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The Dovetail Institute for Interfaith family Resources honored Rabbi Dr. Irwin H. Fishbein with the FATHER DAN MONTALBANO AWARD FOR PROMOTING INTERFAITH UNDERSTANDING at its annual conference in San Francisco on August 7-9. Rabbi Allen Secher, who presented the award, lauded Rabbi Fishbein as “the great pioneer” who established an organization to serve the needs of interfaith couples when no other resources were available to them.  


Allen, I very much appreciate your words. They are most heartwarming. I am honored to be called a pioneer, as one who went where no one had gone before. While many colleagues have supported and encouraged my work – some even with the understanding that I not tell anyone of their approval or support – and while countless couples have uplifted me with special words of appreciation, it has been in many ways, as your story so graphically illustrated, a lonely journey.

It has also been a long journey. This is the first time I have been honored for my work on behalf of interfaith couples. Thank you, Dovetail Institute, from the bottom of my heart for the award you have bestowed upon me. I am deeply moved by this recognition. As I have often told couples with acting out teenagers – couples who despair of ever having a normal relationship with their offspring – “You have to live long enough.”  Apparently, I have lived long enough.

The burden and challenge of intermarriage have always been part of my life. My favorite uncle intermarried in the early 1930s when intermarriage was, indeed, a rare phenomenon in the Jewish community. He lived in a distant community but when he visited, he brought light into my life. He spent time with me. He taught me Pinochle and Clobyosh. And no matter what “the arrows of outrageous fortune” had in store for him, he always came up smiling, always had a sense of humor, always was a fun person to be with. Although his wife converted to Judaism prior to marriage, the conversion made no difference to our family which did not permit him to tell his mother or grandfather of his marriage. As a result, my first cousin, their only child, who was slightly older than I, was never able to attend a family Seder or eat in the sukkah or, even, meet her great-grandfather. I met with her only in secret. Even as a small child, the way my uncle, aunt and first cousin were treated by the family, as well as my uncle’s inability to stand up to the family, angered me and made no sense to me.

Ostensibly, I became a rabbi because of my love for Hebrew, my identification with biblical heroes, and my feelings for my people who in the days of my youth experienced the devastation of the Holocaust and struggled to establish a Jewish state in the ancient homeland. There was never any conscious connection between my uncle’s intermarriage and my choice of career but I’m certain that my career choice and the kind of rabbinical role I have carved out for myself were very much related to these early experiences.

While I did not know if I would officiate at intermarriages when I was ordained, I made the decision with the very first request I received. Over the years I have modified the conditions under which I officiate but have never wavered in that decision. I was helped considerably by one of the first interfaith couples who asked me to officiate at their marriage. The bride-to-be told me that one rabbi they had seen would officiate only under special circumstances, such as, if she were pregnant. “Rabbi,” she said, “do I have to get pregnant before marriage in order to be married by a rabbi?” About a year later another interfaith couple helped me redefine my position. This couple told me that they wanted to raise their children Episcopalian and send them to a Hebrew Day School. When I responded that officiating under such circumstances made me uncomfortable, the groom said: “You mean to tell me that if we had lied to you and told you we intended to raise our children as Jews, you would have consented but because we told you the truth, you refuse?” As a result of this encounter, I decided that, from that moment on, the parameters for my officiating could not be based on what a couple told me of their intentions. My conditions for officiating would have to depend upon my evolving understanding of Judaism, the specific circumstances that a couple presented and my comfort level with the kind of ceremony that was requested. And that is the position I have maintained over the years.

I have been a rabbi now for forty-eight years, two of them in the Navy as a chaplain – one of them actually spent right here in the Bay Area at the former U.S. Naval Station on Treasure Island – twelve years in the congregational rabbinate, and then thirty-four years as Director of the Rabbinic Center for Research and Counseling (RCRC) which has provided programs of support and service for interfaith couples. As I reflect upon my years at the Rabbinic Center, there are three basic themes or pioneering endeavors that have motivated my work. To begin with, the Rabbinic Center is the first and the only national Jewish organization to encourage and advocate rabbinic officiation at interfaith ceremonies. Toward this end it has provided a list of Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis who officiate at interfaith marriages, together with the conditions under which they officiate. The first list consisted of 61 rabbis. Over the years The List has grown both numerically and geographically so that it now embraces over 330 rabbis, four of whom live outside the United States. The List is updated monthly and is available to anyone who wants it. Information about The List can be obtained from our website (

We are also the first national Jewish organization to encourage the welcoming and integration of interfaith couples into the Jewish community by providing programs and services specifically geared to their needs and by advocating the removal of exclusive barriers in matters of membership, governance and ritual. The Rabbinic Center Synagogue, established two years after the Research and Counseling Center, specifies in its by-laws that non-Jewish mates shall have the right, without restriction, to vote, hold office and participate in worship services. I speak here of an attitude toward interfaith couples completely devoid of a hidden agenda. When I teach a class in Judaism for intermarrying and intermarried couples, my purpose is not to convert the non-Jew but to share Jewish ideas, values and experiences. The problem with most programs for interfaith couples in most Jewish congregations is that there is always a hidden agenda where conversion is the goal that is sought. From my experience conversion is, in many instances, neither a necessary nor a proper goal.

And, finally, we are the first national Jewish organization to “provide and promote for interfaith couples spiritually sensitive, ethically sound, and clinically competent counseling that respects the dignity of all persons and embraces diversity as a way of experiencing the richness of life.” (RCRC Mission Statement) When I meet with a couple as a rabbi or as a licensed marital therapist, my goal is to help them go, not from where they are to where I want them to be but from where they are to where they want to be. I do not push couples in a direction of my choosing. The cues come from the couple and I help them take the next step, whatever that next step may be.

The award you have honored me with today belongs not only to me but also to my Board of Trustees, most of whom have served faithfully for better than a quarter century, while some have served since the founding of the Rabbinic Center for Research and Counseling in 1970. Their support, their friendship and their guidance have been truly sustaining. I also owe thanks to the many colleagues who have supported me and to the thousands of interfaith couples that I have worked with at premarital conferences, couples’ groups and workshops, and at whose weddings I have had the privilege of officiating. It was their needs that prompted me to offer specialized programs and services. It was also their needs that made me realize that unless I received some training in marriage and family therapy, as well as in individual psychotherapy, I could not truly help them with many of the issues they presented. Above all, I am grateful to my wife, Barbara, who has worked with me over the years, performing some of the mundane tasks, fielding telephone calls and, above all, being my confidante whenever critical issues had to be negotiated. Her support has been unwavering, her judgment priceless.

Thank you for honoring me and my life’s work as a rabbi struggling to preserve a precious tradition, as a marital therapist helping couples negotiate sometimes painful feelings and as a human being responding to the needs of those I have had the privilege of serving.


The Rabbinic Center for Research and Counseling 
Telephone:  908-233-0419
A private, non-profit organization dedicated to promoting research on intermarriage, counseling intermarried couples and serving as a mental health facility for area residents. 

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Email the Rabbinic Center: Rabbi Irwin H. Fishbein, D.Min, Director, at

Copyright © 2009 Rabbinic Center for Research and Counseling
Last modified: November 3, 2009