Rabbi David Gruber and Julie Wiener

We were pleased to see our friend Julie Wiener devote her new column in the New York Jewish Week to highlighting our friend Rabbi David Gruber.

Aside from his fascinating, perhaps unique personal journey – an Orthodox trained and ordained rabbi who now officiates and co-officiates at weddings for interfaith couples – I know Rabbi Gruber is an extraordinary kind person based on my own discussions with him. I’m glad that his experience with InterfaithFamily.com’s Jewish Clergy survey
and talking with Rabbi Lev Baesh, the director of our Resource Center for Jewish Clergy, helped him develop his own practice.

You can find out more about Rabbi Gruber from his profile on our Network. And you can find out about his conversation with former President George W. Bush in an article he wrote for us just two weeks ago: Hail to the Chiefs: How I Officiated at a Wedding in the Presence of Two Presidents,
and what it’s like to officiate a wedding on MTV in
Lights, Camera, Mazel Tov–How I Officiated a Wedding on MTV.

Reform Movement Task Force on Intermarriage Reports

Our CEO Ed Case is attending the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) in San Francisco. The CCAR is the rabbinic association of the Reform movement. I look forward to his opinions on the presentation of the CCAR task force on intermarriage. News reports, including this one in the New York Times suggest a slight shift on the issue. The panel proposed that Reform rabbis work on encouraging interfaith couples to stay in the Jewish community instead of trying to prevent interfaith marriage.

The task force did not suggest any change on rabbinic officiation at interfaith weddings. Currently, Reform rabbis can choose to officiate at interfaith weddings according to their conscience, though the Reform movement formally opposes rabbinic officiation at interfaith weddings.

Since 1983, the Reform movement has recognized children of interfaith families as Jewish if their parents raise them as Jews–whether the Jewish parent is the mother or the father. This has brought many more interfaith families into Reform congregations, making it the largest of the Jewish denominations in the United States, which is the largest Jewish community in the world. Reform congregations have been working for years on integrating interfaith families and their children and finding ways to honor non-Jewish spouses who support Jewish family members’ practice of Judaism.

If you’re a member of a Reform congregation, what has your experience been? Does your rabbi make your whole family feel welcome? How about the rest of the community?

Officiation News

Today’s Cleveland Jewish News reports that Rabbis Richard Block and Roger Klein, from temple-tifereth-israel/">The Temple-Tifereth Israel, one of Cleveland’s largest Reform synagogues, have announced that they have changed their positions and will now officiate at weddings of interfaith couples under certain circumstances. The article reports that the rabbis will only officiate at the weddings of couples “in our congregational family” who are “committed to raising Jewish children, creating a Jewish home, and participating in the life of the community.” Rabbi Block, one of the most highly-regarded Reform rabbis in the country, reportedly said that the couple should commit to joining and maintaining membership in a synagogue, and that he will ask interfaith couples to take an introduction to Judaism course; he will not insist that the non-Jewish partner consider conversion, but will “urge them to do so.”

The timing of this announcement is interesting — the Reform rabbis’ association, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), is meeting in San Francisco March 7 – 10, and prominent on its agenda is the release of a report from its Task Force on Intermarriage. The CCAR’s last resolution on officiation, dating from 1973, disapproves of the practice. We had hoped that the CCAR would approve a new resolution changing that position, but word is that the no new resolution is forthcoming.

I do sense that more and more Reform rabbis are changing their position in favor of officiation. For example, we re-published an important article by Rabbi Daniel Zemel, another very highly-regarded rabbi, from Temple Micah in Washington DC explaining his reasons for making that change.

But officiation remains a challenging issue. The January 2010 bulletin of Temple Sinai in Rochester New York reports that their junior rabbi, Amy Sapowith, decided that she would officiate at weddings of interfaith couples. Her senior rabbi, Alan Katz, does not officiate, but supported her decision to do so. Rochester has a Board of Rabbis which does not allow its members to officiate; when Rabbi Sapowith announced her change, the Board asked her to resign. Rabbi Katz then voluntarily resigned from the Board of Rabbis.

InterfaithFamily.com’s Resource Center for Jewish Clergy has been working to help rabbis address the officiation question. We’ve held workshops for clergy in Boston (May 2008) and Philadelphia (February 2009) and have another coming in Atlanta on March 15, 2010. At each of the first two workshops, experienced rabbis told us that it was their first opportunity to have a meaningful discussion of the issue.

InterfaithFamily.com is exhibiting at the CCAR convention, so we’ll blog about the Task Force report when it comes out.

Chelsea Clinton may not need help finding a rabbi for her wedding, but…

Chelsea Clinton’s engagement to Marc Mezvinsky is big news; Ruth Abrams’ blog post here yesterday
was picked up by the Atlantic’s blog, the Atlantic Wire.

