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You might find it hard to believe but I love going to church. I don’t go very often, but the times that I have been, I have found it very moving and spiritual. I have prayed and spoken with God in a variety of settings: in the desert, in the forest, in the ocean, in non-denominational campus chapels, in hospital rooms, on my yoga mat, though conversations with my friends and colleagues who are ministers and chaplains of other faiths and yes, in a church.
Sunday, January 31, 2016 I had the opportunity to worship with the community at Calvary Baptist Church and to give a sermon and the benediction. The clergy team, the choir and the congregation warmly welcomed me and I felt right at home. What helped was that I had been there before to speak to an adult education class and that my colleague at Calvary, Pastor Erica Lea, had spent a lot of time sharing with me about the congregation and the service so I knew what to expect. Not only did she let me brainstorm sermon ideas with her that would resonate with the congregation but she encouraged me to be myself and to share my own words of Torah (scripture) and to teach from my heart.
The occasion for my visit to Calvary Baptist Church was Interfaith Sunday, a service in celebration of the UN Resolution on Interfaith Harmony Week. I spoke about sowing the seeds of interfaith harmony. In the physical sense, I connected the idea of planting seeds to the Hebrew month of Shevat. There is a teaching that the seeds that are planted in the month of Shevat (in winter) will bloom in Nissan (the month of spring time, in the time of Passover, redemption and freedom). Interfaith Harmony doesn’t happen overnight. It must be achieved by planting seeds and nourishing those seeds to blossom.
In the metaphorical sense of sowing seeds for Interfaith Harmony, I spoke about building relationships. I drew inspiration from the recent Torah portion from the book of Exodus in which we read about Moses’ relationship with his father-in-law Yitro. Yitro was a Midianite priest, and he served as mentor and counsel to Moses, the leader of the Israelites.
The relationship between Moses and his father-in-law is one of the earliest and most powerful examples of interfaith harmony in our tradition. Though they come from different faiths, they understand each other’s language and liturgy, each other’s spiritual practice and each other’s laws. Moreover, they understand something universal: how important is for spiritual leaders to have support and mentorship of their own.
I have been blessed with guidance and mentorship from spiritual leaders of other faiths and I have found time and time again how valuable those relationships are in my life. As I think of the support Moses received from Yitro, I am reminded of the support I received from my high school guidance counselor, Dr. Melanie-Prejean Sullivan, who is now Director of Campus Ministry at Bellarmine University in Louisville, KY, who helped me understand my calling. I think of Rev. Sheila McNeill-Lee who was my Clinical Pastoral Education Supervisor at Sibley Memorial Hospital when I was chaplain intern, who helped me to articulate my beliefs, the value of self-care and how to check my assumptions. I think of my dear friend and interfaith collaborator on creative expression and spirituality, Erin Brindle, who is an art therapist. I also think of my new colleagues at Calvary including Pastor Erica Lea and her team.
During my chaplaincy training, a colleague who is now a Presbyterian chaplain led us in what has become one of my favorite spiritual experiences which I recreated for the community at Calvary. At the end of my sermon, I invited all of the congregants to write their prayers on paper flowers and then bring them up to the altar and place them in a glass vase. Together we planted our own seeds for interfaith harmony by offering up a beautiful bouquet of our prayers. I truly hope that the seeds we planted at Calvary that day continue to be nourished through conversation and discussion and community partnership.
Note: All comments on InterfaithFamily are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed.
I had a very interesting day yesterday.
It started with a phone interview with a graduate student in journalism writing a story about Jewish-Muslim relationships. She had a Jewish parent and a Muslim parent herself, and was involved with a group of young Jewish-Muslim couples. She told me that some of them had decided to raise their children with Judaism and some hadn’t decided. I told her that at InterfaithFamily we are always interested in what influences some interfaith couples to get involved in Jewish life or not.
She said she thought that Jews were “exclusivist” and told me that one couple in the group approached a rabbi, I think she said about conversion, and the rabbi made a comment about Arabs and breeding that was so derogatory I don’t want to repeat it here. She couldn’t see it, but my jaw dropped, it was such an insulting and ignorant comment.
