Intermarriage Poses Challenges Even at the End of Life

By Marilyn Silverstein


Reprinted with permission of The Philadelphia Jewish Exponent.

A few years ago, when he was religious leader of the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston, Ill., said Rabbi Richard Hirsh, he received a call from a couple who had long been active and faithful members of his congregation.

The wife was Jewish; the husband was not. They were calling because the husband’s adult son from a previous marriage had just died, and he wanted the rabbi to officiate at a memorial service.

“We had to put together this non-shiva shiva,” recalled Hirsh, who is now executive director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association here.

“We put together some kind of service that didn’t involve the Kaddish. We used a combination of scriptural readings, primarily from the psalms, contemporary poetry and literature–and a number of songs well-known in our congregation,” the rabbi said.

“The basic attitude we took was that while this person wasn’t under any Jewish obligation, he was part of our community, and this was the way our community was helping him mourn his son.”

Given the high rate of intermarriage in the Jewish community, this is exactly the kind of situation the rabbis of today and tomorrow are going to be facing more and more, Hirsh predicted.

“They’re going to have to figure out what to do about it,” he said.

With national estimates of the rate of Jews marrying “out” reaching as high as 52 percent, many see intermarriage as a matter of life and death for the Jewish community. But what about when the issue is literally a matter of death?

Should the non-Jewish spouse of a Jew be buried in a Jewish cemetery? Should a rabbi officiate at the funeral? Or co-officiate with a minister or a priest?

Should a Jew sit shiva for a beloved non-Jewish husband or wife who has just died? Should the Kaddish be recited? Or the El Moley Rachamim, the traditional prayer for God’s compassion?

Although halachah, Jewish law, is not very clear on the issue, said Rabbi Albert Gabbai, thousands of years of tradition dictate that only Jews be buried in a Jewish cemetery.

“It has always been the tradition: We do not bury non-Jews in a Jewish cemetery,” said Gabbai, religious leader of Congregation Mikveh Israel.

As for the funeral, the rabbi said, it is not the officiation that counts, but the burial.

“The halachah requires burial. We have an important mitzvah as Jews to bury Jews who require burial,” he said, adding, “In practicality, rabbis do not officiate at the burial of non-Jews.”

The mitzvah of sitting shiva applies to Jews who have lost their mother, father, sister, brother, son, daughter or spouse, Gabbai explained.

However, he added, strictly speaking, under Jewish law, there can be no kiddushin, or sanctification, in an intermarriage, and it is thus not a marriage.

“The obligation [to sit shiva] would not apply,” he said, pointing, for example, to the case of a Jewish man who was married to a non-Jewish woman. “It is not his spouse. He did not enter into kiddushin with her. There is no sanctification to the marriage, and therefore no duty of sitting shiva.”

For the same reason, one would not recite Kaddish for a non-Jewish spouse, he said. However, he added, there is an opinion that says a Jew is permitted to recite a memorial prayer, such as the El Moley Rachamim, for a non-Jew.

“These issues touch very much of the emotions,” Gabbai acknowledged. “Despite tradition, Judaism is very careful with respecting the feelings of people–not to hurt them.

“We have laws which we have to abide by,” the rabbi said. “We have standards for centuries which we have to abide by. We cannot take them lightly.”

Given the tension between those centuries of tradition and today’s rate of intermarriage, where should the Jewish community draw the line? Where do the rabbis draw the line? Or the Jewish funeral homes? Or the Jewish cemeteries?

“It’s a very delicate thing,” observed Joseph Levine, president of Joseph Levine & Son, Inc., who pointed out that, by law, funeral directors cannot turn away anyone for reasons of religion or race.

But, Levine added, even when his memorial chapels are called upon to handle the funerals of non-Jewish relatives of Jews, and even when a priest or minister comes in to co-officiate with the rabbi at the funeral service, he seeks to draw a line.

“I only ask that the rabbi be the primary officiant, and I ask whoever else it’s going to be to respect the fact that it’s a Jewish funeral home and not to mention anything contrary to Jewish law.”

What he sees for the future, Levine said, is more and more co-officiation at funeral services, and more and more turning away from the traditional Jewish funeral service and toward a nondenominational spiritual service, as mourners among the intermarried seek closure and peace.

“It’s a challenge to the community. It has to become an issue. It has to become an issue as we go further,” he said with emotion. “The challenge is adapting our business to be able to accommodate the survivors.”

Howard Shenberg, a partner in the Berschler & Shenberg Funeral Chapels here and in Pennsauken/Cherry Hill, said that his firm is called upon to handle funerals involving intermarriage “more and more, all the time.”

“They come to us because they want things done by a Jewish funeral director,” Shenberg observed. “If they’ve come to a Jewish funeral director, it’s because they’ve pretty much merged their feelings and their spouse’s religious feelings together.”

