Rabbis interfaith approach widens

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Reconstructionist Rabbi Malka Packer-Monroe
officiates an interfaith wedding in 2017. Photo courtesy of InterfaithFamily.

If you’re in the market for a rabbi to officiate your interfaith wedding, it’s much more of a buyer’s market than 20 years ago.

That’s according to a new survey of American rabbis — mostly Reform and Reconstructionist — that shows an increasing acceptance of interfaith marriage.

The survey, compiled by the non-profit InterfaithFamily, found that more than 85 percent of respondents said they officiate at interfaith weddings, though just 25 percent would co-officiate a ceremony with a spiritual leader of another faith.

Of the rabbis that perform interfaith marriages, 59 percent require couples to commit to having a Jewish household and raising Jewish children.

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Twenty-two percent require that the non-Jewish partner not be “committed” to a different faith, and 13 percent require partners to be open to conversion.

According to InterfaithFamily CEO Jodi Bromberg, the survey was taken by 881 rabbis in the United States; 500 are from the Reform Central Conference of American Rabbis, 149 are from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association and 60 are from the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly. The remainder are unaffiliated.

None were Orthodox. As a rule, Orthodox rabbis do not officiate at weddings where one of the partners is not Jewish.

“We’re clearly seeing increasing trend lines toward officiation,” Bromberg said. “And in particular, more recently ordained rabbis tend to officiate.”

By contrast, a 1997 survey of 325 rabbis nationwide found that slightly more than a third of Reform rabbis would perform interfaith weddings. In 2017, the Rabbinical Assembly reaffirmed its ban on intermarriage.
The InterfaithFamily survey does not parse results by denomination.

Bromberg said that of respondents ordained before 2000, 83 percent officiate at interfaith weddings. That number jumps to 93 percent for those ordained after 2010. But what InterfaithFamily really hoped to do was to take a more nuanced look at interfaith marriage than the simple question of whether a rabbi is willing to perform one.

Rabbi Gilah Langner of Kol Ami, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Arlington, said she officiates at interfaith weddings but needs certain conditions met, if not explicitly spelled out.

“I don’t generally do it when it’s only to satisfy a Jewish grandmother and it has no meaning to the couple,” Langner said. “If they’ve already agreed to raise the kids Catholic, they don’t really need a rabbi.”

She said she’s more likely to officiate at a wedding if the couple plans to raise any children they might have in the tradition, but she doesn’t require a pledge, as some rabbis do.

Since her ordination in 2003, Langner said she’s seen a “tidal wave” of increased openness toward interfaith weddings.

“For decades we were like, ‘Oh, there’s this threat of intermarriage, what are we going to do about it? We’ve got to batten down the hatches.’” Langner explained.

“The rabbis were several paces, if not miles, behind the community and their congregants. It’s pretty clear in the United States that the Jewish community wants to have very open boundaries.”

InterfaithFamily has offered a life cycle rabbinical referral service for interfaith families since 2004, Bromberg said, and is interested in making the wants and needs of both clergy and couples better understood by the other.

As the results show, simply knowing whether a rabbi is willing to perform an interfaith marriage is not all there is to the process.

A 2016 report by Brandeis University found that interfaith couples married by a rabbi are three times more likely to raise subsequent children as Jewish than those who are not, so Bromberg sees the survey’s findings as good news.

“We’re not in the business of telling clergy what they should or shouldn’t do,” Bromberg said. “But I think we need to get into the nuances. I’d like this conversation to deepen and expand to talk about the needs of interfaith couples.”

When she married her Christian husband 15 years ago, Diane Greenbaum had no trouble finding a rabbi who would co-officiate — still a relative rarity, according to the InterfaithFamily survey. Greenbaum, who now lives in Alexandria, had already agreed with her husband, Jon, that they’d raise any children they had Jewish.

Her childhood rabbi had one condition, though: that the wedding not be at his Reform North Carolina synagogue, where Greenbaum attended growing up.

“It was a disappointment to hear that,” Greenbaum said. “But we weren’t planning to do it in my hometown anyway.”

Rabbi Daniel Zemel at Temple Micah draws a line at co-officiating a wedding with clergy from another faith.

“A marriage ritual is about uniting people’s lives. Two people are walking down the aisle and they’re coming together as one,” Zemel said. “I don’t understand having two faiths because it highlights the difference rather than cementing the shared.”

But he’s an adamant proponent of rabbi-led interfaith weddings.

Zemel doesn’t require any commitment to having a Jewish household because, he says, he doesn’t want a couple to simply tell him what he wants to hear about an event that could be years in the future.

The Reform rabbi, who was ordained in 1979, didn’t always hold the same position, though. In 2009, he announced in an open letter that he would begin performing interfaith marriages.

Previously, he’d thought that the religious integrity of such a wedding was somehow compromised. But in looking to the future, he wrote, he saw a multicultural world in which Judaism would need to be open and welcoming in order to thrive.

“American culture can be a very lonely place,” said Zemel, “and finding someone that you love, even of a different faith, is of critical importance to a fulfilled life on this continent.”

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