Survey of the American Rabbinate

The high and ever growing incidence of interfaith marriage among American Jews is posing a difficult challenge to the majority of American rabbis, forcing many into a fundamental conflict between their religious convictions and their desire to meet the needs of their congregants. That is one of the central conclusions of a new national survey sponsored by the Jewish Outreach Institute, an independent educational and research organization working to promote the Jewish continuity of interfaith families.

Close to half the rabbis responding to the survey indicated that their attitudes toward intermarriage had undergone change -- most toward greater accommodation of the needs of the intermarried families -- as a result of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, which had shown that more than half of Jews getting married since 1985 are marrying someone who is not Jewish and fewer than a third of those couples are committed to raising their children as Jews.
  The present study is the first scientific survey of the American rabbinate ever undertaken on this critical issue. The study was initiated and underwritten by the Levitt Foundation of Minneapolis.

Rabbis are trained primarily as scholars and educators. Yet, a significant part of their professional life is taken up with the performance of ceremonial functions associated with weddings, births and funerals. Because Jewish law, known as halachah, prohibits marriage between Jews and non-Jews, rabbis face a dilemma when confronted by couples seeking to be married by them when one of the prospective marriage partners is not Jewish. In recent years each rabbinical association (Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Reconstructionist) has addressed the issue of what its members may or may not do for interfaith couples seeking marriage officiation. The more traditional movements (Conservative and Orthodox) have banned any accommodation to interfaith couples seeking rabbinic help in getting married. The more liberal movements (Reform and Reconstructionist) have refrained from mandating any particular course of action among their members. Instead, they have permitted each rabbi to follow the dictates of his or her own conscience in the matter.

Recognizing the deep concerns of the American rabbinate over the issue of interfaith marriage, The Levitt Foundation took great pains to provide the research team with the necessary support to assure the survey's independence and scientific quality. The

research team responsible for the survey was headed by Dr. Egon Mayer, Director of Research of the Jewish Outreach Institute, and was carried out by the Center for Jewish Studies of the Graduate School of the City University of New York, with the assistance of social scientists involved in the renowned 1990 National Jewish Population Survey.

The Sample

The rabbis in the sample were drawn at random from the most current official directories of their respective rabbinic associations, including The Rabbinical Council of America (Orthodox), The Rabbinical Assembly (Conservative), The Central Conference of American Rabbis (Reform) and The Reconstructionist Rabbinical Assembly.

The study questionnaire, which was sent to a representative sample of six hundred and fifty (650) pulpit rabbis, was prepared with the cooperation of a series of rabbinic focus groups. These groups included men and women rabbis of all ages, representing each branch of the Judaism. Their guidance played an important part in the formulation of the survey questions to be asked of hundreds of their colleagues. Table 1 presents the number of rabbis from each branch of Judaism who were sent questionnaires.

Table 1

Number of Questionnaires Sent to Rabbis of Each Branch of Judaism
 

Branch of Judaism

Number of Questionnaires Sent
Orthodox

100

Conservative

250

Reform

250

Reconstructionist

50

TOTAL

650

By the second week of September, 1997, three hundred and twenty five (325) completed questionnaires were returned. Allowing for the return of undeliverable surveys due to changes of address, the survey resulted in a response rate of over fifty percent (50%). The high response rate to this mail survey is but one indication of the great concern American rabbis have about this issue.

 

Profile of Respondents

The figures below summarize the salient demographic characteristics of our survey respondents. There is good reason to believe that our sample of respondents is a fair representation of the broad cross-section of the American rabbinate.

Table 2

Branch of Judaism & Sex of Respondents
 

Sex of Respondent

Orthodox Conservative Reform Reconstructionist Total
Male 31 120 105 11 267 (86%)
Female 0 10 20 12 42 (14%)
TOTAL 31 130 125 23 309 (100%)
Percent of Total 10% 42% 40% 8% N = 325 *

NOTE: The remaining 16 rabbis did not furnish this self-identifying information

The percentage distributions of rabbis by the main branches of Judaism very nearly represent the relative distribution of the American Jewish population in those branches with an over representation of the Reconstructionist (the smallest of the branches of American Judaism) so as to allow us to include a sufficient number of Reconstructionist rabbis in our sample for analytic purposes. Orthodox rabbis were also over-sampled, but relatively fewer of them responded to the survey than rabbis of any other group.

