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Rabbis and Intermarriage: Survey Finds a ‘greater Accommodation’

Leaders of two of Judaism’s religious streams are questioning some of the results of a just-published study that tracked rabbis’ attitudes toward interfaith marriages.

The survey, sponsored by the Jewish Outreach Institute under the direction of Jewish sociologist Egon Mayer, asked rabbis from the four streams of Judaism questions about their attitudes.

Of 650 rabbis sent the questionnaire, 325 returned the survey, which is believed to be the first interdenominational study of how rabbis feel about intermarriage.

“The major significance of the survey is that we did get a sense of change toward greater accommodation to interfaith families,” said Mayer.

Among the survey’s findings:

More than half of Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis believe their synagogues have more to gain than lose by accommodating the needs of interfaith couples;

Nearly half of the respondents said their attitudes had changed since the results of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, which reported that half of all Jews marrying since 1985 had intermarried, with 43 percent of the respondents saying they have become more accepting of interfaith couples;

A majority of rabbis polled — 76 percent — offer outreach to couples in their congregation or community;

36 percent of Reform rabbis said they would officiate at interfaith weddings, and 62 percent of Reconstructionist rabbis said they would officiate at such marriages;

While none of the Conservative or Orthodox rabbis who responded to the survey said they would officiate at interfaith ceremonies, 32 percent of Conservative rabbis and 11 percent of Orthodox rabbis said they would refer interfaith couples to other rabbis who do.

It is these latter two results that are creating the most controversy.

Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, the executive director of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, took issue with the survey’s finding that 62 percent of Reconstructionist rabbis said they would officiate at an intermarriage.

Liebling said many Reconstructionist rabbis answered affirmatively to the question, “Would you in any circumstances perform at an interfaith marriage,” because Reconstructionist rabbis treat each couple individually and would not want to rule out any possibility.

Mayer stood by his findings.

“I think our findings are solid and our methods are solid. We were as careful as we could be,” he said of the survey, which was conducted by the Center for Jewish Studies of the City University of New York.

The center used two focus groups of interdenominational rabbis and sample selected from a recent directory of each movement’s association.

Mayer did say that the relatively small numbers of Reconstructionist — 23 – – and Orthodox — 31 — rabbis who were represented in the survey could lead to large margins of error.

Liebling also worried that the results exaggerated the differences between the various streams of Judaism.

“I don’t want the Orthodox to think they don’t live in the same world we do,” he said.

Steven Dworken, the executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, which represents centrist Orthodox rabbis, said he was mystified by the finding that 11 percent of Orthodox rabbis who said that while they would not officiate at interfaith marriages, they would refer an interfaith couple to a rabbi who did.

“It’s an aberration. I don’t understand it,” said Dworken. “Having a so-called rabbi officiate at such a ceremony is much worse than having a civil ceremony,” said Dworken.

Mayer had a different explanation.

“What this survey tells us is that their congregations have a much more diverse set of needs than what is covered by the official ideology of each movement,” he said. “Given the demographic pressure and the desire to keep the Jewish community intact, rabbis are trying to make what is in their judgment a reasonable accommodation.”

“Rabbis who are referring people [to other rabbis] aren’t approving of intermarriage, but at the same time they’re dealing with specific human beings who have specific human needs. Their practice is a pluralistic practice.”

People interested in the full report can access the institute’s Web site at: www.joi.org

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