But sadly I shouldn’t have been surprised. I immediately thought of a good friend in the San Francisco Bay Area, not Jewish herself but active in her Reform synagogue, who reported last year that a woman at the synagogue said in her presence “we Jews are dumbing ourselves down by intermarrying.” My friend – herself at the highest level of anyone’s intelligence scale — was so shocked at how insulting the comment was that she couldn’t immediately respond. And then I thought of a survey that a major city federation asked me to analyze a year or two ago in which one couple said that at a Reform synagogue someone who learned they were interfaith said “maybe people like you would be more comfortable” at some other synagogue. It’s hard to believe that these comments are true – yet they keep on happening.
After the phone call I went to a terrific event at the Brown-RISD Hillel co-sponsored by the Genesis Prize, Hillel International and the Jewish Agency for Israel that featured Michael Douglas and Natan Sharansky talking about their Jewish journeys. I sat next to a man who asked me what I did and then told me his story. He grew up Orthodox, had a child with his first wife, got divorced, and then married a woman who is not Jewish. His wife doesn’t intend to convert but she keeps a strictly kosher home and his grandchildren call her “bubbe.” But after he re-married his synagogue told him he couldn’t have an aliyah (recite blessings before and after the Torah is read) any longer, so he left the synagogue.
This morning the Good Morning America team was talking about new variations of the Barbie doll and one of the correspondents said that her young children “don’t see color” meaning they don’t distinguish other children based on race. I’m not sure how widespread it is that people see people of other races as “normal.” I do think that young children see different constellations of parents as “normal;” I recently asked my 5-year-old grandson if one of “Joe’s” two mothers wasn’t a police officer, and I am quite sure he doesn’t think twice about his classmates who have two mothers or two fathers.
All of this made me wonder if Jews will ever see “non-Jews” and Jews marrying “non-Jews” as “normal.” At InterfaithFamily we try very hard not to use the term “non-Jew” which is why I put it in quotes; it’s off-putting and people don’t identify as “non-“ anything. We prefer to say “partners from different faith traditions.” But we keep on hearing people say “non-Jew” and it’s very use appears to support viewing the other as not “normal” – an Arab who breeds … or “non-Jews” who aren’t smart – as well as penalizing Jews who marry them.
The last thing that happened yesterday was hearing Michael Douglas tell his story again. As he said last night, and in a great story in the Jewish Week last week, Michael Douglas was told his whole life that he wasn’t Jewish because his mother wasn’t Jewish. When the people from the Genesis Prize came to him and said they wanted to award him the Genesis Prize as an outstanding Jew, he said “this is a mistake, I’m not Jewish.” But his son has gotten the family interested, and became
Dare I say that the Genesis Prize being awarded to Michael Douglas is a statement that Jews need to not only recognize and welcome, but normalize intermarriage, the children of intermarriage, Jews who intermarry and most important, the partners from different faith traditions married to Jews? It was a ray of hope to end a very interesting day.
Note: All comments on InterfaithFamily are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed.
Last month, I sat with 25 people who gathered over breakfast to talk about being part of interfaith families. As the Director of an InterfaithFamily community, there is nothing new or remarkable about that; I bring interfaith couples together regularly to share stories and support one another as they explore religious life. What is noteworthy about this particular group of people is that they were all Jewish professionals, working in Hillels around the country. We were attendees at the Hillel International Global Assembly and this was a first-of-its-kind meeting for people who work in Jewish campus life and are in interfaith relationships. Some of the participants in this discussion were “out” about their relationships while others hoped no one from their campus community or staff would know they had attended the meeting. Many others did not feel comfortable attending at all for fear they would be found out, possibly resulting in losing their jobs.