Based on the completed surveys, it might appear that women make up about 14% of the rabbinate. But the more appropriate percentage needs to be calculated on each of the branches separately. The Orthodox do not admit women into the rabbinate. The Conservative movement only began to ordain women in the mid 1980s and the Rabbinical Assembly reports just 34 women out of 617 pulpit rabbis in Conservative congregations. In a recent personal communication Rabbi Elliot L. Stevens, Executive Secretary of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (Reform) reported that women make up roughly 14% of that organization’s membership. Thus, our sample has a larger proportion of women than is characteristic of the rabbinate as a whole. This fact might indicate a greater interest on the part of women rabbis than of men in the issue under consideration. Although we have no available data concerning the overall age distribution of the American rabbinate, we have no reason to believe that the age distribution of our sample is anything other than representative of the population of rabbis.

Table 3

The age distribution of the sample

 

Age Categories

Number Percent
29 - 39 50 16
40 - 49 128 41
50 - 59 66 21
60 & over 69 22
TOTAL 313 * 100

NOTE: The remaining 12 rabbis did not furnish this self-identifying information

Completed survey questionnaires were received from rabbis in thirty-two (32) states. The table below summarizes their regional distribution.

Table 4

Regional distribution of the sample

 

Region

Number Percent
Northeast 181 56
Midwest 40 13
South 57 18
West 43 13
TOTAL 321 * 100

NOTE: The remaining 4 rabbis did not furnish this self-identifying information

Not surprisingly the majority of our sample consists of rabbis from the Northeastern part of the United States, where there continues to be the highest concentration of the American Jewish population.

Given the high value placed on marriage within Judaism, it is also unsurprising to learn that ninety-two percent (92%) of respondents are currently married. Though, fifteen percent (15%) of all currently married rabbis were in second marriages. About eight percent (8%) are currently single. None of the respondents to this survey reported being in an interfaith marriage themselves. However, more than half (59%) reported having cousins or other distant relatives who are in interfaith marriages.

Nearly one quarter (23%) have siblings who are or have been in an interfaith marriage and about eighteen percent (18%) report having nieces or nephews who are in an interfaith marriage. Far fewer reported having children or grandchildren in an interfaith marriage.

Key Findings

Rabbis & Weddings

Interfaith marriage is both a practical and symbolic issue in the life of a rabbi. On the symbolic level, such marriage represents the degree to which Jews have become integrated into the wider society around them. Besides being the ultimate symbol of social integration, interfaith marriage also represents an omen of impending loss -- the loss of Jewish identity. When asked what they feel toward interfaith couples, the most common feeling reported by our respondents was "concern about the couple's future. In explaining that sense of "concern," many indicated that they worried about how couples will be able to reconcile their differences, raise children, and find a shared community to belong to. Overall, a high majority of rabbis (74%) are concerned about the couple’s future. Though only a minority (25%) of the rabbis accept interfaith couples, the majority of rabbis (54%) express empathy toward them.

Quite apart from its symbolic significance, interfaith marriage poses practical concerns for most rabbis. The survey therefore focussed first on how often rabbis deal with couples getting married in general? That question itself is more complex than one would think because, as rabbis have informed us time and again, "couples often shop around." The "shopping around" occurs for many reasons, stemming from considerations of scheduling, geographic location and cost, not to mention issues of family preferences and differing levels of comfort between the couple and any particular rabbi.

Rabbis report that on the average they officiate at eleven (11) weddings a year altogether. Most rabbis about eighty percent (80%) do not officiate at a wedding where either the bride or the groom is not of the Jewish faith. Whether or not they officiate at an interfaith wedding ceremony, however, ninety-six percent (96%) say they will meet with interfaith couples who are contemplating marriage. Typically, those rabbis who do officiate at interfaith wedding ceremonies report meeting with many more interfaith couples (about ten (10) per year) than those who do not (about four (4) per year).   Interestingly, there is also a considerable difference in the number of all weddings performed by rabbis depending on whether they do or do not officiate at the weddings of interfaith couples. Among the rabbis who do officiate at the weddings of interfaith couples the median number of all weddings is twelve (12), while among those who do not officiate at such weddings the median of all weddings performed is seven (7).

