Rabbis Improve Outreach to Interfaith Families, Survey Finds

By Eric J. Greenberg

Published October 15, 2004, issue of October 15, 2004.
  • Print
  • Share Share

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.






Find us on Facebook!
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.