Finding Co-Officiants: A Multi-Step Process

  

July 2016 – Engaged! Now, who will marry us?

Our first hurdle in planning an interfaith wedding (other than the insanity of touring and booking a venue) was finding an officiant and creating a ceremony that reflected both of us. The day after we got engaged, I began fumbling around for some guidance. I knew what a Catholic wedding looked like, but I had no idea what was important in a Jewish ceremony, much less what we could do if we wanted to combine them.

As the daughter of a lifelong librarian, I put my research skills to the test. Surprisingly, my local library had exactly what I was looking for. A quick search in the card catalog for “interfaith marriage” turned up a fabulous book by Rabbi Devon A. Lerner: Celebrating Interfaith Marriages: Creating Your Jewish/Christian Ceremony. Yes! Exactly what I was looking for! It’s like someone has done this already…

I read the book cover to cover. It was super valuable during this process and covered almost every ceremony question I had: from the treatment of Jesus in a Christian-Jewish ceremony to what to expect when we met with the rabbi a few weeks later. The book included several sample ceremonies and really opened my mind to what we could create. The next step to realizing that vision was to decide on a venue.

After doing some research and talking with Zach, I decided I needed to reassess my dream of being married in the church where I grew up. That church meant a lot to me and to my family—we had received all of our sacraments there, attended the connected parish school and built our family life around that community. Discussing it with Zach, I realized that my in-laws-to-be might not feel comfortable in the church—and that maybe the church wasn’t the neutral ground zero from which the rest of our lives would start.

We needed somewhere that was meaningful to both of us, because that compromise or give-and-take is pretty emblematic of our life together. We found a beautiful venue in Historic Graeme Park that combined my Pennsylvania roots with Zach’s love of (and my appreciation for) nature. With a meaningful space secured, I set out to tackle the big question: Who would officiate our ceremony?

The view from our chuppah (minus all the people, of course!)

I first asked a clergy member from our local parish to officiate. He congratulated us and promised to look into the logistics. After some discussion and deliberation, we decided that it wasn’t the right fit. The diocese where we were getting married had policies about diocesan clergy (priests and deacons) performing wedding ceremonies in a dignified space–which typically means inside, not outdoors. (A Catholic diocese is a district that is under the supervision of a bishop and is made up of parishes run by priests.) I had done my research beforehand and, to the surprise of many (myself included), the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops does not appear to explicitly ban outdoor weddings when it comes to a Catholic-Jewish ceremony because they recognize the need for a neutral space. But, as I understood it, this diocese had their own restrictions.

We didn’t know what to do—we had just selected a beautiful park to be married in, not thinking it would make finding an officiant more challenging. The decision on how to move forward really shook me. I felt like I had been part of a family for my whole life and now they were taking issue with something that seemed inconsequential to our marriage. We had looked at hotel ballrooms and fancy mansions in our venue search, but none of them really felt like a venue for us. We thought about having the ceremony inside the tent at the venue and we considered having a Catholic clergyman (priest or deacon) do a blessing after the ceremony. But after discussing it together and with my parents, we decided to see if we could find another Catholic officiant for the outdoor ceremony.

Tent space at Graeme Park–perfect for a reception, not ideal for the ceremony

Our success in finding such an officiant was a small miracle, likely brought about in some part by the fervent prayers of my mother. After reading the book Being Both, we looked up the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington to see if they offered any resources on interfaith marriage. We found a couples’ workshop for engaged and married interfaith couples, and I contacted the Catholic priest listed as a speaker at the workshop. Fr. Michael Kelly of St. Martin’s in DC was a godsend. He talked with me over the phone and agreed to help us fill out the paperwork, do the required marriage prep and find an officiant. On his recommendation, we contacted Rabbi Bleefeld in Dresher, PA, and met with him a few weeks later. Having read up on my stuff, I was thankfully aware when the rabbi asked us about things like a ketubah and the seven blessings. He has been a pleasure to work with and a resource in putting together our special day.

The priest was a little trickier to find. Fr. Kelly connected us with an order of priests that were not subject to the same rules and policies as diocesan priests (name of the order withheld). We met with Fr. Mike around Thanksgiving: He came across as kind, gentle and generous. He talked with us for a few hours about our relationship and what we wanted in our ceremony and he happily agreed to officiate our wedding.