 

The difference in the typical number of weddings performed per year by rabbis who do officiate at the weddings of interfaith couples in comparison with those of their colleagues who do not is all the more interesting when looked at in the context of congregational size. The average size of congregations of rabbis who do officiate at intermarriages is smaller than those of their colleagues who do not officiate at such weddings (300 and 450 membership units respectively). To the extent that congregational size is also related to professional prestige, it would seem that those rabbis who officiate at interfaith marriages are also less likely to enjoy the level of professional prestige enjoyed by those of their colleagues who do not so.

The above findings further suggest that there may be a considerable specialization in the American rabbinate, with rabbis who are willing to officiate at the weddings of interfaith couples performing proportionally more weddings each year than those of their colleagues who do no such officiation. The disparity is undoubtedly also a reflection of the demographic fact that interfaith couples are more numerous among the newlyweds today than same-faith Jewish couples. Therefore, the relatively few rabbis who are willing to officiate at the weddings of interfaith couples are likely to have a greater demand for their services than the far many more rabbis who do not.

Officiating at wedding services generally also involves an honorarium for rabbis. More than half (56%) report that they receive a honorarium for officiating at the wedding of a member of their congregation. That figure rises to 94% when the question concerns officiation at the wedding of someone who is not a member of the rabbi's own congregation.

The median honorarium is $200 dollars for a wedding of a synagogue member; for non-members the reported median is $300 dollars. The later figure actually masks an even greater discrepancy when the wedding ceremony in question is that of an interfaith couple. Although rabbis were not asked directly whether they receive a higher honorarium for the wedding ceremony of an interfaith couple than for the wedding of a couple where both partners are Jewish, the survey offers suggestive evidence for that conclusion.

Table 5

Median amount of honorarium received for performing a wedding ceremony

by whether the rabbi officiates or not at intermarriages
 

Membership Status

Rabbi Officiates Intermarriages Rabbi Doesn't Officiate at Intermarriages
Members

$175

$200

Non-Members

$350

$275

Note: The calculation of the median amount of dollars above refers only to rabbis who do receive honorarium.

 

Since the survey did establish whether a rabbi does or does not officiate at weddings that are of interfaith couples, as well as the amount of the typical honorarium received, it is quite easy to find out what is the average amount of the honorarium received by each category of rabbi. The median honorarium received by rabbis who officiate at interfaith wedding ceremonies where the couple or their parents are members of the congregation is $175 dollars. However, the median honorarium rises to $350 dollars for rabbis who officiate at interfaith couples when neither the bride, nor the groom, nor either of their parents are members of the rabbi's congregation. Rabbis who do not officiate charge $200 of members and $275 dollars of non-members. In short, there appears to be an average of an extra $75 dollars paid by non-members for a wedding ceremony (probably) involving a rabbi who officiates intermarriages. Incidentally, these dollar amounts are very close to what was found in a previous survey of interfaith couples, conducted by the National Family Opinion Corp. on behalf of the Jewish Outreach Institute in 1995.

Differences Among the Movements

As is generally known and now substantiated by the survey, there are sharp differences between the rabbinates of the four major Jewish movements with respect to the handling of interfaith candidates for marriage. Among the Conservative and Reform rabbinates, there is also considerable division within each movement. Differences between as well as within the movement are based primarily on differing interpretations of the nature and primacy of halachah, that is Jewish law. To some degree the differences are also based on what rabbis believe is in the best interest of the Jewish community, their own congregation, and of the couple and family whose personal concerns they must deal with. The later concerns bear at least some relationship to the number and proportion of interfaith couples in the rabbi's own congregation. As shown in the table below, there are significant differences between the major movements with respect to the prevalence of interfaith couples in the congregation.

