Planning a Japanese, American & Jewish Wedding

  

As a fourth generation Japanese-American, I’ve often felt my heritage was slipping away from me. I grew up feeling in between the two: not quite Japanese enough or American enough, not really belonging in either category. There have been phases of my life when I’ve embraced being just American or just Japanese. It wasn’t until my conversion and our wedding that I came to realize that there is space for both.

Old family wedding photos

1,001 origami cranes, which we folded with friends and family. They are arranged in the shape of my Mom’s Japanese family crest by Linda Mihara, a San Francisco Japantown origami artist

Historic Congregation Emanu-el, our synagogue and where we held our wedding ceremony

When Bryan and I started dating, I became interested in his Jewish heritage. As things started getting serious, I felt that if we were to spend our lives together I had a responsibility to learn about his heritage too. In many ways, in Judaism I found the sense of belonging, spirituality and sense of community I had been searching for my whole life.

As we embarked on the wedding planning process together, we did what we had just learned to do in my Intro to Judaism class: Question everything! We had decided to marry in the main sanctuary in our synagogue: Did we really need florals in such a grand space? Did we really want to have the traditional bridal party? How did we want to honor the side of my family who grew up in Hawaii? If we were having a Jewish ceremony, how could we incorporate parts of my Japanese heritage in ways that actually felt relevant and authentic to who we are?

Many, many hours were spent on the internet searching for “Japanese and Jewish wedding” ideas. What I discovered was that there were very few examples out there. The other challenge was that no one in my family had ever had a traditional Japanese wedding, so all of the “traditional” elements felt totally foreign to me. When we committed to having a Japanese and Jewish wedding, I don’t think we realized what we were about to take on.

Our beautiful, minimalist watercolor ketubah, by artist Stephanie Kaplan

Bryan smashing the glass

We’ve been married for over a year now, and I cry tears of gratitude every time I look through our wedding album. Though it was at times a laborious process that required a lot more soul-searching than I had expected, it forced us to define our narrative as a Japanese and Jewish American couple. Unintentionally, it helped us create a solid foundation and made our bond even stronger than I could have ever imagined.

Gathering of our closest friends and immediate families to sign our ketubah

One thing I greatly admire about Bryan is his courage to be vulnerable and share his experience with others, especially if it means it will help them. It’s something that inspires me every day, since I usually prefer to keep things (especially private and sacred moments like our wedding) within my community. I have spent the last year working up the courage to add our wedding to those search results on the internet. My hope is that other mixed race couples might be inspired to incorporate elements of their heritages into their wedding day in ways that may not necessarily be “traditional”, yet feel authentic and true to who they are as a couple.

We asked everyone to join us on the dance floor for our first dance, which led right into the hora

Click here to read more about Kristin and Bryan’s Japanese-Jewish wedding on smashingtheglass.com.

Are You Keeping Your Guests in the Dark?

  

Recently, an amazing Jewish wedding program infographic was posted in our Facebook group for Jewish interfaith weddings (planning a wedding? Join us!), and we all flipped over how pretty and easy to follow it was. What a perfect way to help guests who aren’t familiar with Jewish weddings to understand what’s going on. Jewish weddings have many beautiful rituals, and I wanted to connect with the artist behind the program (Ling’s Design Studio) to see where she got the idea and how she helps couples create inclusive wedding ceremonies. Spoiler: She’s never been to a Jewish wedding! Who’s going to invite her so she can see it firsthand?

And for those of you who have a wedding coming up and want to purchase these beautiful programs from Ling? You’re in luck because she’s offering InterfaithFamily readers 10 percent off during the month of October with the code INTERFAITH10OFF. Check out this interfaith-friendly, egalitarian, customizable design we love. Happy planning!

Why is it important for couples to have a wedding program—in particular couples who come from two different faith backgrounds?