I have written about how one’s choice of partner does not necessarily reflect one’s commitment to Jewish life. This is certainly true personally, and I know scores of other Jewish professionals like me who are wholly dedicated to enriching Jewish life in our generation, and are themselves partnered with people from other cultural and religious backgrounds. With an intermarriage rate of around 70 percent in non-Orthodox Jewish communities, it is clear that Jewish-Jewish couples are about to become a rarer sight than interfaith ones. Many of those who marry someone from another background are active in Jewish life and have every intention of continuing that involvement. Some are so dedicated to a thriving Jewish community that they become Jewish professionals. Yet when they get there, they often feel that they can’t bring their whole selves to their work for fear of being labeled bad role models.
I hear the worry that Jewish campus professionals, more than professionals in other Jewish settings, are especially poised to be role models for young Jews at the time in their lives when they are getting serious about dating and marriage. Being intermarried would sanction the decision to marry out of the tradition, the argument goes. But let’s look realistically at the demographics of our current Jewish college students. According to a recent study, “Among millennials, born between 1981 and 1995, … partly as a result of the high rate at which millennial children of intermarriage identify as Jewish, half of all Jews in their generation are children of intermarriage” [the Brandeis Millennial Children of Intermarriage study, p.5].
This next generation is often trying to figure out how to honor both parents as they explore religious life on campus and chart a way forward. Furthermore, many if not most of them are interdating or have at least explored the idea. The same study shows that the percentage of young adults who think it is important to marry someone Jewish is extremely low for children of in-married parents and even lower for the children of intermarried parents [Ibid, pg. 43]. Pretending that Jewish college students are largely choosing only to date other Jews is causing us to miss out on some profound conversations. They are not merely deciding on a partner; they are contemplating how they will bring meaning into their lives, they are beginning to own and make decisions as adults for their own spiritual journeys, and they are determining what role Judaism will play in their lives going forward.
These college students need diverse role models, a plethora of professional exemplars so they can see how an adult makes Jewishly committed decisions when Judaism is not the default. They need models to demonstrate how interfaith families navigate raising kids in a still-conflicted Jewish community, and how couples have healthy conversations with in-laws and grandparents about religious choices. If they do partner with someone Jewish, they will inevitably have extended family members who marry someone outside of Judaism at their family holiday table. They need models and forums to discuss how we can best navigate the increasing diversity in the Jewish community.
We are also missing the whole picture when we think only of undergraduates in the Hillel picture. Many Hillels have vibrant graduate student and young adult communities. Large numbers of these young people arrive on campus already having made their decisions about a life partner, and many of those relationships are with people from different religious and cultural backgrounds. They also seek support and models as they begin their lives together.
Those of us with religiously diverse families are uniquely situated as Jewish professionals to bring wisdom, knowledge and compassion to interfaith families exploring Jewish life. Drawing on our personal stories and experience, we are poised to model for others how good communication, flexibility and introspection can help strengthen the next generation of seekers. The current generation of inter-partnered Jewish professionals aren’t the first … and won’t be the last. Judaism’s greatest leader, Moses, married Tzipporah. Not only was she not a Hebrew; she was the daughter of a Midianite priest. Her father, Jethro, condoned this union and even offered Moses sound advice on leading the Israelites.
Hillel has come a very long way. When I began working for the campus organization, it was made clear that professionals would not be allowed to perform an interfaith marriage ceremony, let alone be partnered with someone from another background. Thank you, Hillel International, for providing the space for such an important conversation when field professionals were brave enough to step forward and express the deep need for community and support. I look forward to the time when all Jewish professionals can bring their whole selves to their workplaces, proud to be exemplars for the Jewish campus community as they dedicate their life and work to strengthening Judaism for the next generation.
Note: All comments on InterfaithFamily are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed.
I have a confession to make: For a while now, I’ve been pretty anti-Jewish prayer. I know that may sound startling coming from a rabbi. But I’ve kind of been dreading Friday night services lately. All that rote Hebrew that many people aren’t following and don’t understand what they’re saying. Now that I’ve been working with interfaith families, I am especially aware of the barrier that Hebrew creates and have wondered about all different ways to get over that wall. Many in the Jewish world think that some of our prayers (especially ones that have the words “v’tzivanu,” like the Shabbat candle blessings) can only be said by Jews and this poses other problems for those in our families who want to join in and are not sure where they fit.