 

Table 6

Congregational Size and Percentage of Interfaith Couples Among Congregants by Branch of Judaism

 

Branch of Judaism

Average Size of Congregation Average Number of Interfaith Couples Average Percent Intermarried
Orthodox 200 3 2
Conservative 451 21 5
Reform 521 92 18
Reconstructionist 211 49 23

Rabbis are far more likely to encounter interfaith couples in the congregational life of one branch of Judaism than another. This fact might be the cause or the consequence of the further fact that rabbis also differ greatly in how they respond to couples who are seeking their help in getting married. In the sections that follow, the report examines a variety of ways that rabbis interact with interfaith couples who are seeking their assistance or guidance with respect to marriage.

 

(1) Officiation:

As Table 6 suggests, Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis are far more likely to encounter interfaith couples as members of their congregation than are Orthodox or Conservative rabbis. What the relationship might be between the presence of interfaith couples in the congregation and the willingness of the rabbi to officiate at the wedding ceremony of an interfaith couple is not at all clear from the data. However, as illustrated in Graph 1, Orthodox and Conservative rabbis do not officiate marriage ceremonies of interfaith couples under any circumstance. The pattern is less consistent among Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis. In fact, the majority of Reconstructionist rabbis perform intermarriages. Typically, those rabbis who do officiate at the wedding ceremony of an interfaith couple set a few conditions. Most require a commitment on the part of the couple to raise the children as Jewish and that there would be no non-Jewish clergy involved. Indeed, we found only a handful of rabbis who would officiate at marriage ceremonies of interfaith couples without any pre-conditions.

There also appears to be considerable division within the Reform rabbinate, among whom thirty six percent (36%) say they officiate at the wedding ceremonies of interfaith couples generally requiring that the couple commit to raising any children from the marriage as Jews. The majority of their Reform colleagues will not officiate at the wedding of an interfaith couple, but "will refer such couples to other rabbis who do officiate." The willingness to officiate at the wedding ceremony of an interfaith couple is most widely accepted among Reconstructionist rabbis, of whom eighty five percent (85%) say they officiate at such weddings.

(2) Referral:

Although none of the Orthodox or Conservative rabbis in the survey officiate at the weddings of interfaith couples, about thirty-two percent (32%) of Conservative rabbis say they "will refer interfaith couples to other rabbis who will officiate at an intermarriage." Such "referrals" are contrary to the policy of the Rabbinical Assembly, the official organization of the Conservative rabbinate. Typically, the Conservative rabbis who are more likely to make such referrals than their colleagues are: women rather than men; rabbis working in the West rather than the East. Despite their refusal to perform intermarriages, a small minority (11%) of Orthodox and, again, nearly a third (32%) of Conservative rabbis refer interfaith couples to other rabbis who officiate intermarriages. A majority (69%) of those Reform and all Reconstructionist rabbis who do not officiate at interfaith marriages themselves refer interfaith couples to other rabbis who do, as shown in Graph 2.

The referral pattern among the Conservative rabbis in particular might help explain, at least in part, the reason that Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis are so much more likely to have a significant number of congregants who are intermarried. In essence, the Conservative rabbinate may well be exporting that segment of their potential congregational population through referral.

(3) Attendance at the interfaith wedding:

Although the great majority of rabbis do not officiate at a wedding ceremony of an interfaith couple, how do they handle attendance as guests?

As noted earlier, nearly sixty percent of rabbis have cousins or other distant relatives who are intermarried; nearly one quarter have siblings who are intermarried. We asked respondents whether they attended those family weddings. About forty percent (40%) of the rabbis who do not officiate at the wedding of an interfaith couple said they did attend such family weddings: 13% of the Orthodox, 23% of the Conservative, 75% of the Reform and 95% of the Reconstructionist.

On the other hand, when asked whether they "participated in some way" in the wedding of congregants or others who are interfaith, only twenty-one percent (21%) did: 5% of the Conservative, 49% of the Reform and 60% of the Reconstructionist.

These statistics suggest that a significant percentage of rabbis who decline to participate in the wedding ceremonies of interfaith couples in an "official capacity," are nevertheless willing to participate as "guests" of the family. Indeed, they are apparently more willing to do so when it is clear that they are present at the wedding as a member of the family rather than as "rabbi."

