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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.
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.
It’s 1972. An off-duty, dark haired young cabbie drives by a young blond woman. Slowing down and noticing that the woman is attractive, he switches his light to “on duty” and backs up to pick her up. He drops her off at the school where she teaches, then watches as she walks in. Flash forward to the end of the school day and as the teacher leaves school, the cabbie’s there waiting to pick her up. A montage unfolds: The good looking couple walking over a bridge in New York’s Central Park with their arms around each other; him playfully chasing her; the two of them kissing in the back of the cab; kissing more by the bridge. And then, they finally speak:
Woman: “You know, this is crazy. I don’t even know your full name.”
Man: “Bernie….Steinberg. What’s yours?”
Woman: “Bridget….Bridget – Theresa – Mary – Helene – Fitzgerald.”
Then they both say at the same time: “I think we have a problem.”
So opened the pilot episode of Bridget Loves Bernie (you can CLICK HERE to see it yourself), about the interfaith marriage of Irish Catholic Bridget (played by Meredith Baxter) and Jewish Bernie (played by David Birney).
Bridget Loves Bernie had a primetime Saturday night slot between two very popular shows and it was the fifth highest rated TV show of the 1972-1973 season. But it was cancelled by CBS executives in response to hate mail from viewers who opposed its portrayal of the couple’s interfaith marriage. To this day, Bridget Loves Bernie is the highest rated TV show to be cancelled after only one season.
I was a young girl when Bridget Loves Bernie was on TV, but I still remember the show. And I remember the atmosphere in which it aired, at least in the Jewish community—and certainly in the tight-knit Conservative synagogue where I grew up. It was a shonda (a shame, a pity) if you were Jewish and you married someone from another faith. People assumed you didn’t care about Judaism. When you “married out” you were seen as “writing off” your Judaism. I heard stories of parents who “sat shiva” (performed the Jewish mourning rituals) for a child who “married out.” The parents wondered what they had done wrong. The married children usually cut off ties with the synagogue and the Jewish community. (Can you blame them?)
To a large extent, things have changed. The days when I grew up, when Bridget Loves Bernie’s interfaith marriage was too controversial for primetime television, are fading—at least in a large segment of the liberal Jewish community. In today’s world—a world in which, according to the 2013 Pew Portrait of American Jews, 71 percent of liberal Jews who are getting married are marrying someone who isn’t Jewish—it’s not a shock when Bridget loves Bernie (or, for that matter, when Bridget loves Bernice). And now, with the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College’s recent decision to allow inter-partnered candidates apply to the school, it may become less of a big deal when Bridget loves RABBI Bernie or Bernice.
If you identify as a liberal (non-Orthodox) Jew you almost certainly have friends, and most likely family members, who are in interfaith relationships. If you belong to a Conservative, Humanist, Reconstructionist, Reform, Renewal or unaffiliated synagogue, you almost certainly know fellow-congregants who are in interfaith marriages. And you probably know parents who aren’t Jewish who are actively involved in the Jewish education and upbringing of their children.
Today, there are lots of real couples like Bridget and Bernie, each with their own unique stories, and we can’t just “cancel the show” and ignore reality. (For years, the Jewish community’s response to intermarriage was to preach against it. Not only did intermarriage rates continue to rise, but people in interfaith relationships often felt alienation from and resentment toward the Jewish community.)
If Bridget and Bernie were real people living today, InterfaithFamily, and many like-minded people in the Jewish world, would see Bernie’s marriage to Bridget not as a threat to Jewish continuity, but rather as an opportunity. We’d want to celebrate Bridget and Bernie’s marriage (they could even use our free clergy referral service to find a rabbi or cantor to officiate at their wedding), to provide Jewish resources and support and a safe, non-judgmental space to explore the role of religion in their lives and their marriage. If Bridget and Bernie decided to move to Philadelphia (or one of the other cities that has an InterfaithFamily/Your Community office) they could take our “Love and Religion” workshop and meet with other interfaith couples to discuss how to have religious traditions in their lives together. When they had kids, they could take our online “Raising a Child with Judaism in Your Interfaith Family” class to consider “how” and “why” to bring Jewish traditions into their lives.
Bridget and Bernie are ready for primetime. And for InterfaithFamily, “primetime” is the month of November, when we celebrate Interfaith Family Month. This is a time for synagogues and Jewish organizations to publicly acknowledge and thank those members of our community who aren’t Jewish; to let them know that we don’t just tolerate them, but we are grateful to them for their commitment to Judaism and Jewish continuity. It’s a time to let those Jews who have partners who aren’t Jewish know that not only are we not “sitting shiva” for them, but we hope that they will fully engage in the Jewish community, and that we don’t see their choice of a life-partner as a reflection on their Jewish commitment. It’s a time to declare that rather than fighting against intermarriage, we are working for a vibrant Jewish community—and we welcome anyone who wants to join us.
Interfaith Family Month is a time to let all of the “Bernies” out there know that we don’t love them any less because they love “Bridget.” And for all of the “Bridgets” out there, we hope that just as you love “Bernie,” you will come to love his Jewish community too, because we are committed to building a Jewish community where the two of you can truly feel at home.