Rabbis Shift To Say 'I Do' to Intermarriage

No Regrets for Those Who Agree To Officiate at Weddings

Interfaith Ceremony: Chelsea Clinton married Marc Mezvinsky in 2010 in Rhinebeck, New York.
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Interfaith Ceremony: Chelsea Clinton married Marc Mezvinsky in 2010 in Rhinebeck, New York.

By Nathan Guttman

Published February 03, 2014, issue of February 07, 2014.
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Since he attended the wedding, an internal voice calling on him to reverse his refusal to officiate interfaith weddings became louder, until he concluded that the fate of Jewish individuals takes primacy over warnings from demographers that intermarriage will bring about the demise of the Jewish people.

“When I understood that what’s important for me is the relationship between two people in the context of Jewish life, I knew what I should do,” Rosove said.

Rabbi James Ponet’s deliberations were similar. The Jewish chaplain of Yale University explained in an interview that his refusal early on to officiate interfaith weddings was driven by two concerns: “That I would be contributing to the demise of American Judaism, and that I would be chastened by colleagues.”

The stakes for Ponet were probably higher than for others. His decision in July 2010 to perform the wedding of Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky made him the rabbinic public face of interfaith marriages. “I outed myself,” he said, “and I knew it would impact the dialogue.”

Reaction to the high-profile celebrity interfaith wedding was mixed. Many expressed their support, while others saw it as a “terrible betrayal,” he recounted. Looking back, Ponet believes that performing the wedding was the right move, and that sticking to old beliefs about intermarriage contradicts the rabbinical mission of attending to the Jewish needs of Jewish people. “We were neglecting Jewish individuals for the sake of some theory of demography,” he said.

The demographic predictions that Ponet and others refer to are based primarily on studies showing that intermarriage is a key indicator for the loss of Jewish identity in the second generation. The recent survey by the Pew Research Center does find an increase in Jewish identity among individuals born to interfaith families in recent years, thanks, presumably, to a greater effort on behalf of the Jewish community to welcome intermarried families. But the numbers still show a significant difference between Jewish identification and behavior of in-married and out-married families.

“I know the statistics that only 25% of children of intermarried families will identify as Jewish, but I want to keep these 25% in our community,” Rosove said.

The Reform movement, America’s largest Jewish denomination, has become increasingly tolerant of rabbis officiating interfaith weddings. Though the movement does not have a clear policy on the issue, it is estimated that half of the 2,000 members of its rabbinic arm, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, now perform marriages between Jews and non-Jews.

In a January 14 telephone interview with Forward Editor-in-Chief Jane Eisner, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said that he had never performed an interfaith wedding during his many years as a pulpit rabbi. Asked if he would now agree to do so, Jacobs responded, “I probably would.”


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