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In Study, Reform Takes Stock of Outreach to Intermarrieds

December 5, 2001
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In a recent essay, Rabbi Jonathan Kraus writes how in the course of a week, one member complained to him that the synagogue was pressuring his non-Jewish wife to convert, while another said the congregation was doing too little to reach out to her non-Jewish husband.

“A rabbi who works with interfaith families walks a tightrope,” Kraus, the spiritual leader of Beth El Temple Center, a Reform temple in suburban Boston, writes in the recently published “Guide to Jewish Interfaith Family Life.”

“If I take the risk of asking non-Jewish partners whether they’ve ever thought about becoming Jewish, my inquiry may be received as a welcoming invitation or an offensive invasion of privacy.”

Kraus’ conundrum reflects an ambivalence in Reform Judaism, which is the largest stream of Judaism in the United States and has earned the reputation in the past 20 years as the movement most welcoming of intermarried families.

Reform’s track record with interfaith families is explored in a study commissioned by the movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

Reform congregations are doing a good job of making interfaith families feel welcome, finds the study, but are less effective at encouraging these families to “move along in their Jewish journey.”

The study was released this week, on the eve of the UAHC’s biennial conference in Boston, being held from Wednesday to Sunday.

The new study, based on interviews with rabbis and members of six synagogues in the Northeast and Southeast of the United States, highlights the successes and challenges of integrating intermarried families into synagogue life.

Dru Greenwood, the UAHC’s director of outreach and synagogue affiliation, said she believes the study’s findings are applicable beyond the East Coast. But she hopes to do future studies in the West, Southwest and Canada. Studies show that more Jews in the West and Southwest are intermarried than are those on the East Coast.

Among the findings of the study, conducted by researchers at Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies:

Intermarried families feel welcome, but congregations do not do enough to “move families along in their Jewish journey. A delicate balance needs to be struck between making non-Jewish members feel comfortable and welcome within the congregation and motivating them to try out new avenues of Jewish practice;”

Rabbis play a critical role in determining whether intermarried families feel welcome, and their success at developing relationships with such families seems to be more important than whether they officiate at interfaith weddings;

Synagogues have been unsuccessful at reaching young intermarried couples and young couples in general, particularly ones without school-age children;

Jews by choice need more attention and mentoring after they have undergone conversion than they currently receive;

Programs that specifically target intermarried families have declined in popularity, in part because intermarried families feel less isolated and more accepted than they did in the past. Parent education efforts that teach the basics of Judaism and do not single out intermarried families appear to be more successful;

Many members view non-Jewish partners and partners who have converted to Judaism as a positive influence on the synagogue, with Jews by choice often serving “as an inspiration to the congregation at large;”

Congregations are continuing to struggle with what ritual and leadership roles non-Jewish members can play – – such as whether they can serve on the board or recite blessings at family life cycle events. Small congregations, which rely more heavily on volunteer participation, are more likely to allow non-Jews to assume such roles, with some even having non-Jewish members teach Hebrew school.

Greenwood said the study “confirms that the programs the UAHC has begun in the past few years are steps in the right direction.”

She said she is pleased to learn that interfaith families feel comfortable in Reform synagogues, and hopes the study spurs more congregations to implement several new projects to engage families in their synagogues and offer more services for converts.

While the UAHC has no immediate plans to increase funding for expanded outreach efforts, it is encouraging synagogues to offer programs it has designed, such as educational programs for expectant parents and parents of newborns, as well as a program that trains congregants to mentor and welcome new converts.

The UAHC is also seeking to increase overall involvement of Jews in their 20s and 30s. This week’s biennial included, for the first time, a special track for young Jews.

Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, said he was heartened by the study’s findings that interfaith families feel comfortable in Reform synagogues, especially since previous research has indicated that synagogues are “high-barrier institutions” and less likely to attract intermarried families than other Jewish programming.

He said the study also confirms anecdotal reports that outreach to intermarried families “has the potential to renew the synagogue from within and reach people that are already closer in.”

Ed Case, publisher of, a Webzine for intermarried families, said he welcomed the UAHC study and hoped it would spur the UAHC to invest more money in training rabbis to welcome and engage intermarried families.

Case, who is intermarried and the member of a Reform synagogue in suburban Boston, said many of the findings — particularly about the central role rabbis can play and the positive influence interfaith families can have in congregations — echoed his observations at his own synagogue and things his readers have reported.

However, Case questioned whether a rabbi’s refusal to officiate at intermarriages really, as the study indicates, does not affect the welcoming atmosphere of the synagogue.

“Many of the people in the study are parents of school-age children,” he said. “I’m not sure if they were the same people who tried to find a rabbi to officiate at their wedding, couldn’t find a rabbi and didn’t ever come back.”

Approximately 42 percent of Reform rabbis officiate at intermarriages, according to a 1999 survey by the Rabbinic Center for Research and Counseling, a group that helps interfaith couples find rabbis willing to marry them.

Orthodox and Conservative rabbis are forbidden from performing weddings between Jews and non-Jews.

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