Friday night services can have highs and music definitely helps get into the mood of the often universal and timeless themes in the liturgy. Sometimes it’s nice to just be with others and feel a sense of camaraderie, joint mission and shared purpose. It’s good to put my phone away for an hour and move at a different pace. Taking a deep breath, being in a beautiful space and hearing words from our tradition can be good for the soul. But, actual liturgy or communal prayer has been my nemesis for a while.
In fact, I was wondering if we could start a congregation with no prayer. There would be no Friday night or Saturday morning “services.” We would come together when we were up for it and looking forward to it for experiences of meaning. A bar or
And then I was invited by A Wider Bridge to help lead Friday night worship at the Creating Change Conference in Chicago. I was invited because InterfaithFamily/Chicago works for inclusion and our mission aligns with the mission of this massive conference. I was invited because I am a proud ally for LGBTQ people within the Jewish world and non-profits in this realm. I was honored to help plan a service with Rabbi Shoshana Conover from Temple Sholom and Judith Golden from Congregation Or Chadash. But all did not go smoothly, and you can read multiple news stories about the drama and trauma that happened that night at the conference. I am still not sure what to do when you find that you agree with a group on so many grounds but have a major schism of belief in an area that is fundamental to your world view. But, the political pieces aside, I have to report that something happened to me in that service.
There was no guitar. Judith sang with emotion and feeling and it was participatory. I. Was. Moved. I felt it. I think other people in the room felt it (and maybe that’s why we, the prayer leaders, felt it). We sang for purpose. We sang for freedom. We prayed for help from the Source above. We were in the moment. We weren’t thinking about what we need at the grocery store. We were there together. A new group. People from all over the world and from all different backgrounds. Pluralistic. Egalitarian. The beat was contagious. Clapping and moving, smiles and swaying. Maybe because each of the prayer leaders desperately, and with all of our hearts and souls, wanted every person in that room to feel supported and part of it and included and loved—the vibe went out and it reverberated back.
I got my prayer mojo back. Now, how to keep it?
I had a few takeaways from this experience, and here’s what I suggest might make prayer more meaningful for me and possibly others:
Thank you Creating Change for reminding me that I love to pray with other people. I’m sorry there was so much tumult. I’m sorry there was so much pain. I pray we will all know peace.
Of course there is no such thing as the “best partner,” but you want your loved one to feel that you are their best partner, right? Whether you’re dating, married or seriously committed, the best gift you can give your loved one is to be supportive—even on those rare (or not so rare) occasions when you don’t see eye to eye.
1. Speak your mind: Speaking up is just as important as listening. If your partner doesn’t know how you feel, they can’t be sensitive to your feelings. If Passover’s coming up and you’d really like a hand preparing to host the holiday, don’t wait for them to offer—ask! So many relationship struggles come from lack of communication. If you’re visiting your significant other’s parents and you’re anxious about not being familiar with certain religious rituals that might come up during a holiday of a religion you don’t practice, ask for a primer (better yet, if it’s Jewish information you seek, find one here!). You’ll feel more comfortable and your loved one will appreciate your interest in their religion.
2. Go halfsies: My husband and I annoyingly like to tease each other that “what’s yours is mine” when it comes to that ice cream sundae or a winning scratch ticket. But it goes both ways. When I see him eyeing the last of my homemade Hanukkah cookies: “What’s mine is yours.” When that wine bottle is almost empty: “What’s mine is yours.” When you’re both generous with the little things, you might find you’re in a better mindset to compromise on the big stuff too.
3. Get creative: Feel like most of the time you’re on autopilot? Work, grocery store, gym, errands, pick up the kids (if you have kids), etc. That’s because we all are. So when you actually get a free minute to spare with your sweetheart, it can be hard to figure out what to do with it—besides a Netflix binge. But there are so many great events going on every week in the Jewish community, plus workshops from InterfaithFamily for couples and new parents. #ChooseLove by taking advantage of that precious free time in a more enriching way and learn something new together. Even if it’s just once in a while, you’ll be glad you got off the couch.