Ling: Having a wedding program for a couple is more than just about what you’d like to inform your guests with in regards to the order of your wedding ceremony; it’s all about getting the “personal touch” to make it more fun nowadays. I have not been to a Jewish wedding before, but I’ve learned so much from creating the program from my clients. With two people coming from different faith backgrounds, it’s definitely helpful to have it to show your guests who are not Jewish what Jewish wedding customs are all about.

In this particular program, your guests will be learning Jewish wedding customs through the fun infographic. It’s a fun way to break away from the traditional wedding programs we used to have!

How did you start creating programs for weddings?

As I began to accept custom orders, I was asked to design a Jewish infographic design for a buyer. This particular Jewish program was how it all started. Since then, the item became very popular in the Jewish community.

Are there any other customs or traditions that couples can include in their program aside from what’s listed in the sample Jewish program?

Absolutely! Every wedding is different. Couple “A” may not have the same customs from their wedding as Couple “B”. I often have buyers ask to add or omit some items from the program. If the couple provides me the info, I’d be happy to modify the program. (Please note that there will be additional charges depending on the complexity of the requests.)

Do you ever have couples ask for a program that describes multiple religions or cultures?

I haven’t had that request yet but I do take any custom orders.

What are some other customizations people have asked for?

Some couples would ask to include “Hakafot,” “Kiddush Cup” and “Yichud.” One buyer also asked me to list out each blessing of “Sheva Brachot.” I also made a timeline, and added a thank you note.

What has been most interesting or surprising to you to learn about Jewish weddings while creating these programs?

I learned that Jewish weddings are very cultural with many beautiful meanings for a couple. Most of the customs are about the couple and their family. It really emphasizes the connection and union between the bride and groom. One of the interesting things is that I never knew that the right index finger has the closest bloodline to the heart before I created this program. I thought this was very special.

Making Time to Reflect Before the Big Day

  

We’re counting down the days—less than one month until the wedding! Plenty of friends and family have been asking us if we’re excited (of course) and if we’re ready (which is a tougher question). In the practical sense, yes, we are ready. The caterer has our menu, the DJ has our song list and we’re finished with all of our DIY projects. In a broader sense, I’ve been thinking a lot about the question: How do you know you’re ready to make such a monumental commitment to another person?

Since we’ve completed most of the wedding planning, we’ve been able to spend the past few weeks making sure we stay connected and grounded. Last Saturday, we biked to Yards Park in the Navy Yard area of DC, which is where Zach proposed over a year ago! We rode past one of our favorite breweries and sat in the park with our feet in the wading pool for a while, watching the kids run around and play. I thought about this lazy summer day that we were taking advantage of—that we were making the time to have fun and do something that wasn’t wedding-related, grocery shopping or watching TV together. I promised myself when we got engaged that we would make time for these things, and I haven’t been as good about that as I would have liked, but that day, we were.

We ran into our maid of honor and her family visiting from out of town, got ice cream with them and biked home in time to host some friends for a low-key game night. That’s one of the many things I love about Zach—that he gets me out of my head, and he challenges me to enjoy things like warm summer days and riverside parks without thinking about what I should be doing instead. Yards Park was a perfect reminder of that strength of his, at an exciting and busy time in our lives.

I’ve also been catching up with old friends, like my former roommate. We lived together for two years right after college and have kept in touch since both of us moved on. Last week, we met up for dinner at our favorite place in the old neighborhood. As we laughed and commiserated over wedding planning (and assured each other that the headaches would be worth it), I couldn’t help but think: Am I ready to get married? To leave my single life behind?

Zach and my dad came up with this genius display for our table assignments.

Those years of supporting each other through good and tough times over wine, lazy weekends and taco nights seem so rosy, and I’m a little sad to leave them behind. But then, I go home to my amazing fiancĂ©, who has already unloaded the dishwasher, or left me Reese’s in the fridge, or asks me how my day was, and I know I’m ready to marry Zach. I’m ready to promise to be there for him in all of those ways and more. It’s still important, for me, to reflect on where this journey has taken me, and the other relationships I formed on the way. I’m a firm believer in the value of friendships outside of a relationship, even outside of your marriage, and the end of my “single life” in no way means the end of those friendships. But it does mark the beginning of a binding partnership—a promise to work through tough times and celebrate the good ones in new ways.

