Rabbis Improve Outreach to Interfaith Families, Survey Finds

By Eric J. Greenberg

Published October 15, 2004, issue of October 15, 2004.
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With interfaith marriage a growing fact of life in the Jewish community, non-Orthodox rabbis are increasingly attempting to include non-Jewish relatives in life-cycle events, a new first-of-its-kind survey has found.

The survey, titled “Rabbis and the Intermarried Family in the Jewish Community,” sponsored by the Jewish Outreach Institute, is based on interviews with 183 Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and Jewish Renewal rabbis across the country (Orthodox rabbis were not questioned). It suggested that issues involving intermarried couples do not end after the wedding, but continue throughout the family’s lifetime, including bar mitzvahs and funerals, said the institute’s director, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky.

“The wedding and the question of rabbinic officiation is the beginning of the conversation, not the end,” said Olitzky, whose New York-based institute advocates increased communal outreach to intermarried families.

The study comes as one of the Jewish community’s most influential philanthropic leaders, Edgar Bronfman, is reportedly promising to launch a campaign to convince Jewish communal institutions to drop policies that alienate intermarried families.

Bronfman, chairman of Hillel’s International Board of Governors and president of the World Jewish Congress, was recently quoted in London Jewish Chronicle as saying that the time has come for the Jewish community to abandon its fight against intermarriage, which he called “racist,” complaining that “the whole concept of Jewish peoplehood, and the lines being pure, begins to sound a little like Nazism, meaning racism.” Bronfman reportedly derided the current communal attitude as “dated” and warned that “we can make an attempt to double the amount of Jews that there are, or we can irritate everybody who’s intermarried, and lose them all.”

Calls to Bronfman were not returned.

Bronfman’s Nazi allusion is sure to rile communal leaders, and appears to be off the mark: Many leading proponents of strict restrictions on intermarriage and non-Jewish participation also advocate an inclusive approach to converts, undermining the claim that racial concerns are at play. But Bronfman’s broader argument in favor of more liberal standards appears to be gaining ground already, according to the institute’s new survey.

The report found that, even among the 86 Conservative rabbis interviewed, significant numbers of respondents were willing to include non-Jewish relatives in life-cycle events. Unlike the rabbis affiliated with more liberal denominations — who generally are free to set their own policies regarding intermarriage and non-Jewish family members — Conservative clergymen must balance their desire to adopt a more open approach with their movement’s ban on officiating at interfaith weddings and granting certain ritual honors to non-Jews.

In cases in which no theological directive exists prohibiting non-Jewish participation, some Conservative rabbis are attempting to be inclusive, the study found.

When asked if they would allow a non-Jewish parent to stand on the bimah, or stage, at a bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah ceremony, 75% of Conservative rabbis responded positively. Almost all Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis said yes.

“The great majority” of Conservative respondents ordained since 1980 would “extend that role to saying something from the bimah,” according to the survey.

About one-third of the Conservative respondents said they would officiate at the funeral of a non-Jew who was either a member of the congregation or close to the rabbi. In comparison, 75% or more of the Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis said they would. A large majority of the participants from all the denominations allow non-Jews to serve as pallbearers or to deliver a eulogy.

“If you compare funerals to weddings, where there is no variation in practice, there is much more openness at funerals,” Olitzky said.

Rabbi Jan Urbach, religious leader of The Conservative Synagogue of the Hamptons, in New York, said her general rule is “to be as inclusive as I can possibly be and as welcoming as I can possibly be while maintaining the integrity of the tradition.”

Chicago-area Reform Rabbi Sam Gordon, who has worked with intermarried couples for years, says the study proves wrong those Jewish leaders who advocate writing off intermarried couples and “confirms that there are non-Jews actively wanting to be part of the Jewish community, including to be involved in synagogue life.”

Olitzky argued that with the latest National Jewish Population Survey study finding more than 1 million intermarried households in the Jewish community, it was vital for synagogues and other Jewish institutions to adopt more liberal policies. “We want people to see interfaith marriage not as Jews marrying out but non-Jews marrying in, and that is the rabbi’s role.”

Sociologist Steven Bayme, national director of the American Jewish Committee’s contemporary Jewish life department, who argued that rabbis should not abandon the traditional Jewish communal preference for endogamy or conversion before marriage, criticized the push for more liberal standards.

“Outreach should not result in a transformation in Jewish values so that the age-old imperative of Jews marrying Jews gets muted in favor of neutrality toward intermarriage,” he said.

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