The Next Celebrity Interfaith Couple?

It’s uncanny. Almost exactly a year ago – July 31, 2010 – the big news in InterfaithFamily.com’s world was the wedding of Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky, and all of the following discussion about the Jewish community’s not very embracing reaction. Now, on August 1, 2011, we may have the next big news for interfaith families. Yes – it’s the finale of
The Bachelorette.

I want to make if very clear that I am too busy dealing with important matters to watch low-brow TV shows like The Bachelorette. However, on what is kind of a “date,” I do accompany my wife as she watches the show. As such, I know that this season’s bachelorette, Ashley, is down to two contenders, Ben and J.P., that she’s going to pick one of them this coming Monday night, and that while Ben seems to be a good person, my favorite is J.P., and well, he’s Jewish.

I remember (only vaguely of course because I’m not really watching) that there was one early mention that J.P., at the time one of many contenders, was Jewish, but nothing else was ever said. In a recent episode when Ashley visited the families of the remaining contenders, J.P.’s mother on Long Island came across as a stereotypical very warm and loving but a little intrusive Jewish mother. Interestingly, there was no mention of religions or religious differences in that episode.

Now the Morton Report has surfaced the issue with The Bachelorette: Will One Contender’s Religion Be an Obstacle? The writer, Pat Fish, says:

Why is this important? Well, religion is something people about to embark on a life together do discuss. Also, some Jewish people discourage mixed marriages though they do tolerate them. Interestingly, I’ve never known J.P. and Ashley to discuss their religious differences, at least not on camera.

I will be very interested to again accompany my wife on Monday night to see how this unfolds. If Ashley picks J.P. I do hope they’ve talked about religion or do so soon, and we’ve got lots of resources that can help them have that discussion. If they end up getting married, we’re here to help, with our Jewish Clergy Officiation Referral Service, our Guide to Wedding Ceremonies for Interfaith Couples, and lots of other weddings resources. And hopefully the Jewish community will take this opportunity to not tolerate, but to embrace, another interfaith couple.

Sunday Was a Busy Day for Weddings in New York

As you may recall, we were all too happy and excited to help fill one of the 175 requests we get each week to our Jewish Clergy Officiation Referral Service. This one in particular was for Dee and Kate, who would be among the first legally married gay couples in New York this past weekend.

Their marriage was covered extensively  by Newsday.

Another interfaith, Jewish wedding that also received media attention on Sunday: Avenue Q’s (closeted) muppet Rod to his beau. Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum officiated outside the New York City clerk’s office, where CBST, NY’s LGBT synagogue, hung a rainbow flag as a chuppah.

“To have this finally happen for us — especially so soon after Will and Kate — is unbelievable to me,” Rod said in a statement. “I realize there are a lot of broken hearts out there now that Ricky and I are off the market — step back, all you chorus boys! — but I’ve known since day one that Ricky is the husband for me. He’s the furry fellow I want to spend my life with both on and off the stage.” (The Advocate)

But back to real people.

Newsday has a wonderful photo gallery of Kate and Dee preparing for their wedding, then getting married. (All photo credits: Jessica Rotziewicz.) Here are some highlights:

From their home in Patchogue, Dee Smith holds up her phone that has her mother, Randee Smith, of Smithtown, on video chat, so she can talk with Rabbi Lev Baesh via Skype along with her and Kate Wrede. This is the second time the couple is chatting with the rabbi about plans for their wedding ceremony. (July 14, 2011)
Rabbi Lev Baesh, director of the Resource Center for Jewish Clergy at InterfaithFamily.com, draws a photo of the wedding ceremony for Dee Smith and Kate Wrede to see on their computer while using Skype to discuss their plans. (July 7, 2011)
Kate Wrede and Dee Smith of Patchogue choose a glass to break at their wedding ceremony, along with a mezuzah, at Unique Judaica in Syosset. Following Jewish tradition, the couple will hang the mezuzah on the doorpost of the entrance to their home. (July 10, 2011)

Hey, Kate and Dee, if you need help putting the mezuzah up, check out our video and booklet!

Kate and Dee Smith look into each others’ eyes as Rabbi Lev Baesh explains how this is more intimate than the kiss at the end of the ceremony at Viana Hotel & Spa in Westbury. (July 24, 2011)
Kate Wrede and Dee Smith wrap themselves in a blanket as part of their wedding ceremony. (July 24, 2011)

That “blanket” is a tallit (sometimes pronounced tallis), which is a prayer shawl. From our Guide to Wedding Ceremonies for Interfaith Couples: “In some Jewish ceremonies, modeled after Sephardic tradition, the couple may be wrapped in a large tallis during some portion of the wedding ceremony when blessings are recited. It is often used for the final benediction. This ritual is adaptable for any wedding.”