This past weekend, we went home to Pennsylvania to work on our seating chart. Putting it together was beautiful because, at each table, we see different groups of people from different times in our life, who have made us into the people we are today. We have friends from childhood, friends from high school and college, family friends who we’ve known since birth, current friends, work friends—they’ll all be there, with our loving families, to watch us commit to the rest of our lives together. We can’t wait for everyone to meet and mingle, and to represent for us on this momentous day who we have been and our hopes for who we are to become.

When I read about the Jewish tradition of the ketubah, I realized it was the perfect way to create a visual representation of this commitment we’re making to each other. Rather than a contract or agreement, it’s a perfect reminder of the promise we’re making—to constantly strive to live up to the ideal of love for each other. You can read the text we selected here. Different articles (like this one from InterfaithFamily and this one from America Magazine) and conversations with family and friends have forced me to acknowledge the uncertainty associated with marriage—the idea that people’s values, personalities and desires can shift over time, and marriage is a promise to work through those. Like many people, I personally struggle with uncertainty, but in thinking about these issues, I know that Zach is the person I want to take that leap of faith with. I can’t wait to see where we end up on this journey.

Chuppah: Your First “Home”

  

By Maria Bywater

Chuppah - the first "home" for the engaged couple

I grew up in a large, close Catholic family, so when I got married in a Jewish wedding ceremony, finding meaningful roles for everyone in my family proved challenging. I had converted to Judaism, and the rabbi required that the roles linked to Jewish ritual—–signing the ketubah (Jewish marriage contract) and reciting the Seven Blessings, for example—be filled by people who were Jewish. Eventually, I figured it out: I asked my two sisters and two of my brothers to hold the poles of the chuppah, the wedding canopy under which the ceremony took place (you’ll also see it spelled “huppah” and “huppa”).

Looking back, what I remember most about the ceremony was how comfortable I was standing there, in that space under the chuppah, surrounded by so many people who represented important parts of my life. I didn’t feel nervous. I felt supported. I felt at home because the chuppah is symbolic of the marrying couples’ home—both their physical home and the spiritual home they’ll build together. And today, as a chuppah designer and founder of Huppahs.com, I specialize in hand-held chuppahs.

The chuppah is a deeply traditional element of the Jewish wedding ceremony, but also one with a great deal of flexibility as far as what style you use, which makes it a great opportunity to make the ceremony your own, whether you use a hand-held or free-standing version, want something large or small, formal or casual, traditional or modern, or simply or elaborately decorated.

If you didn’t grow up hearing a lot of Hebrew, like me, the only really intimidating thing about using a chuppah might be the moment you first try to pronounce the word out loud in front of someone. It has that back of the throat “h” sound at the beginning. It’s the same sound as at the beginning of the word “Chanukkah.” People pronounce Chanukkah all kinds of different ways, so however you pronounce the first sound in the word “Chanukkah” is a good way to pronounce the first sound in the word “chuppah.”

And really, once you’re past the pronunciation, it’s on to the fun stuff.

Handheld or freestanding?

Chuppah freestandingThere are two basic styles of chuppah: handheld—the kind I used—and freestanding. Both kinds have a canopy held up by four poles. The difference is that a freestanding chuppah will have more structure so that it stands on its own.

Traditionally, the chuppah is open on all four sides, in a nod to the first Jewish couple, the Torah’s Abraham and Sarah, who traditionally kept the four sides of their tent open to welcome guests.

Hand-held chuppahs hark back to when the custom of using a chuppah first arose in Europe in the Middle Ages. Young boys would escort the bride from her home to the ceremony location, holding the canopy over her head like royalty on procession through the city. There’s even an official name for the chuppah bearers: unterferers, which means “supporters.”