4. Take your time: Figuring out your religious identity as a couple or family takes time. You might want to feel like you have a plan for celebrating holidays and family gatherings that’s just right—from the get-go. Let yourself off the hook! Be OK with not being the perfect Passover host this year. Your what-went-wrongs will inform next year. And some unexpected moments worth repeating will almost certainly happen organically. As you see what works for you—hosting versus visiting, keeping the kids in school versus bringing them to a holiday observance, etc.—you’ll start to create your own traditions.
5. Let it go: I’m not saying you should avoid communication and let hurt feelings fester (especially about big issues), but this is about not “sweating the small stuff.” If your partner’s complaining about visiting your in-laws for Easter again, but you know she’s had a terrible, no good, very bad day, maybe let this one slide. Or if you’ve already made your opinion known that your grandmother has the best chicken soup recipe on the planet, and it would be a travesty not to serve it to your guests, put it in perspective: If it’s really important for your partner to connect with their grandma through an old passed-down recipe, perhaps it’s not worth ruining your holiday over soup. Often we expect a lot from our loved ones, but sometimes we lose sight of what’s worth getting worked up over. And more important: what’s not.
On Sunday, January 10, 2016, InterfaithFamily/Atlanta hosted a fabulous open house at our new office space in Ponce City Market. Over 100 Atlantans celebrated with us as we blessed our new home. After reciting the Shehecheyanu prayer, guests shared their blessings for IFF/ATL and our board member, Rebecca Hoelting, hung our new mezuzah from Atlanta’s own Modern Tribe Jewish gift shop. We enjoyed music from the Pussywillows, thanks to the Atlanta Jewish Music Festival, ate delicious food from the markets in PCM, and hung out in our cool new gathering spaces like the meditation room, the green room with picnic tables, and a secret room that looks like the inside of Jeanie’s bottle. Everyone left with a florescent green Shalom Y’all tote bag full of goodies and IFF resources.
We are looking forward to more exciting events in 2016!!
Following are brief descriptions of wedding ceremonies of interfaith couples I know (all names have been changed) who were married in recent months:
[* Note that either a rabbi or cantor can officiate a Jewish or interfaith wedding ceremony. InterfaithFamily’s Jewish clergy referral service refers both rabbis and cantors.]
All of these ceremonies were “interfaith weddings,” yet they were all very different. And each rabbi and cantor has different comfort levels and boundaries as to what they will do as part of an interfaith wedding.
One rabbi said to me recently: “I officiate at weddings where one partner isn’t Jewish, but they’re really ‘Jewish weddings.’ Essentially I do everything the same as I would do for two Jewish partners, with a few minor changes. I never let clergy or relatives from other faith traditions have any role in the ceremony, and I would never include a New Testament reading or any kind or any reference to or ritual from the other partner’s religious tradition.”
At the other end of the spectrum, another rabbi I was speaking with not long ago said: “I think it’s really important to honor the religious heritages of both partners. I always ask the partner who isn’t Jewish if they have a clergy person or other representative from their religion that they want to invite to take part in the ceremony. If not, I encourage them to think about including readings or rituals from their religious tradition that they find meaningful.”
Clearly, these two rabbis are on two ends of the spectrum as to how they understand their roles in officiating interfaith weddings—and most Jewish clergy fall somewhere in between. Neither of these rabbis is “right” or “wrong”—but it can be frustrating and uncomfortable for a couple to meet with a rabbi or cantor who falls toward one end of the spectrum when they’re really looking for someone who falls toward the other end. Needless to say, this can be uncomfortable for the clergy as well.
So what should a couple do when they’re searching to find a rabbi or cantor who is the right “fit” to officiate their wedding?
