Lessons Learned From our First Love and Religion Workshop in Chicagoland

We just finished our first Love and Religion Workshop in Chicago, a four-session workshop developed by Dr. Marion Usher in D.C. and offered at JCCs across the country. The workshop, for interfaith couples who are seriously dating, engaged or newly married, seeks to engender discussion about the role of religion in their lives. Couples can begin to openly discuss issues they face as partners from two different backgrounds. Hearing other couples’ stories and understanding that they are not alone also helps in the search for answers to challenges they face. In a safe environment, couples work on creating their religious lives, learning how they can make Jewish choices while still respecting their partner’s religion.

Four interfaith, Chicagoland couples, all of whom are getting married this summer, participated in our workshop. They logged into their computers with multiple video conferencing on Wednesday evenings so that we could see and hear each other from the comfort of our own homes. For the last session, we met in person at a Jewish deli on the North Shore.

Having tried to get a glimpse into these couples’ lives over the past month, here are my thoughts:

1. These couples (and many of the couples I marry) have not had backlash, ill-feelings or negativity from their parents and extended family at the thought of marrying someone from a different religion. There are, of course, exceptions. Some parents do find it hard to speak to their children about their disappointments and concerns. Not surprisingly, these issues often get exacerbated when grandchildren come into the picture. However, couples often share that their parents are happy for them: happy they found a partner who brings them joy and support.

2. Couples are interested and eager to plan their interfaith wedding ceremony and to unpack the meaning of the traditions. For couples who want to bring aspects of both religions into the ceremony and their lives as a married couple, they may feel that they are dancing on eggshells to make sure that both sides are represented in the ceremony. They want their ceremony to feel Jewish and yet honor the other partner’s religion as well in real ways. Couples are concerned that their family members who are not Jewish will feel part of the ceremony. Partners who are Jewish worry about the mention of Jesus as possibly alienating Jewish family members. Many of the couples printed out our wedding guide for help deciding on readings; gaining understanding about the meaning behind traditions; and to begin envisioning what their ceremony would look, feel and sound like. An interfaith ceremony has to present both religions’ traditions in ways that affirm the other. The wedding shouldn’t feel like two totally different ceremonies have been placed into one whole, going back and forth and back and forth with no connections being made and with ideas that conflict. As with many other aspects in Judaism, interfaith relationships are compelling us to look at liturgy and traditions with a new lens, with a new openness and with creativity to understanding the spirit behind the words and rites.

3. It is not a far leap from talking about a wedding ceremony to talking about how couples will raise their future children. Before we could talk about what role religion would play, we tried to articulate what each partner believes about major aspects of their own religion. This is where I got a lot of blank stares. For some people who grew up Jewish, they never heard a rabbi or teacher ever talk about theology. For many, what Jews do or don’t believe about God, about life and after death, about sin and other major life questions are mysteries. A lack of our own Jewish knowledge and literacy makes it more difficult to figure out, in thoughtful and purposeful ways, what we want to pass on to our children. Some say they just want to celebrate holidays in secular ways. However, if there is interest in infusing deeper meaning, both cultural and religious, couples may need guidance. How does one begin to fill in some of these holes in their own religious education? I highly recommend participating, as a couple in, an introduction to Judaism class. They are held regularly, throughout the year, in various congregations around Chicagoland.

Talking regularly with our partners about different aspects of religion helps both people sort out what is important to them, what questions they still have, areas they want to explore more and where similarities and difference lie. The way couples experience religion will no doubt look different from what either partner grew up with. That can be liberating and exciting or challenging, frustrating and even sad. Yet being willing to actively grapple with these issues can lead interfaith couples to find a new religious vibrancy and identity.

The next session for Love and Religion starts soon. Join us in May!