(4) Attitude:

The survey points in a variety of ways to the conclusion that interfaith couples trigger conflicting feelings in most rabbis. Therefore, rabbis have complicated attitudes both toward interfaith marriage itself and also toward those of their colleagues who responded to couples differently from themselves. More than a third (37%) of our respondents reported feeling ambivalent ("often" or "sometimes") about their own practice regarding officiation at the weddings of interfaith couples. Of the majority who do not officiate at such weddings, thirty-three percent (33%) reported feeling ambivalent about their stance, while among the minority who do officiate at such weddings, fifty-nine percent (59%) reported feeling ambivalent about their stance on the issue.

The ambivalence felt by those rabbis who do not officiate at the wedding ceremony or an interfaith couple probably helps to explain the reason that so many rabbis who do not officiate themselves at such weddings nevertheless refer interfaith couples to other rabbis who do. Yet, referral itself is not necessarily a mark of approval for rabbis who officiate at the weddings of interfaith couples. For example, about one-third of Conservative rabbis refer to interfaith couples to rabbis who officiate; yet, none say they approve of rabbis who do so.

As expected, all Orthodox and a large majority of Conservative rabbis disapprove of other rabbis who officiate at the marriage ceremony of interfaith couples. Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis, who are more likely as a group to perform intermarriages are also more accepting of their colleagues who officiate at such weddings. It is interesting to note the level of neutrality toward officiating colleagues expressed by ten percent (10%) of Conservative rabbis who do not themselves officiate at such weddings. Less surprising but no less interesting is the extent of approval of or neutrality toward those of their colleagues who officiate at interfaith marriages expressed by Reform rabbis who do not officiate. (See Graph 3)

The phenomenon of disapproval is at least somewhat surprising as it is found also among Conservative and Reform rabbis who refer interfaith couples to those of their professional colleagues who will officiate at those couples' wedding. Although eighty six percent (86%) of Conservative rabbis say they "disapprove" or "strongly disapprove" of rabbis who officiate at the wedding of an interfaith couple, thirty-two percent (32%) make referrals to such rabbis. The apparent ideological inconsistency seems to be present as well among Reform rabbis. Although forty five percent (45%) indicate that they "disapprove" or "strongly disapprove" of their colleagues who officiate, in fact sixty eight percent (68%) refer interfaith couples to those other rabbis. One explanation is the message that about twenty percent (20%) of rabbis keep on transmitting both to parents of interfaith couples and to interfaith couples themselves. The message is the need to maintain open communication, not to break relationship within the family and let interfaith couples feel welcome in the community.

  Does gender make a difference?

One of the major changes in the American rabbinate of the past two decades is the increasing presence of women in all branches but the Orthodox. This is also the time period during which there has occurred the greatest increase in interfaith marriages. Do female rabbis differ from males in their encounters with interfaith couples? Do they follow the footsteps of their male counterparts? Do female practices mirror their stream of Judaism, or do they follow a distinct gender pattern?

At first glance, the data point to consensus by gender regarding the decision not to perform marriage ceremonies of interfaith couples. Focusing on non-Orthodox rabbis (since there are no Orthodox female rabbis) we find only minor and insignificant differences between male and female rabbis on the decision not to officiate at marriage ceremonies of interfaith couples under any circumstance.

However, there are substantial attitudinal gaps between male and female rabbis.

Despite their own practice, female rabbis are more approving of those of their colleagues who officiate at a Jewish marriage ceremony of interfaith couples -- 30% compared with 17% of males. Female rabbis are also more neutral and less judgmental than males of other rabbis who perform intermarriages, as shown in the table below.

Table 7

Attitude toward rabbis who officiate at intermarriages by Sex of respondent (only non-Orthodox rabbis)

Attitude Male Female
Approve 17% 30%
Neutral 17% 32%
Disapprove 66% 38%

 

As might be expected based on the range of attitudes shown in the table above, women rabbis who themselves do not officiate at the wedding of an interfaith couple are far more likely than their male counterparts to refer interfaith couples to other rabbis who do -- seventy-nine percent (79%) of females compared with only forty-eight percent (48%) of non-Orthodox male rabbis.

