Lifestyle Metro

For Interfaith Couples, Independent Rabbis Fill Void Left by Jewish Institutions

When Ashley Howard, 33, and Ramit Singh, 35, married in September, they had two ceremonies – one Jewish, one Hindu.

Although they originally planned one ceremony combining customs from each religion, their parents did not approve of the arrangement.

¨They said, ‘either have no tradition at all, or do it right,’” Howard said.

The couple opted for tradition, with modern modifications. A priest conducted a Hindu ceremony in both Hindi and English. The Jewish ceremony was lead by Gloria Milner, an independent, Manhattan-based rabbi who is unaffiliated with a standard Jewish denomination.

Rabbi Milner is one of more than a dozen independent Jewish clergy in the New York area who specialize in officiating for interfaith couples, according to A majority of American Jews are married to someone outside the faith, according to a 2013 study by the Pew Research Center, and officiants like Rabbi Milner fill a void often left by traditional Jewish institutions.

Orthodox and Conservative rabbis are not permitted to marry interfaith couples. Reform rabbis, who represent American Judaism’s largest denomination, according to Pew, may do so at their own discretion. Just over half do, estimated Rabbi Hara Person, chief strategy officer at the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

However, mainstream Judaism’s reluctance to accept intermarriage has not stopped its prevalence. The intermarriage rate rose every decade between 1970 and 2000, and stabilized at 58 percent between 2000 and 2013, according to Pew.

A recent analysis released in June by the Jewish People Policy Institute utilizing Pew’s data found that nearly three-quarters of married, non-ultra-orthodox Jews in their 30s have a non-Jewish spouse. That rate still holds true today, according to Steven M. Cohen, research professor of Jewish Social Policy at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion.

Rabbi Milner, who has been officiating for eight years, presides over about 20 weddings per year, and she estimated that 70 percent of the couples she officiates for are interfaith. She frequently co-officiates with clergy from other faiths.

Several years ago, she conducted a ceremony combining Jewish and Greek Orthodox wedding traditions for a couple who had trouble finding a traditional officiant from either faith. She penned a blog about the ceremony after. “I became this expert in Greek-Jewish weddings,” she said, “so a lot of people contacted me that had this same problem.”

Bill Kurry, an unaffiliated, independent rabbi based in Little Silver, NJ, has performed between 60 and 100 wedding officiations per year since he began officiating 10 years ago, three-quarters of which were for interfaith couples. He said it is extremely important that rabbis be available for Jews who intermarry, so they do not become alienated from Judaism.

However, both Rabbi Milner and Rabbi Kurry said their intention is not to poach potential synagogue members. Rabbi Kurry said he intentionally steers couples towards Jewish institutions: “I always say, ‘go to the synagogue. This is where you belong.’”