Mazal tov, again, to Dee and Kate (and Rod and Ricky), and to all of the other couples who are now legally able to marry in NY State!

Tackling Interfaith Relationships on the Small Screen

I’ll admit it.  I was watching an old episode of Felicity a few nights ago on DVD, and it tackled the issue of interfaith relationships.  The episode, entitled “Kissing Mr. Covington,” included a back story about a couple, Sean and Meghan, who were an interfaith couple. 

Sean has to have cancer surgery and he turns to his Jewish roots for solace.  His girlfriend, Meghan, is not Jewish, and Sean breaks up with her because they don’t observe the same religion.  Little did he know that the man sharing his hospital room was Rabbi Morgenstern, who says that Sean is a fool for breaking it off with a loving woman like Meghan.  Sean reacts by proposing to Meghan, and, while she turns him down, she does say that she’s open to learning more about Judaism.  Sean is thrilled.  The episode concludes with a loving embrace by the couple.

I’ve seen this episode before, when it first aired in 2000, but watching it now had a more profound effect on me.  The writers were quite progressive in bringing interfaith relationships out in the open.  It begins to open a dialogue on the show about budding interfaith relationships, and why it could be important to have this discussion early on (a position we at InterfaithFamily.com fully endorse!).

Watch the scenes from the episode here:


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This Weekend, At Midnight, Under The Chuppah

We excitedly mentioned that we’ve been able to help Dee and Kate, who will be getting married at 12:01am on Sunday, July 24 (the moment same-sex marriage becomes legal in New York State) find a rabbi to officiate at their (Jewish, interfaith) wedding.

Here’s a video, via Newsday, about the happy couple:

Mazal tov!

As a bonus, we also have an essay that Rabbi Lev Baesh, director of our Resource Center for Jewish Clergy, and the lucky officiant for Kate and Dee’s upcoming nuptials, wrote about this experience:

You might not guess this, but it can be easier to find a liberal rabbi to officiate a same-sex wedding than to find one to officiate a Jewish wedding for an interfaith couple.  This Saturday night at midnight, I will be officiating the first legal gay wedding in the State of NY.  The couple found me in Massachusetts through InterfaithFamily.com’s free Jewish Clergy Officiation Referral Service, after being turned away by several rabbis in the NY area.
 
What never ceases to amaze me is the dedication some interfaith couples have to finding Jewish connection in this important celebration in their family’s life.  It also doesn’t surprise me that a gay interfaith couple, which faces potential discrimination on several fronts, continues to search for that connection as well.  Thankfully we have this web based service, and the dedication of its staff to equality, that makes it possible.

I have worked with InterfaithFamily.com for several years, but began officiating and co-officiating interfaith weddings 20 years ago.  It was both the high level of acceptance my religious Jewish family had towards people of diversity, and my own struggle as a gay man to find connection in the religious heritage I deeply loved, that moved me to make it easier for people to find connection here as well. Reform Judaism has been full of social justice activities and drive for the world around us, but is only in the past decades seeing the challenge it places on its own committed members and potential members, by not welcoming both GLBT and interfaith couples in a bigger way.

There has been a shift in both the welcoming of GLBT and interfaith families of recent past, but institutional change is slow and haphazard.  Gay, lesbian and transgender rabbis are welcome to study for ordination, but the prayer books, religious school materials and social conversations still refer to heterosexual families as primary and desired.  Interfaith programming has increased and many of the congregations in our liberal movements are more than 40% interfaith families.  However, the leadership of the movement still can’t accept an interfaith married person into the rabbinic school. And, with a nearly 50% or greater number of Jews in interfaith partnerships and marriages nationally, the liberal Jewish movements still see them as a minority when it comes to programming and organizational decision making.

It is both the GLBT and interfaith nature of this wedding, with its high profile status as the first legal gay wedding in NY, that may give us the power to move the liberal Jewish world further in its path toward internal acceptance of all its diversity.  With the liberal Jewish world coming around to the reality it faces, of both interfaith and gay families (some living in the same households) making Jewish choices, there can be great strength in changing the nature of acceptance of diversity on a national level.  As much as this wedding is a triumph for same-sex families, we still have a lot of work to do to bring national value to acceptance of the full diversity of our populous.

May this wedding be not just the first of many in NY, but the gentle push forward that makes room for other states and other religious movements to open their doors wide to the people who already love so much of what we value as a free and inclusive society.

