What We Are Not Asking When We Talk About Intermarriage

Monday in the JTA, Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom published an op-ed in which he argued that it was time that Conservative rabbis officiate at interfaith weddings, a practice of Reform, Reconstructionist and other liberal rabbis. Rosenbloom, who recently retired after serving 36 years at Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, spoke openly and honestly about his experience in the congregational rabbinate, as well as the personal experience of his stepdaughter marrying someone who isn’t Jewish. He writes:

We all want a strong future for our Jewish community. Intermarriage, the argument goes, weakens that future. But that’s not necessarily so. In most cases of intermarriage, Jewish partners are not abandoning Judaism or rejecting their heritage, family, congregation or people. They just want to marry the people they love.

His appeal is one that is most welcome. As a matter of full disclaimer, I am not a Conservative rabbi. Though I was raised in the Conservative movement, I no longer personally identify with it, and was ordained in the Reconstructionist movement. My movement permits rabbis to officiate at interfaith marriages as a matter of personal choice, and I have chosen to officiate at weddings in which one of the participants is not Jewish.

READ: How to Find A Rabbi or Cantor to Officiate at An Interfaith Wedding

I remember when I was finishing rabbinical school I was unclear about what my position would be. When I visited what would turn out to be my current congregation, I recognized that there were a good number of intermarried families, all fully engaged in the life of the congregation. I decided I would officiate because I was witnessing that intermarriage is not a barrier to participation in Jewish life. My experience over 13 years in the rabbinate so far has continued to confirm this conviction.

READ: Intermarriage Is Not the Problem

As rabbis, we have a choice to make — we can say “yes” or “no.” We can welcome, or rebuff. And when we do turn people away who are getting married to someone who isn’t Jewish, who are seeking out a rabbi specifically for officiation, we as rabbis need to think seriously about the consequences of our answers. It is doubtful that a committed interfaith couple is going to change their mind about marriage simply because a rabbi declines to officiate. They may change their minds about Jewish community, though.

Or as Rosenbloom writes, “But those we push away on Saturday night are not so ready to come back on Sunday morning.”

Of course, all groups need to have boundaries. (And for Conservative rabbis, the halakhic, or Jewish legal, implications will need to be addressed). But in our roles as communal leaders, rabbis will need to decide where to draw them. And the expanding roles of rabbis in officiation is a place where we should redraw the boundaries to be more expansive and inclusive.

READ: Op-Ed: If You Marry A Jew, You’re One of Us

For Jewish communal demographics, the Pew Study “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” published in late 2013 is our most current picture of the American Jewish community. This study confirmed earlier demographic trends, that intermarriage within the Jewish community continues to rise, and the children of in-married couples have higher rates of Jewish identification than those of intermarried couples.

But there is a question I have, a data point I would like to see, related to the statistics on intermarriage: Who officiated at the wedding? What is the difference in affiliation between those intermarried couples who had a rabbi officiate at their wedding, and those who did not? And of those who did not, what are the affiliation differences between those who had a clergy member of another faith officiate versus a civil authority? And also of those who did not, what is the affiliation rate of those who first approached a rabbi and were turned away?

READ: Growing Number of Rabbis Are Children of Intermarriage

I don’t have the demographic data to prove it (and if I’m wrong, please let me know), but I am going to guess that those intermarried couples that were married by a rabbi in a Jewish ceremony have higher affiliation rates and children who identify as Jewish than those who did not.

Or maybe we do have some demographic data, or at least some demographic hints. In the Pew study, we also find the following analysis:

When we look at all adults who have just one Jewish parent – including both those who identify as Jewish and those who do not – we see that the Jewish retention rate of people raised in intermarried families appears to be rising. That is, among all adults (both Jewish and non-Jewish) who say they had one Jewish parent and one non-Jewish parent, younger generations are more likely than older generations to be Jewish today.

For example, among U.S. adults ages 65 and older who had one Jewish parent, 25% are Jewish today (including 7% who are Jews by religion and 18% who are Jews of no religion), while 75% are not Jewish (meaning that they currently identify with a religion other than Judaism or that they do not consider themselves Jewish in any way, either by religion or otherwise). Among adults younger than 30 who have one Jewish parent, by contrast, 59% are Jewish today, including 29% who are Jews by religion and 30% who are Jews of no religion.

Overall, older adults are also the product of a time when intermarriage rates are lower. But I am going to guess that for those older adults with one Jewish parent, the rates of rabbinic officiation of their parents’ weddings was also quite low, if at all. But because of changing times and attitudes, for younger adults with one Jewish parent—whose Jewish identification rates are much higher—there is also the probability that the rates of rabbinic officiation of their parent’s weddings is higher as well.

Could this difference in Jewish identification between these two demographic groups be because of who officiated at the marriage? I don’t know if we have an exact answer. But we do need to ask the question.

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