47% of rabbis in 2 movements conducting intermarriages

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NEW YORK — Nearly half of Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis now officiate at intermarriages, according to a new study.

The study was conducted by Rabbi Irwin Fishbein, a Reform rabbi who runs the Rabbinic Center for Research and Counseling in Westfield, N.J.

The center helps engaged couples find a rabbi to officiate at their weddings when one partner is Jewish and the other is not.

The study also found that, compared to five years ago, far fewer Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis require couples to commit to having a Jewish home and raising children as Jews before agreeing to officiate at their weddings.

A leader of the Reform rabbinic association disputed Fishbein's findings, while the Reconstructionist movement confirmed their accuracy.

The 47 percent of rabbinic respondents who said they perform marriages between Jews and non-Jews represents a slight increase since 1990, when Fishbein conducted his last survey.

At that time, 43 percent of responding rabbis said they officiate at intermarriages.

Fishbein has conducted similar surveys of rabbis periodically since 1971.

In 1995, he sent questionnaires to the 1,651 members of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Reform rabbinic organization, and to the 167 members of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association. He received 710 responses.

Among the respondents, 48 percent of the Reform rabbis and 38 percent of the Reconstructionist rabbis said they perform intermarriages.

Fishbein publishes a list of 231 rabbis willing to officiate at intermarriages, which he sells for $20. Seventeen of those listed are Reconstructionist and the rest are Reform.

The Conservative and Orthodox rabbinical organizations prohibit their rabbis from officiating at intermarriages.

Rabbi Simeon Maslin, president of the CCAR, the Reform rabbis' organization, questioned Fishbein's findings.

"By no means do 48 percent officiate" at intermarriages, he said of his Reform colleagues.

Maslin estimated that between 33 percent and 40 percent of Reform rabbis would officiate at a mixed marriage.

"The people responding to him are a very skewed sample," Maslin said, adding that "those willing to respond" to the survey are more likely to officiate at such marriages.

The last time that the CCAR did surveyed its members to find out how many officiate at intermarriages, which was in 1971, it got a 41 percent response rate, Fishbein said — about the same as the response rate for each survey.

Rabbi Michael Cohen, president of the Reconstruc-tionist Rabbinical Association, said the percentage of his colleagues in Fishbein's study who said they officiate at intermarriages — 38 percent — is an accurate reflection.

Different rabbis will perform an intermarriage under different circumstances.

Some have criteria so strict that few couples are able to meet them. Those rabbis might perform one or two intermarriages each year.

Others will marry any couple willing to pay the fee, which can run as high as $1,500.

At the same time, there has been a significant drop in the number of Reform and Reconstruc-tionist rabbis who will officiate at an intermarriage only if the couple will commit to having a Jewish home and raising Jewish children.

In 1990, a solid majority of both Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis — 64 percent and 70 percent, respectively — required that commitment from a couple before agreeing to officiate.

Five years later, 42 percent of Reform rabbis and 63 percent of Reconstructionist rabbis said they now have that requirement.

In addition, a significant minority of respondents from both movements — 27 percent of Reform rabbis and 29 percent of Reconstruc-tionist rabbis — are willing to co-officiate at a wedding with a priest or minister.

"There's been a gradual recognition" that a commitment to having a Jewish home is "not something that rabbis can really require," Fishbein said.

"You're dealing with a future. Very often the couple themselves do not know what they are planning to do."

Furthermore, "there is more and more interest today in raising children with both religions," he added.

"This is contrary to traditional philosophy about what is good for families and children, but there are thousands and thousands of families out there doing this."