Celebrity Updates: Ivanka and Gwyneth

Despite the frequency with which I blog about them, I actually have little care about celebrities’ lives. But they keep coming up in the news, saying things of relevance to intermarriage, interfaith families, so I guess I’ll have to keep blogging…

First, mazal tov to Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner on the birth of their daughter on July 17.

The AP tells us,

Kushner is the owner of the New York Observer newspaper. He and Trump wed in 2009. She converted to Judaism before the wedding.

They’ve named their daughter Arabella Rose. I’m not quite sure where the name fits on the bizarre-celeb-baby-name chart, though it’s certainly saner than “Alef” (and has been described as “exotic” by Donald Trump).

If you want to follow the goings on in the Trump/Kushner home, Ivanka’s tweeting, starting with this one from Arabella’s second day:

Jared and I are having so much fun playing with our daughter! Arabella Rose is beyond adorable. She’s truly a blessing.

The next update is about Gwyneth Paltrow, a regular feature in our interfaith celebrities column.

An =http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-2016674/Gwyneth-Paltrow-Ill-raise-Apple-Moses-Jewish.htmlarticle in the Daily Mail reveals,

She once claimed that she did not believe in religion.

But now Gwyneth Paltrow has revealed she wants to raise her children in the Jewish faith, following an appearance on the ancestry programme Who Do You Think You Are

The American actress, whose late father was Jewish film producer Bruce Paltrow, was moved to discover earlier this year on the show that her family came from a long line of influential East European rabbis.

And this has inspired her to raise daughter Apple, seven, and five-year-old son Moses in a Jewish environment, she told guests of a London event hosted by Jewish charity the Community Security Trust.

Her decision is a far cry from comments she made last year about her experience of being raised as both Jewish and Christian.

‘It was such a nice way to grow up,’ she said, but later added: ‘I don’t believe in religion. I believe in spirituality. Religion is the cause of all the problems in the world.’

Gwyneth, if you need any resources for yourself, your husband or your family, we’re here for you.

Giving Back: Tzedakah

Growing up in suburban New Jersey, I attended religious school at Monmouth Reform Temple.  At MRT, every year, we learned the valuable lesson of giving back through Tzedakah (Hebrew word for “righteousness”).  We’d collect cans for the local food pantry on the high holidays; we’d plant trees in Israel every Tu Bishvat; and we’d collect our loose change throughout the year as our class project to give to our favorite charity.

As rooted in my Jewish values, I believe in the importance of Tikun Olam (Hebrew for “repairing the world”) and Tzedakah.  And, I encourage you to do the same.

Whether you collect your loose change each year or make an online donation, consider supporting IFF with your Tzedakah.  Did you find a great Rabbi to officiate your wedding?  Did you download one of our helpful booklets to welcome your interfaith grandchildren to your Passover seder? Or do you enjoy reading our blogs?  We want to continue to serve both you and the interfaith community.  Consider giving back to IFF today.

Happy and Proud

People who know me know that I am rarely satisfied. When something really positive happens, I am usually immediately thinking of what more could be done.

But I want to pause and say that I am as happy and proud as I could be that InterfaithFamily.com is playing a role in what is being described as the first, legal, gay marriage in New York. I have a lot of personal feelings about this that I want to share.

There was controversy when we started our Resource Center for Jewish Clergy and our Jewish Clergy Officiation Referral Service. People said we would badger rabbis to officiate for interfaith couples – something we have never done. I felt to a certainty that helping interfaith couples have a positive experience finding a rabbi to officiate or co-officiate at their weddings – something we have consistently done, at a current rate of 175 couples a month – would be a positive factor towards future Jewish engagement of those couples. I’m convinced it was the smartest move our organization ever made.

Ten years ago when IFF was founded I confess that I wasn’t sure how I felt about gay marriage. Then I got to know Sue Edelman and I got to know Rabbi Lev Baesh and thankfully it became a no-brainer to me that same-sex couples deserve marriage equality. I also learned that most people say that even more LGBT than straight relationships involving Jews are also interfaith relationships, and we have always published content aimed at supporting gay interfaith relationships (check out our new LGBT Resource Page), and that was clearly the right thing to do too.

A year ago I made a presentation to the Jewish Federation of North America’s planners group with my friend Idit Klein, the executive director of the leading Jewish LGBT advocacy organization, Keshet. Idit and I had a friendly debate about whether LGBT Jews or Jews in interfaith relationships were more marginalized in the Jewish community. You could say that IFF’s over-arching goal is to not have interfaith couples marginalized in the Jewish community. If IFF can help gay interfaith couples overcome the extra hurdles they face, so much the better.