To use a hand-held chuppah for your ceremony, you can have the chuppah bearers lead the procession or enter from the side of the ceremony space just before the procession begins. Aside from the links to tradition and community, a hand-held chuppah works great when your ceremony space doubles as your reception venue and you need to move the chuppah out of the way quickly.

For a chuppah that is set in place when the guests arrive, choose a freestanding chuppah, with bases to hold the bottom of the poles or a frame with supports connecting the poles at their tops. Using a frame is pretty much a must if you want a large chuppah, if the canopy is heavy or if you want to add drapery or a lot of decoration.

What size?

You’ll want enough square footage under the canopy for the couple, the officiant and a small table for the wine and other ritual items. It can be as small as 60 inches by 60 inches. Generally, poles that are seven to eight feet tall work well for small to medium sized canopies, although you’ll also find taller versions for a dramatic look.

Where to Get a Chuppah

Some synagogues, wedding venues, florists, and event rental companies have a chuppah to borrow or rent. If you’re interested in this option, be sure to check the condition of the chuppah early in your wedding planning process. Ask the chuppah provider if they set up and take down the chuppah and if there are extra fees for delivery and set up.

You can also buy or rent a chuppah or chuppah kit online. You’ll find both commercial and artisanal versions. If you want a custom design, look for an artist on Etsy or other sites selling handmade items. My company, huppahs.com, rents different styles of chuppahs as well as canopies and poles if you only need one or the other.

For the canopy, you can use a tallit or tablecloth that you have on hand, especially if it has special meaning to you. Just make sure the fabric is in good shape and will hold up to being secured to the poles.

Another great option is to make the chuppah yourself or have someone make it for you. You can choose the form and materials that work best for the wedding you want to create, and you can let your style shine.

If you’re looking for a wedding role for someone who is not familiar with the Jewish wedding ceremony, asking them to help create your chuppah can be a great way to include them. Depending on the chuppah you envision, there can be roles for sewists, fabric painters, embroiderers, weavers and other textile artists as well as folks with light construction skills.

DIY Advice

My book, Sew Jewish, includes instructions for making a chuppah canopy and poles, but here are some guidelines to keep in mind if you’re designing your own.

For the canopy, choose fabric that is lightweight, doesn’t stretch, and looks good from both sides. A canopy made heavy by the fabric or extensive needlework can make holding the poles or attaching the canopy securely to the frame difficult. If the canopy is lightweight and not too large, add some combination of loops, reinforced holes or ties to enable you to attach the corners to the supporting poles or frame. If the canopy is large or heavy, make sleeves on the edges of the canopy to fit into supports running across the top of the chuppah frame.

Hand-held chuppah

Popular materials for the structure are wood, dowels and tree branches, especially birch branches. PVC piping is also a popular choice for frames when you plan to cover the pipes with drapery.

If different people will be providing your canopy and poles or frame, make sure you know how they’ll fit together before anyone gets to work. Ideally, put the whole chuppah together for a trial run well before your wedding day so that you can make adjustments if you need to.

Whatever style of wedding you choose, with all the chuppah options available to you, you’re sure to find one that feels like home.

Maria Bywater is the founder of Huppahs.com, the leading national wedding chuppah rental company and author of the book Sew Jewish: The 18 Projects You Need for Jewish Holidays, Weddings, Bar/Bat Mitzvah Celebrations, and Home. She lives in New York’s Mid-Hudson River Valley amid her large, close family.

Insider Tips from a Master Wedding Planner

  

By Lynda Barness

Wedding planning and tips from an insider

You are now engaged! NOW WHAT?

Here are five things to consider before jumping in, from a Master Wedding Planner:

1. Breathe. I’m not kidding! Take some time to enjoy your engagement—and each other. And your families. And your friends.

2. Get to work. When you are ready to start working (and yes, it may feel like work, so now would be a good time to consider a wedding planner if you are thinking about hiring one), you and your partner will want to have a discussion about your wish list: time of year (and which year), which city, what type of officiant, what kind of venue and more. So often there are other voices in this discussion, but the couple can prioritize their wish list first and then discuss it with family and others.