Mazal Tov, Chely and Lauren

When our celebrity columnist, Nate Bloom, wrote about the engagement of Chely Wright to Lauren Blitzer, he posited, in an earlier draft, that theirs was the first celebrity, lesbian, interfaith wedding. I wasn’t certain. Much to the amusement of my friend and colleague over at Jewish Boston, David Levy, I started googling for proof. I tweeted,

This is not what feminism looks like: http://ow.ly/4OnQ0 (“Why are so many famous Jewish women lesbians?”)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, googling failed to be helpful. The Google results ranged from highly amusing to pornographic to conspiracy theory meets anti-Semitism and homophobia (the latter can be seen, at your own discretion, by following the link in the above tweet), so I turned to some twitter buddies for help.

Both David and I asked questions to our followers at large, and to specific twitter buddies like Jewish musician Julie Silver and the folks at Keshet and Jewish Womens’ Archive, if they knew of other celebrity lesbian interfaith couples. (I believe Julie’s answer included her and her beloved wife…)

Unable to prove with certainty whether or not Chely and Lauren would be the first lesbian, interfaith, celebrity couple to be wed, the assertion was cut from the celeb column.

So why am I mentioning this now? Chely and Lauren will be married this weekend!

Although few details of the big day have been revealed thus far, Chely dished that it will be an outdoor ceremony with both a reverend and rabbi officiating, as the singer is Christian and her fiancée is Jewish. The reception will have a deejay, and guests would be wise to bring their dancing shoes!

And we, at IFF headquarters, are curious: which rabbi is co-officiating the ceremony? Lauren and Chely, if you’d recommend her/his officiating prowess to others, please recommend that they join our free Jewish Clergy Referral Service. We’re always looking out for rabbis who will officiate for interfaith couples, will co-officiate with clergy of other religions, and are LGBTQ friendly!

Mazal tov to the brides (kallot), whether they’re the first or amongst other happy couples!

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!

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.

We Can Help…

Sarah Silverman, if the unicorn wasn’t Jewish, we could help you.

Do you know someone who’s looking for a rabbi for their interfaith wedding? Let them know about our clergy officiation referral service, matching couples, individuals and families with Jewish clergy for weddings, bris or baby namings, bar or bat mitzvahs, conversions, counseling*, funerals, and more.

[sub]*Sarah, you and your unicorn might be most interested in this…[/sub]

On Dame Elizabeth Taylor z”l and Conversion

Yesterday, the world lost an actress, an activist and a humanitarian when rabbi">Elizabeth Taylor died, at age 79.

She was really one of the first people in the public eye to take on the AIDS epidemic and embrace those living with HIV and AIDS. She took some of the fear away, and led a fight that still survives.

Late in life she became a social activist. After her friend Rock Hudson died, she helped establish the American Foundation for AIDS Research and helped raise money for it. In 1997, she said, “I use my fame now when I want to help a cause or other people.”

She was a really remarkable woman.

Increasingly, Ms. Taylor divided her time between her charitable works (including various Israeli causes) and commercial enterprises, like a line of perfumes marketed under her name. She helped raise more than $100 million to fight AIDS. In February 1997, she celebrated her 65th birthday at a party that was a benefit for AIDS research. After the party Ms. Taylor entered Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles for an operation on a brain tumor. (From the NYTimes obit.)

Elizabeth Taylor also converted to Judaism over 50 years ago, sometime between her marriage to Mike Todd and wedding Eddie Fisher*. Fisher was Jewish, so it’s possible that she converted to marry him. 

Which got me thinking: How common were conversions circa 1958/1959?

In the book of Ruth, Naomi tried to get Ruth to go back to her own people 3 times before Ruth became a part of the Hebrew people. As a result, some rabbis “reject” a potential convert three times before discussing conversion with them. In 1950s Hollywood, did Taylor have to do that? And how did that take less than a year?

Today, it’s common for conversion to take at least a year (at least two years in many cases). And for many individuals it’s an even longer process than that, between deciding to explore Judaism, talking with a rabbi, taking conversion classes, and finally taking the dip in the mikvah (or otherwise completing the process). How did Dame Elizabeth convert in under a year? Was that the norm back then?

