Why Conservative Rabbis Should Hold Firm


To my colleagues, the Conservative rabbis who have announced that they will — or at least would like to — officiate at interfaith marriages, I say: “I get it. But I don’t get it.”

I get that in your mind officiation, rather than rejection, stands a greater chance of cementing a relationship with the interfaith couple and a commitment to raise their children as Jews.  I get the pain and disappointment of saying “I can’t do it” to young men and women for whom you have served as rabbi all their lives, some of whom have even attended our day schools and Camp Ramah.

But I don’t get how you deal with multiple studies over the last 25 years showing that officiation does not work to fold interfaith couples into more intensive Jewish commitment. I ask: How can any rabbi who is committed to a modicum of tribe defy the following worrisome statistics that have remained consistent for the last quarter-century?


The most recent Pew study of 2013 finds that intermarried Jews, like Jews of no religion, are much less likely to be raising their children in the Jewish faith.

“Nearly all Jews who have a Jewish spouse say they are raising their children as Jewish by religion (96%). Among Jews with a non-Jewish spouse, however, 20% say they are raising their children Jewish by religion, and 25% are raising their children partly Jewish by religion. Roughly one-third (37%) of intermarried Jews who are raising children say they are not raising those children Jewish at all.”

Then there is the finding by sociologist Steven M. Cohen that only eight percent of the intermarried couple’s grandchildren are being raised as Jewish by religion.

There is also the study by the late Professor Egon Mayer, a respected sociologist who in the late 1980s was commissioned by AJC to determine if indeed rabbinic officiation at intermarriage resulted in more couples raising their kids as Jews. By Mayer’s own admission, he wanted to find evidence that it did. His scholarship, though, brought him to the opposite conclusion.

Mayer found that while rabbinic officiation at interfaith marriages may achieve personal, emotional and/or aesthetic goals, it did not strengthen the Jewishness of bride and groom and their future family.

In fairness, there is one study by sociologist Leonard Saxe and others at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies that found that couples who are intermarried by a rabbi are three times more likely to raise their children as Jews when compared with intermarried couples who married under other auspices. Some of my colleagues who favor changing our practice seize upon this study. But look closer. At the end of the executive summary the authors acknowledge that the difference may be the previous “Jewish trajectory” of the couple even prior to recruiting a rabbi, or to a rabbi’s independent impact on the couple which has nothing to do with officiating.

In a phone interview, sociologist Steven Cohen offered this observation: “Among non-Orthodox Jews, the Conservative movement and the current rabbinic policy is not doing too badly. In marriages since 2000, whereas the intermarriage rate among Reform Jews is 82%, it is 39% among Conservative Jews. Conservative Jews are marrying “in” at a rate more than three times the rate of Reform Jews.  It looks to me like the Conservative policy ain’t broke. Why fix it?”

Room for improvement? Certainly.

Welcoming the intermarried and understanding that love will often prevail over tribe? Certainly.

Finding ways beyond ritual boundaries to include the non-Jewish spouse who is raising a Jewish family in community and celebrations? Absolutely.

The religious tapestry already shows an arsenal of approaches to the non-Jewish spouse. They include conversion, welcoming, outreach, and even Reform rabbis who won’t officiate. So why go further?

The available information does not suggest that we Conservative rabbis should change our standard in the naive hope that standing under the chuppah will have a significant impact on the Jewishness of interfaith couples or the families they build.

Conservative rabbis who decide to make this U-turn in our policy add nothing to the arsenal.

Rabbi Gerald L. Zelizer, a past president of the Rabbinical Assembly, is rabbi emeritus of Cong. Neve Shalom in Metuchen, NJ.