Regional Variations

There appear to be no significant regional differences regarding the crucial issue of officiating at marriage ceremonies of interfaith couples. Regardless of their geography, about eighty percent (80%) of rabbis do not officiate intermarriages under any circumstance. However, rabbis in the West tend to refer interfaith couples to other rabbis who officiate intermarriages more frequently than their counterparts in other regions of the U.S. While sixty-three percent (63%) of Western rabbis refer interfaith couples to other rabbis, only 42-48% of rabbis in other regions do so. The regional composition of the various branches of Judaism, particularly the fact that Orthodox congregations are concentrated in the Northeast, need not concern us here, since the referral question was asked only of those rabbis who were not performing intermarriages.

Congregations in the West are far more likely to reach-out and have special roles for non-Jewish members. While sixty-two percent (62%) of Western congregations provide such special roles for non-Jewish members, only 49-51% of congregations in the Northeast and in the South do so. Conversely, in thirty-two percent (32%) of the congregations in the Northeast only the Jewish partner can have a role in religious services, whereas in the Western and Southern congregations only twenty-four percent (24%) limit religious service participation so strictly.

Outreach to interfaith couples

When first meeting with an interfaith couple contemplating marriage, about seventy percent (70%) of the rabbis in the present survey say they recommend to the couple

participation in an outreach program for interfaith couples.

The overwhelmingly majority (76%) of rabbis are personally involved in offering outreach to interfaith couples either in their congregation or community. However, as illustrated by Graph 4, rabbis' perceptions regarding the benefits of accommodating the needs of interfaith couples differ sharply by their branch of Judaism. The apparent differences are clearly the contrast between the majority of Orthodox rabbis (68%) who believe that their congregations have more to lose by making greater efforts to accommodate the needs of interfaith couples and the small minority of rabbis from other streams who share this opinion.

It is instructive to note that the majority of Conservative rabbis (59%) believe their congregation has more to gain than to lose by accommodating the needs of interfaith couples. Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis share similar perceptions on this important matter in even higher proportions (78% and 77% respectively).

What specific efforts congregations and rabbis make to accommodate the needs of interfaith couples varies considerably, from broad policy matters such as burial rights in the synagogue cemetery plot to ceremonial gestures at family life cycle events. Again, with the exception of the Orthodox, the great majority of Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis indicate that in their congregations special efforts are made to include non-Jewish family members in the celebration of life cycle ceremonies. However, only a minority less than twenty percent (20%) of the Reform and the Reconstructionist and none of the Conservative will allow a non-Jewish family member to participate as fully in Jewish religious services and in congregational life in general as they would allow Jews.

Although none of the Orthodox synagogues represented in this study by their rabbis carried wedding announcements of an interfaith couple, twenty-six percent (26%) of Conservative rabbis reported that their synagogue bulletins do carry such announcements; likewise ninety percent (90%) of Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis reported that their synagogue bulletins carry such honorific announcements.

The inclination to accommodate and reach out to the couple stands in sharp contrast to the position associated with more traditional rabbinic practice. For example, only a minority of Reform (23%) and Reconstructionist (19%) rabbis said they would discourage an interfaith couple from getting married. Nearly all Orthodox rabbis said they would offer such discouragement to a young interfaith couple. However, among the Conservative opinion was nearly evenly split, with only 51% reporting that they would attempt to discourage an interfaith marriage. The apparent reluctance of a clear majority of rabbinic to offer such discouragement stems from a variety of sources, from fear of seeming narrow-minded to a realization that they would not be heeded in any event. Along similar lines, fewer than twenty percent (20%) of Orthodox rabbis said they would urge Jewish parents to try to prevent the marriage and would discourage them from attending the wedding of the couple. The percentage of non-Orthodox rabbis who said they would urge Jewish parents to try to prevent an interfaith marriage was under 5%.

With the exception of the Orthodox rabbinate, the great majority of American pulpit rabbis are involved in offering "outreach services" one kind or another to interfaith couples either through their own synagogues or through participation in joint programs with other synagogues or other Jewish communal institutions.

