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What Rabbis Think and Do about Interfaith Wedding Ceremonies

The Jewish Outreach Institute (www.JOI.org) was originally founded in 1988 as a think tank and research facility devoted to the study of interfaith marriage. JOI's services have since grown to include training outreach professionals and sponsoring innovative outreach programs throughout North America as part of its Jewish Connection Partnership program (www.JewishConnectionPartnership.org). JOI's primary mission is to promote inclusiveness in the Jewish community and to "reach out and welcome in" the intermarried and unaffiliated. This column is an opportunity for JOI to share its findings and views with the InterfaithFamily.com readership.

The wedding ceremony can be a major flashpoint for interfaith couples. Perhaps the most difficult obstacle is deciding who will officiate. It's an emotionally charged issue, and whenever we speak to groups it's often the first topic to emerge during the question and answer periods.

At the Jewish Outreach Institute, we advise couples who want to be married by clergy to not only find someone with whom they feel comfortable, but also a clergyperson in whose community or congregation they may feel at home and which they will want to join. Of course, this is often easier said than done, especially for those who want a Jewish ceremony.

Of the four major Jewish religious movements, only Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis are allowed to officiate at an intermarriage and still remain members of the their rabbinical associations. And in the Reform Movement, the largest of the denominations, no more than half of the rabbis choose to officiate at interfaith weddings. For an intermarrying Jew who may have grown up with and been nurtured by a family or congregational rabbi, it can cause resentment when that same rabbi refuses to officiate at the most important ceremony in his or her adult life.

However, the news is not all bleak for those intermarrying couples who want to begin their married life with a Jewish ceremony. Through our research, and by working with couples and their families, JOI has collected a considerable amount of data on the issue of rabbinic officiation at intermarriages. One such JOI study, conducted about four years ago, was the first scientific survey of the American rabbinate ever undertaken on this critical issue, and we found some interesting results. (The full report is on-line at www.joi.org/pubs/rabbisur.htm)

Close to half the rabbis responding to the survey indicated that their attitudes toward intermarriage had undergone change within the last decade--mostly toward greater accommodation of the needs of the intermarried families--as a result of the high and growing intermarriage rate. While this attitudinal shift has not yet translated into practice (80% of those rabbis surveyed would not officiate at intermarriages), 96% said that they would meet with interfaith couples contemplating marriage, and a majority would offer some referral to a rabbi who would perform the marriage.

One interesting trend identified by this study is a potential "specialization" within the American rabbinate: rabbis who do officiate at interfaith weddings average almost twice the number of wedding ceremonies a year (12) as compared to their colleagues who will not officiate at interfaith weddings (7). This coincides with the fact that the majority (69%) of Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis who will not officiate at interfaith marriages themselves nevertheless refer interfaith couples to other rabbis who will.

Perhaps the most surprising statistic in the entire study is that one in three Conservative rabbis surveyed (33%) will refer interfaith couples to rabbis who officiate at intermarriages, despite it being contrary to the policy of the Rabbinical Assembly, the official organization of the Conservative rabbinate. As one Conservative rabbi wrote, "I personally refer my intermarriages because I can't stand the idea of closing the door of Judaism in their faces even though I personally can't do the intermarriage."

While none of the rabbis surveyed were in intermarriages themselves, and very few had intermarried children or grandchildren, nearly one quarter (23%) reported having siblings who are or have been in interfaith marriages, and more than half (59%) have intermarried cousins or other distant relatives. In theory, having intermarried family members may provide rabbis with a better understanding of, and empathy for, the challenges interfaith couples face. Still, in a historical context these are all relatively new developments, and the majority of all rabbis, whether they perform intermarriages or not, feel very conflicted in general about this issue. This is true even for many rabbis who have no problems conducting other interfaith life-cycle ceremonies, such as interfaith funerals.

Another survey conducted by JOI around the same time shows that there may still be considerable difficulty in finding an officiating rabbi (excerpts of this study are also online, at: www.joi.org/news/rabbisur.htm). Of those respondents whose families were temple or synagogue members at the time of the intermarriage and were interested in being married by Jewish clergy, 60% were either refused by their rabbi or cantor, or refrained from asking because they expected to be refused. Of that sixty percent, half (51%) were married either by Christian clergy or by a judge or justice of the peace.

While statistics are useful in gaining a handle on wider trends, at the Jewish Outreach Institute we make a conscious effort to envision the individuals behind the numbers. These statistics may help intermarried couples better understand that they are not alone in their experiences; that many others across the country are struggling with similar issues. However, we also acknowledge that each situation is unique, requiring individualized attention.

As for the American rabbinate, we believe the conscience of the individual rabbi should be his or her guide. We are heartened that so many are willing to spend time with interfaith couples, even those at whose weddings they choose not to officiate. We hope all rabbis can learn to embrace these couples and lead the community in doing so as well.

Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." A member of the Jewish clergy who leads a congregation in songful prayer. ("Hazzan" in Hebrew.) Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE.

The Jewish Outreach Institute is dedicated to "reach out and welcome in" the intermarried, and to promote inclusiveness in the Jewish community for intermarried families and disconnected Jews. Its website is joi.org.

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