(RNS) In a major shift, Reform rabbis have publicly acknowledged intermarriage as a “given” that calls for increased outreach and understanding, rather than a threat to Jewish identity that must be resisted at all costs.
The Central Conference of American Rabbis, which represents nearly 2,000 Reform rabbis from around the world, embraced the change during its annual convention in San Francisco.
Traditionally, the Reform movement — the largest and most liberal slice of mainstream Judaism — has wavered on whether to sanction weddings between Jews and non-Jews; Conservative and Orthodox clergy will not officially perform such ceremonies.
Yet 25 years of demographic studies have documented a growing trend toward intermarriage, with as many as half of American Jews now marrying outside their faith. With Jews making up less than 3 percent of the U.S.
population, and less than 1 percent around the world, Jewish leaders have long warned that mixed marriages weaken Jewish identity and threaten long-term survival.
The traditional view of Judaism as an ethnicity, passed down through the mother, also fuels this conflict, including heated debates about whether “half-Jews” meet requirements for enrollment in religious schools, Israeli citizenship, and other faith-based endeavors.
“When a Jew marries a Jew, there is a greater likelihood of Jewish continuity,” admitted CCAR President Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus, in her group’s announcement on Monday (March 8). “But in the case of intermarriage, the opportunity for Jewish continuity is significant, especially if there is effective rabbinic leadership.”
The Reform rabbis’ last statement on this issue, in 1973, had reiterated its 1909 stance that “mixed marriage is contrary to the Jewish tradition and should be discouraged.” Rabbis were encouraged to provide conversion opportunities for non-Jewish spouses and educational opportunities for their children.
After a task force spent three years studying the issue, the CCAR maintained that Reform rabbis may still opt not to officiate at interfaith weddings as “a deeply personal matter of conscience.”
But now that the group’s attitude about intermarriage has officially changed, Dreyfus expressed hope that clergy will make greater efforts to welcome interfaith families into religious activities and life-cycle events like bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies for their children.
“Ignoring intermarriage won’t make it go away,” she said. “We want to embrace it as an opportunity.”
The new position is not a formal policy or resolution, but rather a semi-official “recognition” of changing times based on the task force’s 10-page report.
“In the past, there was a great focus on how to prevent intermarriage,” the report said. “Today we are more likely to focus on how to deal with intermarriage as a given in our society with the goal of positive Jewish engagement of the family.”
For the Jewish Outreach Institute, an New York-based organization that works to include interfaith families in Jewish life, the official announcement confirms what’s been going on for years at the grassroots level.
“We’re very excited by it,” said Paul Golin, the group’s associate executive director. “As an intermarried person myself, I’m now curious to see what kind of programming comes out of it.”
He added, “There’s lots of details to work out, but the first step is acknowledging that attitudes have changed, and it’s great that this is finally happening.”
By NICOLE NEROULIAS
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