Ambivalence & Attitude Change

We have seen earlier that more than a third to half the rabbis surveyed feel some ambivalence about their practice regarding officiation at the wedding of interfaith couples -- whatever their practice is. As the data from this study suggest, there is a considerable soul-searching going on among the majority of the American rabbinate on the thorny issues of interfaith marriage. Nearly half of the rabbis responding to the present survey indicate that they have had a change of attitude toward interfaith marriage sometime during their career; for most the change has occurred in the past ten years. Nearly half of our respondents indicated that their attitudes toward intermarriage were influenced by the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS): ten percent (10%) felt they were strongly influenced by that study, twenty-eight percent (28%) felt somewhat strongly influenced and ten percent (10%) were uncertain about how or whether they were influenced by that study. Just a little over half (52%) felt that their attitudes toward intermarriage were not at all influenced by the 1990 NJPS.

The change the great majority report is in the direction of becoming more accepting of interfaith couples. In all, forty three percent (43%) of rabbis report that they have become more accepting of interfaith couples, while only three percent (3%) indicate they have become less accepting of such couples. A slight majority report no change in attitude. Among the rabbis who do report a change in attitude (46% of our respondents), for ninety three percent (93%) the change reported is of having "become more accepting of the intermarried." How this greater acceptance is expressed in practice varies greatly based on a wide variety of factors. While most of Orthodox rabbis have not changed their attitude over time, considerable proportions of Conservative and Reform rabbis and the majority of Reconstructionists became more accepting toward intermarriage. Only a minority of rabbis of all branches of Judaism became less accepting toward intermarriage over time. (See Graph 5)

Perhaps the most telling indication how rabbis feel about intermarriage is the manner in which they address the subject from the pulpit. Our respondents were asked six questions about how they have addressed the issue of intermarriage from their pulpit in the past two (2) years. The table below summarizes their replies to these questions. The percentage figures in the cells represent the affirmative responses to each question.

 

Table 8

Percentage of Rabbis Addressing Issues of Intermarriage in Sermons

by Branch of Judaism
 

Issues Addressed

Orthodox Conservative Reform Reconstructionist
Have spoken against intermarriage 64 20 6 --
Have spoken in favor of Jewish marriage 40 51 27 13
Have spoken against reaching out to interfaith 8 7 4 --
Have spoken in favor of outreach programs 12 64 56 50
Have not addressed the issue of intermarriage 24 19 39 31
Do not feel intermarriage is appropriate topic for sermon 8 6 15 6

 

As this table shows, very few rabbis in any branch of Judaism feel that the subject of intermarriage is not a suitable sermon topic. In fact, the majority have addressed the subject at least once in the past two years. Except for Orthodox rabbis, the majority of whom have apparently spoken out "against intermarriage," rabbis of the other branches of Judaism have focused more on speaking "in favor of Jewish marriage" and "in favor of outreach programs." Of equal significance, while a very large percentage of Orthodox rabbis have spoken out against intermarriage, only a relatively small percentage have spoken against programs of outreach. Given the historic stance of the mainstream of Judaism toward interfaith marriage, these data reflect an enormous shift in the cultural and religious perspectives of American rabbis on this critical issue.

Conclusions

The attitudinal shifts reflected in the present survey clearly echo some of the major findings of earlier surveys by JOI concerning the attitudes of Jewish leadership and the laity regarding intermarriage, carried out in 1991 and 1992. Those surveys showed a remarkably high degree of consensus among all the branches of Judaism in support of increasing efforts to reach out to the intermarried population. Over 80% of Orthodox Jews and over 90% of all other Jews were in favor of such efforts. JOI's 1996 survey of Jewish communal professionals likewise found overwhelming support for outreach services geared to the needs of intermarried families. This present survey of the American rabbinate completes that general picture of support for Jewish outreach.

In 1995 JOI conducted the first national survey of intermarried regarding their awareness of and attitude towards programs of Jewish outreach. That survey showed that only a small percentage of interfaith couples were aware of programs of Jewish outreach.

Given the relatively small percentage of intermarried couples in contemporary synagogues, there is a very high probability that the great majority of intermarried couples throughout the U.S. are not aware of the tremendous changes going on in the rabbinate with regard to the issues that are of the greatest concern to such couples.

It would likely be of benefit to both the various branches of the rabbinate and to the wider Jewish community, and most especially to the multitude of interfaith couples who are struggling with their wedding concerns, if the practices, policies and general thinking of the rabbinate were more widely shared through public discourse.