Ruth said it would be interesting to see how the famous couple handles the interfaith aspects of their relationship. One aspect of that of course is whether they will want to have a rabbi officiate, or co-officiate with other clergy, at their wedding.

One blogger speculated that Mezvinsky is affiliated with the Conservative movement based on the couple’s attendance at High Holiday services at the Jewish Theological Seminary. If the couple do want to have a rabbi officiate at their wedding, Conservative rabbis aren’t allowed to do so; they’ll have to look elsewhere.

I’m sure that such a well-connected couple should not have any trouble finding a rabbi. But that isn’t the case for everyone. One of the most important services InterfaithFamily.com provides is our Jewish Clergy Officiation Referral Service. So far this year, we’ve responded to 1,135 inquiries from couples all over the country asking for help to find a rabbi or cantor to officiate or co-officiate at their wedding. (In fact, we’re running a “promotion” right now – couples who request a referral are eligible for a drawing for a $500 gift card – that’s quite an engagement present!)

If it were easy for couples to find Jewish clergy for their weddings, we wouldn’t be experiencing demand for our service. We’d actually be glad if, some day, our service was no longer necessary. But officiation is still controversial among rabbis, so we don’t see that happening any time soon.

The reason we offer our referral service is simple. Recent research confirms that the negative experience many interfaith couples have seeking Jewish clergy to officiate at their weddings is a “huge turnoff” (Intermarriage and Jewish Journeys, National Center for Jewish Policy Studies 2008). Through our officiation referral service, and our work with rabbis, we hope to make that experience one that leads to more Jewish engagement, not less.

So if Chelsea and Marc do want to have a rabbi participate in their wedding, we hope their experience is positive, and we hope it leads to more Jewish engagement – we think Chelsea Clinton would be a great addition to the Jewish community in whatever way she chooses to participate. And the former President and the Secretary of State wouldn’t be too shabby as grandparents for Jewish grandchildren, if that’s the direction the couple decides to take.

And if by any chance they would like help finding a rabbi for their wedding, we have some great ones on our list, both  in New York, and ones who travel to Martha’s Vineyard too.

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.

Why We Help Interfaith Couples Find Rabbis

InterfaithFamily.com has a Clergy Officiation Referral Service. Here’s why.

According to the last National Jewish Population Survey, about 47% of Jewish people getting married in the United States are marrying people who aren’t Jewish. Before 1970, only about 17% of US Jews married non-Jews. In the past, when Jews married non-Jews, the Jewish community interpreted this as an expression of lack of interest in Judaism. In the present, this is not a valid assumption. Many Jews enter interfaith marriage with the wish to retain their Jewish identity and religious practice, and to raise Jewish children, with the person they love. The non-Jewish partner is very often on board with this goal.

[float=left][/float]A 2008 study by sociologist Arnold Dashefsky and the National Center for Jewish Policy Studies found that 87 percent of those intermarried couples who were married by Jewish clergy later raised their children as “Jewish only,” compared to 63 percent of the couples married by co-officiants, non-Jewish clergy or in secular ceremonies. Also, 50 percent said it was very important that their grandchildren be Jewish, compared to 18 percent of the second group.

Traditional Jewish law doesn’t have a category for  interfaith marriage. In past societies where Jewish family law was only binding on Jews and there was no civil marriage, an interfaith relationship had to be unequal and to leave the female partner unprotected by any one legal system. But we don’t live in such a society any longer. It’s ironic that civil marriage makes interfaith marriage possible, but as more Jews enter  interfaith marriages, more want those marriages to be  Jewish. Many (at one time, it was most!) rabbis want to keep Jewish law and don’t perform marriages between Jews and non-Jews.

A wedding is only the beginning of a marriage, and many rabbis and Jewish leaders who don’t believe in officiating at interfaith weddings do a lot of other work to engage interfaith couples and their children in Jewish life. We aren’t pushing every rabbi to officiate at interfaith weddings. We just don’t want potentially interested couples to be pushed away from Jewish life by the traumatic experience of being rejected at the point of marriage.

According to one study, about 50 percent of Reform rabbis are willing to officiate at interfaith weddings. The question is, can every interfaith couple find a rabbi to marry them where they live? For many, the answer is no.

InterfaithFamily.com’s clergy referral service can link interfaith couples with fantastic rabbis and cantors who will help them have deeply meaningful weddings. If we match them up just right, they’ll want Jewish clergy at all their lifecycle events. It could be, as Humphrey Bogart said in Casablanca, the start of a beautiful friendship.

So if you have a friend in an interfaith couple and they are trying to find a rabbi, send them the link to our Clergy Officiation Referral Service. We can find your perfect match.