1. First of all, before even reaching out to clergy, the couple needs to have an honest conversation (or, likely, several conversations) about what’s important to them in their wedding ceremony. How does each partner feel about having Jewish clergy? Assuming that they want to have a Jewish officiant, they should decide: Do we want clergy of another faith to participate as well, and if so in what way? Are there rituals from the religious tradition of the partner who isn’t Jewish that they want to include? Are there elements of Judaism (e.g., use of Hebrew, mention of God) that they are not comfortable with? Do they want their ceremony to take place before sundown on a Saturday? (Rabbi Keara Stein’s blog How To Avoid This Wedding Nightmare offers couples good advice on how to have some important conversations.)
2. Once the couple has had these conversations, they should begin looking for clergy as soon as possible. If a couple doesn’t already have a relationship with a rabbi or cantor, they can go to interfaithfamily.com/findarabbi and fill out a brief form with some basic information, and we will email them a list of rabbis and cantors in their area who officiate at interfaith weddings. Among other questions, the online form asks if the couple plans to have clergy of another faith participate in the service—if they do, they will be sent a list including only those Jewish clergy who are comfortable co-officiating weddings.
3. Once they have a list of rabbis and cantors, it’s time for the couple to reach out and talk to them. The couple and the rabbi or cantor need to be very clear up front about what their expectations and comfort levels are when deciding if they are going to work together. As I often say when I met with couples (whether both partners are Jewish or they’re an interfaith couple): “This is going to be one of the holiest, most special moments of your life. We should ALL be comfortable with the ceremony. If I’m not OK with something that’s important to you, I want to help you find a rabbi or cantor that is totally comfortable with what you want. And if you don’t feel like I’m the right ‘fit’ for you, it doesn’t mean that I’m not a good rabbi or you should feel badly not working with me, but you should find someone who feels right for you.”
The couple should be very clear with the rabbi or cantor about what they’re expecting their wedding ceremony to look like. They should also feel free to ask any questions (after all, for most people this is their first time having a wedding, so they shouldn’t feel like they need to be an “expert”), and to be honest if there are some things they’re not yet sure about. Similarly, the rabbi or cantor should be clear about what they are and are not comfortable with.
Hopefully, when all is said and done, the couple will be very excited about the person they choose to officiate their wedding. Ideally, it will be just the beginning of a relationship that continues not only through the wedding, but for many years into the future.
InterfaithFamily lost a very dear friend, and the broader Jewish world an outstanding leader, when Arthur Obermayer died yesterday.
I’m not sure what Arthur is best known for in the Jewish world. It could be the Obermayer German-Jewish History Awards, given annually to several Germans (not Jewish themselves) to recognize their efforts to preserve Jewish history and culture in Germany. It could be for his role as a co-founder of Meretz USA, an organization that supported the Meretz party in Israel, or his involvement with JewishGen.
Arthur was deeply involved in secular causes, too. In 2006 I asked him what Boards of Directors he served on and got a list of ten, including the Boston NPR affiliate, the MIT Museum, and Social Venture Partners Boston.
What I am sure of is the impact Arthur had on InterfaithFamily. When I started IFF, I needed to recruit a Board of Directors who were in a position to help the organization get started and grow. I had known Arthur from our involvement in our synagogue, and at some point learned that he was deeply interested in engaging interfaith families in Jewish life, so I asked him to join our Board right when we started operations in 2002. I’m so glad I did.
Arthur’s biggest impact on IFF may have been with our social media and Internet strategies, which resulted in 2015 in reaching over 1 million unique visitors. Way back in 2004, Arthur spent a lot of time helping us select a vendor for our first website re-design, and he helped again in 2008. He started nudging us to get involved in social networking back in 2008 and often forwarded articles he thought would be helpful.
Arthur was the kind of Board member any non-profit would want to have. He read my (often lengthy) Board updates and reports carefully and often offered thoughtful suggestions. When his high standards were satisfied, he said so; when he congratulated us on one email newsletter graphic re-design, we knew we had done something well. In 2005 Arthur and his wonderful wife Judy, herself a past Board Chair of Boston’s Jewish Vocational Service and Board member of Bend the Arc, graciously hosted the first parlor meeting IFF ever had.
