Focus on Issues: Survey Says Rabbis Performing Intermarriages at Record Rates

Nearly half of Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis now officiate at intermarriages, according to a new study.

The study was conducted by Rabbi Irwin Fishbein, a Reform rabbi who runs the Rabbinic Center for Research and Counseling in Westfield, N.J.

The center helps engaged couples find a rabbi to officiate at their wedding when one partner is Jewish and the other is not.

The study also found that, relative to five years ago, far fewer Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis require the couple to commit to having a Jewish home and raising children as Jews before agreeing to officiate.

A leader of the Reform rabbinic association disputed Fishbein’s findings, while the Reconstructionist movement confirmed their accuracy.

The 47 percent of rabbinic respondents who said they perform marriages between Jews and non-Jews represents a slight increase since 1990, when Fishbein conducted his last survey.

At that time, 43 percent of responding rabbis said they officiate at intermarriages.

Fishbein has conducted similar surveys of rabbis periodically since 1971.

In 1995, he sent questionnaires to the 1,651 members of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Reform rabbinic organization, and to the 167 members of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association.

He received 710 responses, a return rate of 40 percent.

Among the respondents, 48 percent of the Reform rabbis and 38 percent of the Reconstructionist rabbis said they perform intermarriages.

Fishbein publishes a list of 231 rabbis willing to officiate at intermarriages, which he sells for $20. Seventeen of those listed are Reconstructionist and the rest are Reform.

The Conservative and Orthodox rabbinical organizations prohibit their rabbis from officiating at intermarriages.

Rabbi Simeon Maslin, president of the CCAR, the Reform rabbis’ organization, questioned Fishbein’s findings.

“By no means do 48 percent officiate” at intermarriages, he said of his Reform colleagues.

Maslin estimated that between 33 percent and 40 percent of Reform rabbis would officiate at a mixed marriage.

“The people responding to him are a very skewed sample,” Maslin said, adding that “those willing to respond to him are those who do” officiate at intermarriages.

Fishbein said that the last time the CCAR did its own member survey to find out how many officiate at intermarriages, which was in 1971, it got a 41 percent response rate, which is about the same as the response rate he has been getting each time he conducts the survey.

Rabbi Michael Cohen, president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, said the percentage of his colleagues in Fishbein’s study who said they officiate at intermarriages – 38 percent – is an accurate reflection.

Different rabbis will perform an intermarriage under different circumstances.

Some have criteria so strict that few couples are able to meet them. Those rabbis might perform one or two intermarriages each year.

Others will marry any couple willing to pay the fee, which can run as high as $1,500.

At the same time, there has been a significant drop in the number of Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis who will officiate at an intermarriage only if the couple commits to having a Jewish home and raising Jewish children.

In 1990, a solid majority of both Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis – 64 percent and 70 percent, respectively – required that commitment from a couple before agreeing to officiate.

Five years later, 42 percent of Reform rabbis and 63 percent of Reconstructionist rabbis said they now have that condition.

In addition, a significant minority of respondents from both movements – 27 percent of Reform rabbis and 29 percent of Reconstructionist rabbis – are willing to co-officiate at a wedding with a priest or minister.

“There’s been a gradual recognition” that a commitment to having a Jewish home is “not something that rabbis can really require,” Fishbein said.

“You’re dealing with a future. Very often the couple themselves do not know what they are planning to do. More and more rabbis are confronted by couples who have not made a decision about how they will raise their children prior to marriage.

“There is more and more interest today in raising children with both religions,” he added.

“This is contrary to traditional philosophy about what is good for families and children, but there are thousands and thousands of families out there doing this,” he said.

In the new survey, another substantial minority of respondents – 39 percent – said they were willing to refer couples to other rabbis who officiate at intermarriages, though they themselves will not.

Only 14 percent of the respondents said they would neither preside over an intermarriage nor refer a interfaith couple to someone who does.

NEXT STORY