At a summit held in October at the National Museum of American Jewish History, several hundred communal professionals, rabbis, scholars, philanthropists, and young intermarried couples discussed engagement of interfaith families in Jewish life.
There is widespread communal agreement that intermarriage has reshaped the landscape of American-Jewish life, but a lack of consensus regarding how best to respond. At the forefront of the controversy has been rabbinic officiation at intermarriage ceremonies.
For some, the debate over whether a rabbi or cantor should conduct an interfaith wedding hinges on theological questions. But for many, it is also about the impact that rabbinic officiation might have on the Jewish character of the families these couples create. Contrary to the long-held assumption that choosing a Jewish officiant is only a symbolic act, we now have strong evidence of the association between rabbinic officiation and intermarried couples’ subsequent involvement in Jewish life.
Our report, “Under the Chuppah: Rabbinic Officiation and Intermarriage,” explores the trajectories of Jewish engagement of a large group of young Jews married to Jewish and non-Jewish spouses. As part of a follow-up study of 2001-09 applicants to Birthright Israel, we surveyed 1,200 married young adults. We explored differences among inmarried couples, intermarried couples who had a sole Jewish clergy officiant, and intermarried couples who married under other auspices (e.g., justice of the peace, friend, or family member).
The data are unequivocal that intermarried couples whose weddings were officiated by Jewish clergy as the only officiant are more highly engaged in Jewish life than other intermarried couples. Among them, 85 percent who now have children reported that the religion in which their children are being raised is Judaism.
This is in stark contrast to the intermarried couples who did not have a sole Jewish officiant, of whom 23 percent are raising their children Jewish. One-third of intermarried couples who had a rabbi or cantor as sole officiant are synagogue members. This number is more than four times higher than the rate for intermarried couples married by another type of officiant.
On synagogue membership and raising children Jewish, then, intermarried couples with sole Jewish clergy officiation are not very different from inmarried couples. The rates of synagogue membership are 34 percent for the former, 41 percent for the latter, and for raising children Jewish, 85 and 94.
Sole Jewish officiation at intermarriages does not fully level the playing field between intermarried couples with a sole Jewish officiant and inmarried couples. For example, intermarried couples who had sole Jewish officiation are somewhat less likely to have a special meal on Shabbat.
Our study does not provide a full explanation of the reasons for the differences between intermarried couples with a sole Jewish officiant and other intermarried couples. The decision to have a Jewish officiant likely reflects a continuation of an existing Jewish trajectory of these couples. But it may also be that the involvement of Jewish clergy has an independent impact on their lives. Interactions with Jewish clergy in preparation for the wedding may serve to welcome the non-Jewish partner into Judaism, establish the groundwork for a continuing relationship, and affirm the couple’s decision to raise a Jewish family. Conversely, rejection by clergy, even with a referral to another rabbi, may have a negative effect.
What does seem apparent is that most couples who engaged rabbis for officiation purposes appear to have Jewish commitments that carry over past the wedding ceremony.
In contrast to demographic studies which, while valuable, tell us more about the past than the future, our socio-psychological studies of intermarried young couples also provide critical data for thinking about the future.
We would like to think that through our research, we are discovering that the consequences of intermarriage that we have long expected to be devastating vis-a-vis the Jewish future may not be inevitable.