Last Wednesday when I saw Dee Smith’s officiation referral request and read that they were going to be the first gay couple married in New York I went running out of my office with excitement. We quickly put Lev, who directs our Resource Center for Jewish Clergy, in touch with the couple. We thought he would be the perfect rabbi for the couple and that they would love him, they apparently did, and I am thrilled for Lev that he will be having a role in making history on July 24.

The big deal here is that there is going to be legal gay marriage in New York. I was proud to live in Massachusetts when our state legalized gay marriage, I was proud when my childhood friend Richard Palmer wrote the Connecticut Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage in that state, and I was disappointed when the electorate in Maine where I spend a lot of time voted against it. I hope that New York has turned the tide in favor of marriage equality.

But it is also a big deal for the Jewish community that the first legal gay marriage in New York involves an interfaith couple who sought to have a rabbi officiate at their wedding. And I am very happy and proud that our organization was available and able to make that happen.

NY: First Gay Marriage!

It was with great excitement that I heard the news from the New York Senate a few Shabboses ago: in a vote of 33-29, the state passed a bill allowing same-sex marriage! The bill would come into effect on July 24, 2011. In honor of NY State, we updated our homepage’s news section linking to our newly updated LGBT Resource Page.

Like many, I started hearing about the colorful plans for weddings, non-profits and individuals alike doing what they could to prepare for the throngs of couples who will want to take advantage of the new law shortly after it comes into effect. (One of my favorites? The “pop-up chapel” planned for July 30 in Central Park.)

But then, via our free Jewish clergy officiation referral service, we received an email requesting a rabbi to officiate at what will be New York’s “first gay marriage.” Enthusiastically, we jumped on the task. (Not that we’re biased, but the office was maybe slightly more enthusiastic about this request than the hundreds of others we receive – but only slightly, of course, since we’re thrilled to be able to help out so many of you!)

Our own rabbi Lev Baesh will be in NY to officiate at their interfaith, Jewish wedding. The couple, Dee and Kate, want their wedding to be a wonderful celebration. As such, they’re inviting everyone, even you.

We’re thrilled for the couple, Dee and Katemazal tov!

Updated to add: For more, please read Ed Case’s blog post, Happy and Proud. Stay tuned for more details as we get them…

Event Planners: Take Note!

Very excited to be writing my first blog post for InterfaithFamily.com.  It’s officially my 2nd week as IFF’s new Director of Development, and so far, everything is going extremely well!

My co-worker, Benjamin Maron, sent me a link to a great article on CNN’s website, focusing on intercultural and interfaith weddings.    Recently, I was meeting with an event planner from an upscale hotel in Boston and I told him I was joining the staff at IFF.  He immediately jumped up and said, “Wow, that’s a fabulous idea for an organization!”  He mentioned that, as a wedding planner, he is often looking for officiants for interfaith marriages, and could use a resource like IFF to share with his clients.  It hadn’t occurred to me that IFF could be a great resource for event planners.   So, when I met with another event planner a few weeks later, I proactively mentioned IFF and its potential usability for him and his fellow event planners.  He, too, was hooked. 

I think it’s a good start – a few more key people now know about this website, and can share it as a resource for interfaith couples embarking on that next step in their life: marriage.

Natalie Portman and Benjamin Millepied Picked a Name

I was reviewing my Google Reader before leaving the office this evening, when something caught my eye. Now, at first I thought it was a joke. After all, I’d previously poked fun at the names celebrities give their babies.

UPDATE: June 20 Feeling a little cheeky, Crushable offers up some name suggestions for Li’l Portman. The bris is scheduled for June 22. We’ll have to wait until then to find out his name…

If you haven’t yet, click that Crushable link for some, uh, interesting celebrity names.

But anyway, no, this was for real.

As our friend Julie Wiener reported,

the inter-engaged Natalie Portman has reportedly named her new son Alef, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. If the Portman-Millepied family’s next child is a girl, will she be named Beth?

And everyone from HuffPo to OK! magazine weighed in, with People.com officially confirming it:

Natalie Portman and fiancé Benjamin Millepied get an A-plus for the name they picked for their baby boy.

Their son’s name is Aleph, a source confirms to PEOPLE.

So what’s in a name? Aleph is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, much like alpha is the first letter of the Greek alphabet. Aleph is the number 1 in Hebrew and can also be spelled “alef.”

Its esoteric meaning in Judaic Kabbalah, as denoted in the theological treaty Sefer-ha-Bahir, relates to the origin of the universe, the “primordial one that contains all numbers.”

Once more officially confirmed, I guess we’ll find out if it’s Alef or Aleph…

Welcome to the world, Ale(f/ph)!