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Rabbis Improve Outreach to Families, Survey Finds

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
November - December 2004

With interfaith marriage a growing fact of life in the Jewish community, non-Orthodox rabbis are increasingly attempting to include non-Jewish relatives in life-cycle events, a new survey has found.  

The Forward, (Oct. 15, 2004) reports that the survey, titled “Rabbis and the Intermarried Family in the Jewish Community,” sponsored by the Jewish Outreach Institute, is based on interviews with Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and Jewish Renewal rabbis across the country. It suggested that issues involving intermarried couples do not end after the wedding, but continue throughout the family’s lifetime, including bar mitzvahs and funerals, said the institute’s director, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky.  

“The wedding and the question of rabbinic officiation is the beginning of the conversation, not the end,” said Olitzky, whose institute advocates increased communal outreach to intermarried families.  

“The study comes as one of the Jewish community’s most influential philanthropic leaders, Edgar Bronfman, is reportedly promising to launch a campaign to convince Jewish communal institutions to drop policies that alienate intermarried families,” reports The Forward.  

Bronfman, chairman of Hillel’s International Board of Governors and president of the World Jewish Congress, was recently quoted in London’s Jewish Chronicle as saying that the time has come for the Jewish community to abandon its fight against intermarriage, which he called “racist,” complaining that “the whole concept of Jewish peoplehood and the lines being pure, begins to sound a little like Nazism, meaning racism.”  

Bronfman reportedly derided the current communal attitude as “dated” and warned that “we can make an attempt to double the amount of Jews that there are, or we can irritate everybody who’s intermarried, and lose them all.”  

According to the new survey, Bronfman’s argument in favor of more liberal standards appears to be gaining ground. The report found that, even among the Conservative rabbis interviewed, significant numbers of respondents were willIng to include non-Jewish relatives in life cycle events. When asked if they would allow a non-Jewish parent to stand on the bimah, or stage, at a bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah ceremony, 75 percent of Conservative rabbis responded positively. Almost all Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis said said yes. “The great majority” of Conservative respondents ordained since 1980 would “extend that role to saying something from the bimah,” according to the survey.  

Sociologist Steven Bayme, national director of the American Jewish Committee’s contemporary life department, argued, that rabbis should not abandon the traditional Jewish communal preference for endogamy, or conversion before marriage, and criticized the push for more liberal standards. He said: “Outreach should not result in a transformation in Jewish values so that the age-old imperative of Jews marrying Jews gets muted in favor of neutrality toward intermarriage.”  

Others disagree. Chicago-area Reform Rabbi Sam Gordon, who has worked with intermarried couples for many years, says the study proves wrong those Jewish leaders who advocate writing off intermarried couples and “confirms that there are non-Jews actively wanting to be part of the Jewish community, including to be involved in synagogue life.”  

Rabbi Olitzky argued that with the National Jewish Population Survey study finding more than 1 million intermarried households in the Jewish community, it was vital for synagogues and other Jewish Institutions to adopt more liberal policies. “We want people to see interfaith marriage not as Jews marrying out but as non-Jews marrying in, and that is the rabbi’s role,” he said.  

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