Usually, the non-Jewish spouse is well-versed in what has to be done, he added.

“If they don’t have a rabbi, we help them engage somebody to do a service that will make everyone comfortable,” he said, explaining that the rabbis do “the basics.”

“They do the Kaddish. They do the El Moley Rachamim. They do the psalms. They don’t leave anything out,” he explained. “They do it in Hebrew and English, so everyone understands what is said.

“It takes a little more effort. There are certain rabbis that are more comfortable with the intermarriage situation, and therefore handle it better.”

When he considers the challenges that intermarriage brings to death and burial, Shenberg said, “I don’t see any problems down the road. The only thing I do see is Jewish people becoming less religious, as they have over the years.”

Bernie Platt, director of the Platt Memorial Chapels in Cherry Hill, also sees a change coming.

“I think, in the future, a lot of these burials are going to be in nonsectarian cemeteries,” he predicted. “It’s just what’s going to happen down the road.”

Bennett Goldstein, president of Goldsteins’ Rosenberg’s Raphael-Sacks, Inc., said his funeral home has no set policy on the funeral of a non-Jewish spouse–“other than if they’re going to be buried in a Jewish cemetery, it has to be a Jewish person officiating,” he said, adding that non-Jewish clergy can participate in a nondenominational service led by a rabbi.

“We leave it up to the rabbis,” he said.

Linda Crowell, president of the local Jewish Cemetery Association, said that the issue of burying non-Jews comes up perhaps six to 10 times each year at the Shalom Memorial Park in Huntingdon Valley, where she is director.

“Oh sure, we will bury them, as long as one of the spouses is Jewish,” she said. However, she emphasized, “they cannot have any religious emblems–not a cross, not praying hands–anything other than a Jewish emblem. And they cannot have a priest or minister officiate at the service. It has to be a rabbi or a lay person.

“Shalom will not permit a priest or minister to come in. We’re a Jewish cemetery,” she said. “There can be no religious service of any sort other than a Jewish service.”

At the present time, Crowell added, the Jewish Cemetery Association’s by-laws do not address this issue in any way. Still, many Jewish cemetery directors echoed Crowell’s remarks.

“Our policy is that we will bury a non-Jewish spouse, but will not allow a ceremony that’s contrary to Jewish custom or belief,” said Samuel Domsky, who directs the Haym Salomon Memorial Park in Frazer. “It’s not been an issue.”

David Gordon, general manager of the Roosevelt Memorial Park in Trevose called the issue “a difficult topic to discuss.”

“It’s a hard question,” Gordon said. “I think the feeling in general in this community is that a Jewish cemetery will bury a non-Jewish spouse, but there shouldn’t be any non-Jewish identification or marker, and there’s no non-Jewish clergy officiating.

“There are a lot of people that feel this is a religious place–in this case, a Jewish cemetery–and they like to think it’s strictly for that: consecrated, religious ground.”

As a matter of fact, Gordon said, he recently negotiated an agreement with a small “ultra-Orthodox group” to set aside a section of the cemetery specifically for them.

“They feel strongly they would like a specific place for people who are very religious and don’t want to be buried with non-Jewish people,” he said.

As the rate of intermarriage increases, “it certainly affects cemeteries,” observed Larry Moskowitz, president of Har Jehuda Cemetery in Drexel Hill.

“At that point, it becomes somewhat of a challenge,” said Moskowitz, a past president of the Jewish Cemetery Association. “I think we all have to be prepared for it and create policies for it.

“I don’t think it’s something we have to worry about,” he said. “I think it’s something we have to deal with.”

Currently, Moskowitz said, Har Jehuda deals with the issue by insisting that any service on its grounds be done “in an acceptable Jewish burial manner.” The cemetery will allow a priest or minister to participate, he added, as long as the service is not in any way Christian.

“We’re pretty flexible,” he said. “We’re trying to get into the 21st century with this thing.”

As Rabbi Stephen Grundfast guides his congregation, Ohev Shalom in Wallingford, through the opening months of the 21st century, he finds himself struggling with a dilemma.

The 400-family Conservative congregation runs its own private cemetery for its members, the Ohev Shalom Cemetery in Brookhaven, where only those who are halachically Jewish may be buried. But about 6 percent of Ohev Shalom’s “member units” involve intermarriage — perhaps 25 families.

In one of those families not long ago, said Grundfast, a 13-year-old boy–a recent Bar Mitzvah who was struggling with his own philosophical dilemmas concerning his Jewish mother and his non-Jewish father–asked his mother, “Where is Dad going to be buried?”

“She didn’t have an answer,” said Grundfast. At this point, the rabbi added, neither does he.

“I would not want to make a decision standing on one foot,” he said, “but because the question is so germane and so current, it’s something we have to think about. If it happened tomorrow, God forbid, probably a nonsectarian cemetery would be chosen.”

