nonparticipants who were adult children of intermarriage, there cannot have been very many adult children of intermarriage on these trips at all, certainly not enough to make such a major claim about their marriage trends.

    I atttempted to locate the number of children of intermarriage who went on these trips, and was referred by the study to an online appendix located at:

    http://www.brandeis.edu/cmjs/researchar … ation.html

    But when you arrive at that link, there is only the report text, not the appendices.

    I must respectfully be skeptical of the findings of this report, until I can see actual figures on the adult children of intermarriage who went on these trips.

    Sincerely, Robin Margolis http://www.half-jewish.net http://www.inclusivistjudaism.wordpress.net
    —————————————————————————————————————-

  2. Dear Friends:

    I do want to say that I strongly — like 300% — share Ed Case’s conviction of the importance of having Jewish clergy at an interfaith wedding — I have seen myself that it has tremendous weight in a couple’s decision on whether or not to raise the children as Jews.

    Where a rabbi or cantor is not present at the wedding of an interfaith couple, the likelihood of raising the kids as Jews falls rapidly.

    With regard to interfaithfamily.com’s rabbinic counseling and clergy list, I have made a note of that on the Inclusivist Judaism website I just started, as I think it is critically important that interfaith couples know that such a resource exists.

    http://inclusivistjudaism.wordpress.com/other-groups/

    It is one of the greatest strengths of interfaithfamily.com that it has provided this resource. I have been very grateful for it.

    Very cordially,
    Robin Margolis
    http://www.half-jewish.net
    http://www.inclusivistjudaism.wordpress.com

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