Now we finally have a Catholic priest and a Jewish rabbi, both doing equal parts of the ceremony and offering us the flexibility to incorporate parts of our traditions that have meaning to us (more on that in another post). It has been a long process to get to this point and I experienced a crisis of faith in my struggle to gain a Catholic officiant for my wedding. Throughout this journey, we have met so many incredible people who are doing God’s work. We would not have met them if we had taken the easy way—such as asking the rabbi to officiate and having a priest say a blessing.

A friend asked me the other day what I’m most excited for on our wedding day, and other than the dress (it’s gorgeous), I am most excited for our ceremony, a unique blend of the faiths and prayers and people that matter the most to us. I’m so thankful we can have it all present as we start our life together. Check back in a few weeks to see the ceremony, after we’ve put some finishing touches on it!

Looking for an officiant? InterfaithFamily can help!

This Hindu-Jewish Couple Celebrated with Two Beautiful Weddings

  

By Elana Bell

Photos by Peter Dressel

Hindu wedding. Photo by Peter Dressel

It is two days until our Hindu wedding ceremony, and my fiancé Jai and I are standing outside the Rama Krishna Mission where I am staying, in Calcutta’s hundred-degree humidity, arguing about translations. I am asking, for what feels like the hundredth time, for an accurate translation of the mantras I will be chanting during the four-day ceremony. Jai has been promising—and putting off—these translations for months, but apparently, it is not as easy as we’d originally thought.

It turns out that there is not one generic Hindu wedding ceremony, but rather a precise set of mantras for each region, caste and specific lineage. He thought that once we arrived in India it would be easier track down translations from the local priest, but unfortunately the local priest actually lives in a remote village on the outskirts of the city, has no cell phone and can only be reached during certain times of the day on the communal village phone, which is almost always busy. And, as Jai painstakingly explains to me, there are no simple, ready-made English translations for a four-day ceremony.Photo by Peter Dressel

This is not our first wedding. Six weeks earlier, we were married in a Jew-ish wedding ceremony on the canals in Venice, California, a few miles from where I grew up. I say Jew-ish, because while it was rooted in Jewish culture and included many elements of a traditional Jewish wedding, we’d devoted months to crafting the language of our ceremony to make sure it was a precise reflection of who we were as a couple.

Since Jai is not Jewish, and has no plans to convert, it seemed false to recite the traditional blessing for the ring exchange: Haray aht m’kudeshet li b’taba’at zu k’dat Moshe v’Yisrael, which translates as By this ring you are consecrated to me in accordance with the traditions of Moses and Israel. Instead, we wrote our own blessing, recited in both Hebrew and English: With this ring I consecrate myself to you by the universal laws of love. During the sheva brachot, the seven blessings, we invited Jai’s parents and sister to recite Sanskrit verses that were close to the meaning of the traditional Hebrew blessings, because we wanted to honor and include his language and culture, and because we wanted our guests to understand that although this was a predominantly Jewish ceremony, it was also the marriage of two rich and ancient traditions.

Elana's Jewish wedding. Photo by Peter Dressel

Photo by Peter Dressel

So you can imagine my annoyance when two days before the Hindu ceremony, I still had no idea what it was that I was actually going to be saying. The year before, we had come to Calcutta to participate in Jai’s sister’s wedding. Though born in Calcutta, Sukanya was raised in the United States and holds a doctorate in astrophysics from Berkeley. Going in, Sukanya was already skeptical of some of the rigmarole that the traditional Hindu ceremony required—three different heavy-silk, embroidered saris, yellow paste smeared on the face and more than a dozen intricate rituals to bind her to her chosen mate—ceremonies that were not necessarily reflective of the quieter, more stripped down Hinduism practiced by her family growing up. Yes, there were the small altars around the house with statues of Durga and Ganesha, but the most important ritual was the daily recitation of the Sanskrit verses their father demanded. Add to the equation the fact that Sukanya was marrying a nice, Bengali young man who, although he cooked a perfectly delicate hilsa fish, believed in the intricate rituals of his born religion about as much as he believed in the tooth fairy.