Arthur was very ill when we had our #ChooseLove Celebration in October, but he called to ask when I would be speaking because if he could make it, he wanted to come and hear what I had to say. He came at just the right time, and I’m glad I had the chance to publicly thank him not only for making the effort to be there, but for all he had done for IFF and for me. He called the next day and left a voice message, which I treasure, saying my work with IFF had been effective to address an issue I really cared about, and that he was proud to know me as a friend.
Arthur and Judy sent a one page, two-sided holiday message every year, and it was one I always looked forward to. I realize now it was because of the balance in each annual report. There was always a part about what Arthur and Judy had been doing with the many organizations they were involved with, there was always a part about the interesting travel and things they had done together, and there was always a proud part about their children and grandchildren’s latest accomplishments.
Earlier this year we had lunch. I was in the midst of my own transition and I wanted his advice on what I should focus on, on what was really important. This incredibly accomplished man, gravely ill, said “well, you do what you can to make the world better.” The thoughtful and considerate and helpful way Arthur Obermayer conducted himself, the positive impact he had on so many causes, and the balance he always seemed to have with his personal and family life — all are an inspiration to me that I will always remember.
I had a dream last night that I was officiating a wedding of an interfaith couple. It wasn’t a particularly strange situation: A lovely couple stood in front of their family and friends. The bride was in a gorgeous white gown, the groom in a nice black tuxedo. The three of us stood there, under the chuppah about to consecrate their marriage and begin their life as a married couple. And a priest showed up to officiate alongside me. I didn’t know him but the groom seemed to be expecting him and the ceremony proceeded. A little while later the groom shared that he’d like to read a poem that was important to him, I again wasn’t expecting this but he was standing there, under the chuppah, with a piece of paper in his hands ready to read. Once he started I realized it was a series of bible verses from the New Testament asking that all attendees pray in Jesus’ name as their marriage was blessed in the church. I looked over at the bride and saw that she was as shocked as I was, never having discussed this with her groom, I saw the questioning and blindsided look in her eyes.
I call this a dream, although as a rabbi I would more likely call this a nightmare. The couple had clearly never talked to one another about their religious preferences, and had not communicated their wishes with me—their rabbi and wedding officiant. This nightmare is unlikely to occur to this extreme, but in real life it has me thinking a lot about the issues couples have in planning weddings and marriages. The flowers and catering and dress seem like tangible, albeit not necessarily easy, decisions to make when planning a wedding. Even talking about how to plan for finances and a wedding budget are expected parts of forging ahead in a marriage. But how does talking about religion and beliefs factor into the planning process?
My husband and I went on our first date on a Friday night to Shabbat services at a Reform synagogue. I knew he was raised attending Chabad and other Orthodox synagogues, and he knew I was studying to be a rabbi. We both tried to impress each other by suggesting Shabbat for our first date. In a lot of ways this was the best way to start our relationship, and in a lot of ways it was a hysterical failure.
I could tell that he was really uncomfortable in this liberal religious setting, and I was worried that he would never want to see me again! After services we went for sushi and beers and had our first conversation about religion. I’m sure religion isn’t on the Cosmopolitan “things to talk about on a first date” list, but we broke that rule. It was clear that religion was an important part of both of our stories, and it was essential that we talked about it right away. Our case may be extreme when compared with other relationships, but talking about religion and/or personal beliefs is important in all relationships BEFORE planning for marriage or children.
Why is it important? Imagine this scenario: You or your partner encounters a difficult situation and one says to the other, “God meant for this to happen because you’re being tested.” Or, “There is no God so it’s not like any higher power can help you through this.” Does what your partner said help you, or raise even more questions for you while offending you? Would your partner be better equipped to support you if he or she knew something about your beliefs in order to be more sensitive?
Imagine another scenario: You are engaged, you’ve chosen a date for your wedding, the deposit has been paid, the florist and caterer already have their plans and it’s time to choose the officiant. You want a rabbi, your partner wants a priest. What do you do?
