Rabbi Samantha Kahn from InterfaithFamily Bay Area officiates a wedding (Photo/Courtesy InterfaithFamily)
Rabbi Samantha Kahn from InterfaithFamily Bay Area officiates a wedding (Photo/Courtesy InterfaithFamily)

Study: More rabbis are saying ‘I do’ to interfaith weddings

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Though once rare, today a number of Bay Area rabbis officiate interfaith marriages, and some also co-officiate alongside ministers, priests and other non-Jewish clergy. A new study by InterfaithFamily, which surveyed 881 American rabbis on their officiation practices, shows that interfaith officiation is becoming more common, almost doubling among Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis over the last 20-odd years.

Members of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association made up the majority of respondents. InterfaithFamily, an organization that supports interfaith engagement in Jewish life, surveyed 500 members of the CCAR (comprising 23 percent of its membership) and 149 rabbis from the RRA (44 percent of its membership).

No denomination officially supports co-officiating. The Reform and Reconstructionist movements give rabbis autonomy on interfaith officiating. The Conservative movement does not permit interfaith officiating, although a limited number of rabbis choose to do so.

Eighty-five percent of respondents from these two groups said they officiate interfaith weddings. And 25 percent “answered affirmatively that they ‘co-officiate’ with clergy from other faiths,” according to the survey findings, “while another 20 percent said that they do not ‘co-officiate’ but do permit clergy from other faiths to offer prayers or readings that contain no theological references to religions other than Judaism.”

Respondents also came from members of the Renewal (64), Conservative (59) and Humanistic (8) movements, as well as the pluralistic Academy for Jewish Religion in New York (19) and California (16).

Rabbi Samantha Kahn, director of InterfaithFamily Bay Area, said the findings are not surprising in the Bay Area, where interfaith relationships are more common, but speculated that they might come as a shock in her former, more traditional community in Houston.

The last such survey was conducted in 1995. At the time, 47 percent of CCAR and RRA respondents combined said they would officiate interfaith marriages, and only 13 percent would co-officiate.

Rabbi Mychal Copeland, who was ordained Reconstructionist and now leads S.F. Reform Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, was among the 47 respondents from the Bay Area and Sacramento. Copeland answered the survey in 2017 while still director of InterfaithFamily Bay Area. In a recent interview with J., she said officiating at intermarriages lets her establish a relationship with the couple so she can be in a position to guide conversations about living an interfaith life and raising Jewish children, a relatively “uncharted” path.

In an age where just about anyone can go online and become a wedding officiant, precluding the need for a rabbi entirely, Copeland says, she sees a couple’s request for her services as a positive sign that “clearly Judaism is important to them.” The RRA does not allow co-officiation, but Copeland says if that should change, she will be on board.

Rabbi Meredith Cahn co-officiates at an interfaith ketubah signing
Rabbi Meredith Cahn co-officiates at an interfaith ketubah signing

Rabbi Meredith Cahn of Petaluma, who works as a chaplain at a Santa Rosa hospital and a retirement home, will officiate at interfaith weddings and co-officiate, too, as long as references to God do not invoke their Lord’s name. That happened at her first experience as a co-officiant for a Jewish colleague’s daughter and her Catholic fiance. Cahn was explicit during pre-wedding meetings that she wanted the event to reflect “our common God,” but then during the ceremony the priest asked the bride to exchange vows “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

“My jaw dropped, and I had no idea what to do,” Cahn said. Since then she has declined to co-officiate with Catholic priests, whose traditions may be less flexible than others.

Rabbi Jonathan Prosnit of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills said he officiates interfaith marriages because he believes they enrich his congregation overall.

“Oftentimes it’s the non-Jewish partner who drives carpool or sings in the choir,” he said, “who coordinates social justice actions and activities. They bring a lot of enrichment here. And some convert, too, in the end.”

However, Prosnit does not co-officiate. He says he knows of couples connected both to shuls and churches, but he does not feel comfortable officiating “with another faith up there.”

“I would feel very uncomfortable officiating a Jewish wedding with a reading about Jesus,” he said. “I think there are a lot of challenges in marriages around faith and community. I don’t think Judaism is better than other faiths, but I do think one of the ways to establish [a commitment to Judaism] is to model it from the very beginning.”

There are ways to honor both heritages, he said. He officiated a wedding recently where the non-Jewish groom had very strong Italian heritage, so the couple used an Italian design for their ketubah.

While many rabbis in the survey say they are comfortable officiating and co-officiating — “I changed my position 5 years into my rabbinate because I saw so many interfaith couples who create loving Jewish homes and families,” one commented — 59 percent say they require the couple to commit to keeping a Jewish home and/or raising their Jewish children. This figure is up from 43 percent in the 1995 survey.

I changed my because I saw so many interfaith couples who create loving Jewish homes and families.

Copeland, however, does not ask for such a commitment.

“My goal is for them to deeply live in their values,” she said. “To not let life go by, and to raise children with a deep sense of who they are.”

Cahn does not ask for a commitment, either.

“I can’t see how I would hold them to it. How is this beneficial to and or aligned with my concept of welcome?” she asked rhetorically. “I also think people change a lot when they have children, and what they say beforehand has little to do with what happens when reality comes.”

Even though Prosnit acknowledges that asking for a commitment doesn’t necessarily ensure one, he still does so before officiating an interfaith wedding.

“It’s important to me when I work with a couple that they’re committed to being part of a Jewish community,” he said.

Prosnit, Copeland and Cahn all suggested that the survey findings reflect how rabbis are acclimating to the new normal.

“On some level it’s the reality of who’s getting married to who,” Prosnit said.

Nor does Copeland believe that a rabbi’s willingness to officiate sanctions interfaith marriages. She sees it the other way around.

“I think rabbis are just adapting,” she said. “Now we live in a pluralistic world. I think one survey comment said we live in an ‘emancipated time,’ in which we are fully integrated into the society we live in, and that’s a blessing.”

Hannah Jannol
Hannah Jannol

Hannah Jannol is J.'s summer 2018 intern.