Throughout their four-day ceremony (which I studied intently, knowing that I might soon be going through it myself), I occasionally noticed Sukanya grimacing, or calling her father over and whispering to him with agitated gestures. When I asked her later what was wrong, she explained that unlike most contemporary Indian brides, she could actually understand the Sanskrit verses she was reciting and they contained some pretty paternalistic sentiment. “I can’t believe I am supposed to repeat this crap about thanking my husband for taking over the burden of taking care of me from my father!” she hissed.  “Elana, you and Jai shouldn’t even have an Indian wedding. Just do it in America. Then you won’t have to go through all of this nonsense.”

As a cultural and religious outsider joining the family, I didn’t really think that was an option. Can you imagine me telling my soon-to-be Indian mother-in-law that her only son wouldn’t have a traditional Hindu ceremony? Plus, I was already picturing myself in a flowing red silk sari. And, although I was not thrilled about the chauvinistic element that Sukanya had revealed, most organized religions are patriarchal in origin, and their marriage rituals reflect that. Judaism is no exception. The traditional ketubah, the Jewish marriage contract, includes a promise from the husband to present the bride with “the marriage gift of virgins, two hundred silver zuzim” in exchange for her promise to live faithfully according to the laws of Moses and Aaron, and bring the agreed upon sum of silver, gold, and valuables from her own father’s house. Sounds like a sale to me.

Even more than my concern with an antiquated, patriarchal ceremony was my secret, deep-seated fear that I was going to unknowingly end up invoking some god or goddess that wasn’t mine. That somehow, by reciting these ancient Hindu mantras, I would be betraying my God, and therefore my essential Jewishness.

As Jai and I stood outside the Rama Krishna Mission, trying to resolve this frustrating circumstance, I realized I had a choice. I could hold my ground on principle, and spend the last days before our wedding in a state of tension and frustration over what I could not control, or I could jump into this ceremony on faith and with the clarity of my intention to honor my soon-to-be-husband’s culture. I knew that no matter what words I would repeat during the ceremony, we would be invoking the love we have for each other, and honoring the values that are important to us, whether connected to our cultural heritage, spiritual practice or to something as mundane as who is going to take out the trash.

Photo by Peter DresselOn the day of the ceremony we wake at dawn in our separate residences. I am brought to the wedding house and dressed in an elaborate red silk sari and made up to look like a combination of Bollywood starlet and a Hindu goddess. When I come out, they seat me in a red velvet wedding chair to wait for my turn to participate—which turns out to be not for a long time. In the Hindu ceremony, it is the father of the bride who actually has the most to say and do. And my father was a champion. He sat under the wedding tent on a white mat, dressed in a white dhoti with a red-checkered cotton shawl around his neck, repeating Sanskrit verses after the priest for hours. Watching the delight my musical father took in pronouncing these foreign phrases helped me relax and be present for the ritual. Although I did not understand every word, when Jai and I threw the fragrant jasmine garlands around each other’s necks, circled the fire together seven times and tied his clothing to mine, the metaphor was clear.

It would resemble a fairy tale rather than life if I ended the story here, if I implied that after that powerful and exhausting ceremony, and the compromises we each made to get through it, everything fell into place and the struggles of being an inter-faith couple faded into the sunset. In truth, the negotiations continue, some more painful than others. Whereas in India I felt that I was the one who ended up compromising more, in our day-to-day life, it is Jai who is consistently being asked to include more and more Jewish ritual into his life.

We celebrate Shabbat on a weekly basis, either in our home, with friends or with our beloved local Hassidic rebbe. Jai accompanies me to Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and other Jewish holiday dinners and services. In the beginning, I think Jai came for my sake, so I would not have to be alone, since Judaism is such a communal religion. And while Jai is very clear that his is a Hindu soul, he acknowledges that his life has been enriched by his experiences with Jewish culture and practice.