*This got the office excited, so I’ve got to include a footnote: Eddie Fisher was married to Debbie Reynolds, who wasn’t Jewish. Together, they had two children: Carrie and Todd (quite probably named after Elizabeth’s husband, Mike Todd, who died around the time of Todd’s birth). Eddie ended his marriage to Debbie to marry Elizabeth. Elizabeth is Carrie’s step-mother (maybe). But more importantly: Princess Leia is from an interfaith family!

Life Cycle Innovations

A couple recent articles relating to Jewish life-cycle events caught my eye.

For starters, via Jewschool we learned about a  Wall Street Journal piece looking at birth ceremonies. Specifically:

Manhattan lawyer [Epstein] recently asked New York federal judge Kimba Wood to grant him a day’s reprieve in a criminal trial to attend the bris of his grandson. Epstein’s daughter has not yet given birth — so he doesn’t yet know the sex of the baby. But Epstein wanted to give Judge Wood ample notice to consider his request, given that his daughter’s due date is Dec. 3, smack in the middle of the scheduled trial.

So Epstein was stuck in the slightly awkward position of asking Judge Wood for a day off if, in fact, the baby turns out to be a boy. If it’s a girl, well, no bris, no day off needed.

Wrote Epstein, in this letter filed with the court on Thursday:

“Should the child be a girl, not much will happen in the way of public celebration. Some may even be disappointed, but will do their best to conceal this by saying, ‘as long as it’s a healthy baby.’ … However, should the baby be a boy, then hoo hah! Hordes of friends and  family will arrive … for the joyous celebration … known as the bris. … My presence at the bris is not strictly commanded, although my absence will never be forgotten by those that matter.”

Judge Wood, in a note written at the bottom of the letter, granted the request. But she did Epstein one better. Wrote Wood:

“Mr. Epstein will be permitted to attend the bris, in the joyous event that a son is born. But the Court would like to balance the scales. If a daughter is born, there will be a public celebration in Court, with readings from poetry celebrating girls and women.”


Fantastic!

I then learned of virtual bar mitzvah studies via the NY Times:

If dating, shopping and watching TV can be revolutionized by the Internet, why should bar and bat mitzvahs be immune? Parents who once might have turned to their local synagogue for Hebrew lessons and spiritual guidance are now turning to Google…

It was interesting but it’s too bad that they focused on the downside of group learning – or highlighted the ease of individual learning. Learning with others (chavruta especially) holds many benefits for both religious and secular studies.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that our clergy referral service isn’t just for weddings – we can direct you to clergy for all life cycle events, from a baby naming or bris to bar or bat mitzvah to weddings and funerals.

Interfaith Hodgepodge

There’s been a lot going on around here lately, and I haven’t had a chance to give you all a proper blog post. To tide you over, a quick roundup of interfaith goings on!

Andi Rosenthal, frequent writer for us at IFF, has her first book out. Check out a review of The Bookseller’s Sonnets.

A local cemetery is expanding to “accommodate interfaith families” – their want for non-Jewish partners and family members to be buried alongside their Jewish family members. Is this a growing trend?

Julie Wiener wonders if “it is possible to welcome interfaith families while at the same time encouraging in-marriage.” And is looking for your stories.

Limmuds!

Hello InterfaithFamily.com readers,

InterfaithFamily.com’s Network is beginning to help market two of the Limmud conferences in the United States. There are actually 40 Limmud conferences around the world every year. Limmuds are volunteer communities which come together, for a day to a week, to be a Jewish community and celebrate Judaism through learning. They are open to individuals, couples and families. And Limmud has special programming for children!

I have been in touch with the planning committees at LimmudNY and Limmud Chicago and they want to be sure that their conferences are welcoming to interfaith families and the children of interfaith families.

LimmudNY is over Martin Luther King weekend, January 14-17, and is offering InterfaithFamily.com readers and Network members a discounted rate. To learn more, please click here.

If you are interested in attending LimmudNY and taking advantage of the discount, please contact me at robins@interfaithfamily.com.

Limmud Chicago is on March 27th and we will be telling you more about that one as it gets closer.