And what would he advise the surviving Jewish spouse about sitting shiva?

“Jewish law would say no, but I would have a hard time saying no,” Grundfast said. “It’s clear that you don’t sit shiva for [a non-Jew], but I think you also have to look at peoples’ feelings.”

He is interested in the neshamahs, the souls, of the people he serves, the rabbi added.

“I feel a little schizophrenic,” he said. “I do not do or condone intermarriages, but once people do intermarry, I think synagogues have to do everything we can to make these people feel comfortable. We have to find as many ways as possible to keep people connected to the synagogue and Jewish life.”

There are no hard-and-fast rules in Reform Judaism regarding such issues, according to Judith Erger Smalley, director of outreach for the Pennsylvania Council of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

“It seems there are no [Central Conference of American Rabbis] guidelines regarding officiating at non-Jewish funerals, or ritual practices regarding the death of a non-Jewish partner or parent,” she said.

In her outreach work, said Erger Smalley, she deals with 56 congregations–some with as little as 10 percent of their membership intermarried, some with as much as 60 percent or 70 percent.

“There is no one response from the group called the Reform clergy,” she said. “It’s handled on an individual basis. There is not going to be one communal answer.”

For Rabbi Elliot M. Strom, religious leader of the 1,000-family Shir Ami-Bucks County Jewish Congregation in Newtown, which includes perhaps 100 intermarried families, the answer lies in allowing families to mourn as they need to mourn.

When a non-Jewish spouse dies, said Strom, “I think you don’t do a complete Jewish service, but you allow the Jewish mourners to say the prayers they need to say.

“I want to be sure we err on the side of allowing Jews every opportunity to use the Jewish ritual, Jewish language and Jewish liturgy that will give them comfort–even if the person who passed away is not Jewish,” the Reform rabbi said.

And if the non-Jewish spouse is the mourner?

“If they’re coming to me and if they’re looking for a Jewish expression of their grief,” the rabbi said, “I think they can mourn in all the traditional ways.”

Strom’s Reform colleague, Rabbi Seymour Prystowsky of Congregation Or Ami in Lafayette Hill, where about 25 of the 330 families involve intermarriage, also said he adapts the Jewish service for the funeral of a non-Jewish spouse.

“I’m not going to use any Hebrew words. It wouldn’t be appropriate,” said Prystowsky, adding that such a service might include the 23rd Psalm, the El Moley Rachamim in English, and then, for the Jewish mourners, the Kaddish, in affirmation of life.

And if, on the other hand, the mourner is, say, a non-Jewish woman who has lost her Jewish husband?

“I would have her say Kaddish,” the rabbi said. “Absolutely, she can sit shiva. Anybody can sit in mourning for a spouse.

“If she wanted to say a prayer, I would find a prayer that wouldn’t compromise Jewish integrity,” he continued. “If she wanted to wear a ribbon and tear her clothes, that would be perfectly in order.

“I would do everything I could to offer comfort and help her through it,” he said. “What I’m trying to do is recognize that this is a family, and as a family, they are going through life on a journey together.”

As a Reform Jew, Prystowsky said, he is not bound by halachah, but rather guided by it.

“Take the burial,” he said. “As I understand it, a strict interpretation of halachah would mean that a Jewish person and a non-Jewish person should not be buried close together, without some separation.

“[But] if a husband and wife have lived together and raised Jewish children together, they certainly deserve to be buried together.”

On one issue, however, Prystowsky was adamant: “No participation of any non-Jewish clergy.”

However, observed the RRA’s Hirsh, participating in interfaith funerals, as opposed to interfaith weddings, “may not be so strange.”

“A Jewish wedding has a certain halachic context, in which it’s understood that it’s a Jewish covenantal event between two Jews,” Hirsh said. “A burial is a singular event. You’re not doing it for two people. It’s about one person, the person who’s deceased.

“It’s easier [for a rabbi] to be in a position of default of pastor rather than posek”–interpreter of Jewish law–“at a funeral than at a wedding,” he said. “At a funeral, what you’re doing is emotionally consequential and halachically less consequential.”

He can even imagine that many rabbis who would not be comfortable co-officiating at an intermarriage would be open to participating in a funeral for an interfaith family, Hirsh added.

“It’s really hard for me to imagine turning someone down who’s in distress,” he said. “The advocacy here is–given the intensity of the emotions around death, it’s not a particularly good time to pull halachic rank, in my opinion.

“I guess the bottom line is, it’s going to be really hard to have hard-and-fast rules,” the rabbi said. “Essentially, people just want to be taken care of.”

(c) 2000 Philadelphia Jewish Exponent

About Marilyn Silverstein

Marilyn Silverstein is a staff writer for The New Jersey Jewish News. She can be reached at