As far as my participation in Hinduism, as I mentioned, Jai’s Photo by Peter Dresselfamily’s practice is more philosophical, internal, and text-based, than communal. In fact, when we were traveling in India I would eagerly go into each temple, leaving my shoes at the threshold and braving the dirty water littered with petals, while Jai waited outside for me to return, forehead sticky with the remnants of a priest’s blessing. Early in our relationship, Jai would tell stories from the Bhagvad Gita and the Ramayan so intimately, it seemed that he’d been born knowing them. Besides making me fall more in love with him, being exposed to these stories through his eyes has made me want to have a deeper understanding of my own sacred stories, and wish that I was as versed in the Torah as he is in the Hindu sacred texts.

A few days after our Hindu ceremony, on a train heading from Calcutta to Delhi, still reeling from the four days of intense festivities, I asked my father how he, a Conservative Jew from California, felt about all the Sanskrit he’d had to recite and if any of it had made him uncomfortable. He paused for a moment and said, “Well, the way I see it, Sanskrit is a holy language, like Hebrew. The sounds felt familiar in my mouth, even though I didn’t know exactly what I was saying. And as I was speaking, I just kept focusing on my love for you and Jai, and my blessing that you should have a long and happy marriage.” I can’t imagine any God that I would call mine taking issue with that.

 

Elana’s debut collection of poetry, Eyes, Stones (LSU Press 2012), was selected as the winner of the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets, and brings her complex heritage as the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors to consider the difficult question of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She is the recipient of grants and fellowships from the Jerome Foundation, the Edward Albee Foundation, and the Brooklyn Arts Council. Her writing has recently appeared in AGNI, Harvard Review, and the Massachusetts Review, among others. Elana was a finalist for the inaugural Freedom Plow Award from Split This Rock, an award which honors a poet doing work at the intersection of poetry and social justice. To find out more about her work, please visit: www.elanabell.com.

Getting Married and Keeping Our Religions

  

As a Catholic teen and young adult, I never imagined I would be planning an interfaith wedding. Even though I was preparing to leave for college in Washington, D.C., I imagined I would be married in my local parish church, by one of the priests I had worked with as a receptionist at our parish center. And here I am, nine years later, planning a life together with a man who completes me and compliments me in the most important ways—and, oh yeah, he’s Jewish.

I’m so happy with the path I have chosen, but it’s different than what I imagined for myself. The saying goes that humans plan and God laughs, but I also believe that God has an infinitely better plan.

My fiancé Zach and I met on the university shuttle on our first day at college. He was rooming with a guy I knew from high school. We went on a few dates, but were ultimately reluctant to jump into something immediately. Five years later, we started dating after attending Preakness (for the music, not the beer or the horses).

A few years in, we started to seriously think about our future. Could we get married and raise a family where he could still be Jewish and I could still be Catholic? Our spirituality, traditions, culture and history make us who we are and shape our families.

Being a planner, I did the only sensible thing to do: I researched. Other people must have had similar challenges or questions, right? We weren’t the first ones to consider doing this. In my research, I was amazed at the resources and communities available to interfaith families. (Side note: What did people do without the internet?) I found great references about what to expect on InterfaithFamily‘s website, including this post about a Catholic priest’s perspective on interfaith marriage. Following a couple’s story was incredibly powerful and made me feel less alone—I saved a few posts from A Practical Wedding (this one brought me to tears and made me realize that I could plan a beautiful and meaningful interfaith wedding). I connected with the challenges and vulnerability that authors shared in the stories I read. We started looking for examples of what we were looking for: a family where the beauty of what we each had experienced as children could be imparted to our kids; where both partners’ beliefs were treated equally; where no one felt excluded.

Reading Susan Katz Miller’s Being Both helped us make our decision. The book explores interfaith families who have chosen to educate their children in both traditions. Some kids choose to continue in both; others make an informed choice about which tradition is right for them. It made us realize that we didn’t have to choose between our traditions; we could share the beauty of both in an authentic way and that others had, in fact, already done it.

Fast forward a few years, and we’re less than six months away from our interfaith wedding in September. We are planning a beautiful outdoor ceremony with a priest and a rabbi both officiating. We have incorporated elements of both our faiths that are particularly meaningful to our family and us. While it has not been easy to plan, it’s been an experience that will stick with us as we begin our married life, and it’s been a good testing ground for our problem-solving and communication as a couple. So far, we’ve aced it.