While the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) does not have statistics on how many of its 2,000 Reform rabbis in North America officiate at intermarriages, when pressed, Rabbi Hara Person, director of CCAR Press, estimated “it’s about half.”
A testament to the prevalence of officially sanctioned intermarriage inside the Reform movement, is JTA’s Penny Schwartz’s story published this week, on a special publication coming out next month from CCAR, a Premarital Counseling Guide for Clergy, written by Dr. Paula Brody, director of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Outreach Training Institute, which includes an entire section for counseling of intermarried and conversionary couples.
The goal is to give clergy more tools to help couples discuss the meaning of their faith background, Brody told JTA.
Brody’s exercises delve deeply into both partners’ childhood experiences from their faith backgrounds to enable a couple to be able to discuss the sensitive issue of how they will raise any future children. “It means a tremendous amount to the person from a different faith background to know they are being recognized,” she told JTA.
In a highlighted section, Brody writes, “The Jewish community has been blessed to have had so many individuals from other faith backgrounds give the gift of raising Jewish children. Tremendous appreciation needs to be expressed by the partner, the partner’s family, and the Jewish community for giving this gift to Judaism.”
The manual also includes suggestions for follow up, a key factor that is now lacking, according to many observers.
Back in March, Dr. Brody held a series of workshops for clergy and professional staff based on the manual. In her notes describing the series she wrote:
“Most couples will seek out a clergy connection before their marriage. For interfaith couples, this interaction is often pivotal. How can clergy turn pre-marital meetings, whether with in-marrying or intermarrying couples, into opportunities for meaningful Jewish engagement, nurturing their Jewish choices and solidifying their commitment to creating a Jewish home for their family?
“This workshop will provide some useful tools to strengthen couples’ communication around faith issues enabling each partner to untangle the complicated threads that connect them to their family and religious background. The workshop will introduce clergy to the couples communication exercises and wedding planning suggestions available in the forthcoming CCAR publication.”
Schwartz writes that some rabbis set conditions – such as joining a synagogue or committing to raising future children as Jews – before they’ll officiate at an intermarriage. But Rabbi Lev Baesh told her he worries such conditions would turn off couples.
“It matters so much for a rabbi to say, ‘yes,’” no matter where the couple is in the process, says Baesh, director of the resource center for Jewish clergy for Interfaithfamily.com, a resource and service organization that supports Jewish life for interfaith couples.
Interfaithfamily.com is a resource center which believes that “maximizing the number of interfaith families who find fulfillment in Jewish life and raise their children as Jews is essential to the future strength and vitality of the Jewish community.”
The website provides “useful educational information and resources, connect interfaith families to each other and to local Jewish communities, and advocate for inclusive attitudes, policies and practices.”
But while resources like Interfaithfamily.com seem vital for dealing with the ever growing problem of intermarriages, it is a far cry from openly sanctioning the creation of such marriages.
According to Schwartz, historically, CCAR has opposed its members officiating at intermarriages. In 1973, it reaffirmed that opposition, but also recognized that its members hold divergent interpretations, with each making his or her own decision.
A resolution proposed at CCAR’s 2008 annual convention called for dropping the official opposition. To avoid a polarizing debate on the hot button issue, the resolution was tabled.
Two years ago a task force on intermarried issued a report affirming that continuity is more likely for inmarriages. But there is a significant opportunity among intermarrieds, as well, the report noted, and called for strengthening outreach efforts and providing more resources to its rabbis. The new premarital counseling manual was an outgrowth of the recommendations.