It’s important to talk about it, but HOW do you talk about it? Do you say while you’re out shopping, “Oh I really like the fabric on this sofa, and do you believe in God?” That’s probably not the most productive way, although if the fabric makes you think of it and your partner is open to it, by all means take a seat in Pier One and talk about God!
There are so many resources to help you have this conversation: InterfaithFamily has articles and discussion guides, and in some InterfaithFamily/Your Communities, including LA, we offer a workshop for interfaith couples to talk about religious issues in their relationships.
Here’s a quick primer:
Watch a movie or read a book that might bring up the question for you. My personal favorites are Keeping the Faith and The Frisco Kid but there are so many others. Most recently the movie This is Where I Leave You addresses so many interfaith and Jewish questions in a funny and heartwarming way.
Play a game of what do you think about….? For example, use this prompt to start an open and non-judgmental conversation about beliefs. Ask your partner, “What do you think about going to church/synagogue?”; “What do you think about the afterlife?”; “What do you think about how we’ll do holidays once we’re married?”; “What do you think about God or a higher power?”
Don’t get intimidated by the tough religious questions—you can also ask things like “What are your top five guiding values?” Or, “What should we do together as a couple or family that is meaningful?”
The specific questions you ask aren’t as important as the fact that you are talking about it. More communication is great for relationship building, and it helps your wedding officiant create with you the most beautiful and meaningful wedding. Not to mention, your marriage will be so much stronger for it.
I just saw the play Marjorie Prime written by Jordan Harrison and directed by Kimberly Senior at Writer’s Theatre in Glencoe, IL. The premise of the play is that it’s the age of artificial intelligence, but 86-year-old Marjorie is worried that her memory may be fading. That is until the appearance of Walter, a mysterious and charming young visitor programmed to help Marjorie uncover the intricacies of her own past. As Walter’s true nature is revealed, new levels of complexity emerge, leading to profound questions about the limits of technology and whether memory might be a purely human invention. Walter is a Prime—a robot of sorts who can act like Siri times a million. He is sort of like a person and the lines between robot and human are blurred.
Certainly writers and thinkers from Kurt Vonnegut to present day Martine Rothblatt have been wondering about these same questions. I recently heard a report on NPR which details how cars are going to become “smarter and smarter.” In the years to come, our refrigerators will be able to sense when we need milk and that will alert the grocery delivery service to bring it over. The lines between thinking and computing will be hazy. Much of our lives will be able to be automated. Ordering food, house cleaning and driving cars could all be automatic. They will not involve us having to think, plan work or do.
So, where does this leave religion? Being a rabbi is one job that I don’t think can be automated. When I sit with a couple to talk about their families, how they were raised and what’s important to them, we need to see each other and sense each other. Emails, Facetime and following each other on Facebook definitely fills in gaps and builds rapport quicker than before these technologies were used. It helps me get to know couples and get a sense for their vibe and their style, but nothing replaces one-on-one time together.
Marking lifecycle moments from the promises and hopes two committed adults share in front of their family and friends to the arrival of a baby, to honoring someone’s life at the time of their death, or studying with someone and helping them to ritually announce that they want to identify and live as a Jew: These are times that we need to be in person. With that said, there have been dozens of times during these events when someone has set up an iPad with Skype so that an elderly grandparent or a friend far away can “be” there with us.
There is a power in gatherings. Joining your voice with others, knowing that those standing with you share something important is the precious part of community. Judaism is about the senses: it’s about holding, seeing, feeling, hearing, smelling and tasting. You can get an app for sounding the shofar or lighting a virtual menorah but there is nothing like seeing the flickering flame in a window with the dark night behind it. There is no other noise like the alarm of the ram’s horn during the long blast marking the end of an epic day of prayer.
So, while I cannot wait to see what phones, cars and refrigerators will be like in the next five or so years, I don’t think we’ll ever be able to replace the moments of humanity when we need one another to be close. I don’t think a Prime or any version of Siri will replace humans coming together to try to organize, mark, find meaning in and celebrate life…do you?