Survey: 60% of Progressive Rabbis Officiate

Sixty percent of rabbis at Reform, Reconstructionist, Jewish Renewal and unaffiliated congregations officiate at interfaith weddings, according to a new transdenominational survey by Dr. Caryn Aviv and Dr. Steven Cohen, reports JTA.

I haven’t seen the survey yet–it only was presented yesterday as part of a conference on best practices for engaging LGBT Jews–but if that number is correct, then it’s an astonishing development. The only comparable historical survey I know of is a 12-year-old rabbinic survey conducted by the Jewish Outreach Institute. That 1997 study showed that only 20 percent of rabbis across the denominations officiated at interfaith weddings, and even among the Reform rabbinate, only 36 percent officiated (although 85 percent of Reconstructionist rabbis did). Those numbers aren’t directly comparable to the reported number from the new study since the new study aggregates rabbis across several movements. But my guess is that officiation numbers are up across the board within movements that permit officiation at interfaith weddings.

The new survey polled 1,221 North American rabbis, synagogue directors and presidents in attempt to learn about how synagogues approach and engage gay and lesbian Jews. Among the other reported numbers: 73 percent of these leaders felt their synagogue did a good job welcoming gay and lesbian Jews; 33 percent said they held programs explicitly for gay people; 73 percent of synagogues had rabbis who officiated at same-sex ceremonies; and 47 percent of synagogue leaders said their attitudes toward gays and lesbians had become more favorable over the last decade.

I will let you know more once I get my hands on the report, but early signs suggest that the research will show that synagogues have become more welcoming towards gays and lesbians AND interfaith couples over the last decade. That’s a welcome development.

Reconnect Jews Yearning for Connection

Fee For Service Judaism may hold us until we get our communal act together in a new way.

Judaism is changing, yet again.  Many feel it is changing for the wrong reasons or in a bad way, but the fact of the change is palpable.

Post Holocaust Judaism in North America was built on two major foundational lines of thinking.  The first was the cry “never again”, referring to the horrific destruction of Jewish life in Europe, and the second was the suburbanization of American Jewish communities.  The intersection of these two points created a Judaism that was based in fear, on the grand scale of the Holocaust, and on the smaller but not less significant scale of assimilation into American culture.  The role of rabbi 50 years ago was, in no small part, to constantly remind their congregations that affiliation with Jewish community and vigilance against mixing with those outside of the Jewish community would protect us from a second holocaust (small ‘h’ holocaust).

And here we are, over half a century later, and fear based Judaism is no longer holding sway in our communities.  Maybe it never did hold sway.

But there are bright spots in the future.  In a New York Times article about the clergy who serve the greatest number of wedding couples we find a Holocaust survivor who became a rabbi, later in her life, to serve the Jews for whom ‘fear based’ Judaism didn’t keep them attached to community.  These are the Jews who have found community in the larger world and have fallen in love with people outside the Jewish community. Continue reading

A Wedding on Planet Obama

Rachel Getting Married
From L-R: Anne Hathaway, Tunde Adebimpe, Rosemarie DeWitt and Mather Zickel in Rachel Getting Married.

As a ravenous consumer of film (insert shameless plug here), I make it a point to see as many of the Oscar contenders before the show as I can. Given that the Oscars are in less than three weeks–and nominations only came out a week-and-a-half ago–I’m in a bit of a film frenzy. Last night, I saw Rachel Getting Married.

Rachel Getting Married is about a recovering addict/bulimic/human grenade, Kim (Anne Hathaway), who is released from rehab for a few days to attend her sister Rachel’s (Blake DeWitt) wedding. Kim is a narcissistic mess of a human being who proves that the only person more tiresome than an addict is a recovering addict.

But this post isn’t about Kim. It’s about Rachel and her husband, Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe), and their cross-cultural mishmash of a wedding.

Continue reading

Art Imitating Life or Beating us to the Punch!

A question that has always boggled my mind is “How popular must a particular cultural phenomenon be before TV producers choose it for sitcoms?”

TelevisionThe CW’s hit series Gossip Girl recently aired an episode with an interfaith wedding, co-officiated by an Episcopal priest and a rabbi. The Forward ran an article about this episode.

The ceremony even had the traditional Hebrew phrase “Ani L’dodi…” “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” from Song of Songs in the Hebrew Bible.

It’s one thing to have a Jewish wedding with an interfaith couple. It’s another to see television writers showing a co-officiated wedding with the clear expectation that the audience to get the cultural jokes made out of playing the stereotypes off each other. And, knowing that TV producers aren’t willing to risk airing a joke no one will get, it is clear that they know that co-officiated weddings are at least normalized enough to get people to pay attention to the jokes and not the be distracted by the scene itself. Continue reading