3. Get your guest list in order. You can’t possibly pick a place for a ceremony or reception without knowing how many people you will invite. A question that I am asked very often is about the drop-off rate. If you invite your whole guest list, how many can you figure won’t attend? You can’t figure this at all, so please don’t bother trying! I know of a wedding where 277 guests were invited and 275 attended. The moral of this story is to look for a venue that will hold everyone you have invited. Remember, you wouldn’t be inviting these guests if you didn’t want them to come, so they just might!

4. Choose an officiant. The officiant will need to be the first to be chosen/hired. You need that person to be available and willing to be with you on your wedding day, and you’ll need to nail that day down before you can confirm with a venue. InterfaithFamily’s clergy referral service is the perfect place to start! Next step is finding a venue…

5. Secure the reception venue and start hiring your wedding professionals. This looks very simple in the abstract. It is not! Especially if one partner has always imagined getting married in a synagogue and the other has a picture of an outdoor ceremony in mind. This is a big decision to figure out together and often requires compromise—what better time than the present to work on that skill? If you are hiring a wedding planner, or are even thinking of hiring one, it will be helpful to have this person on-board at this point as well.

Insider tips from a wedding planner

Photo credit: Shea Roggio. Officiant pictured, Rabbi Robyn Frisch from IFF/Philadelphia. Not pictured, Planner, Lynda Barness

When it comes to the wedding day itself, there are four things that I think are essential to keep in mind:

1. Invitations and their wording. Do the names of both sets of parents appear on the invitation? Are only the hosts (the ones who are paying) listed? Here’s some advice from a planner: It is lovely to include all the parents and have them all feel a part of this day, and it is a clear signal to everyone that the two families are joining together.

2. Ceremony logistics. Who sits on what side, who walks down the aisle with whom and who stands or sits where? This can get complicated, especially since different religions handle it differently. It’s a matter of compromise and sensitivity. Do mom and dad walk down the aisle with their child as Jewish tradition dictates? Or has the bride who is not Jewish always imagined herself walking down the aisle with just her father? Do the parents stand, do they hold the chuppah or do they sit during the ceremony? These are great questions to discuss with your officiant and one of the reasons clergy can be so helpful.

3. Religious ritual objects. Do you want to have a chuppah? What about a ketubah? Which rituals from each of your faiths do you want to include? How can you best represent your individuality and your coming together as a new family? Again, your officiant can be a huge source of assistance here, and if you are having a Jewish wedding, a great place to learn about rituals and ritual objects is in Anita Diamant’s go-to book, The Jewish Wedding Now.

4. The Jewish tradition of yichud is one that seems to have become both modified and universal. After the ceremony, the couple has some private time (often with hors d’oeuvres and drinks) to simply share the first moments of their marriage alone with each other. This is such a special time and lovely tradition, and I always recommend it.

The best advice I have heard is to take some days off every week and don’t even discuss wedding planning. It will be exhausting if you try to do wedding planning every single day from now until your wedding, so spend a little time with your honey without the stress of wedding or religion talk.

Lynda Barness launched I DO Wedding Consulting in 2005 after a successful and award-winning career as a real estate developer and homebuilder. Lynda earned the designation of Master Wedding Planner from the International Association of Wedding Consultants and also has a certificate in Wedding Planning and Consulting from Temple University.  She combines education with years of experience as she helps navigate the complexities and challenges of planning the big day–with consulting services, day-of services, customized and full service planning—in the Greater Philadelphia area and beyond. Her background and experience are varied, and she has been both a participant and leader in a variety of civic, philanthropic and political activities.

Crafting the Moment

  
picture of four women in front of a bridal salon

Me (blue coat) with my sisters and mom after buying my dress!

“So, how’s the wedding planning?” These days, this question excites and exasperates me at the same time. I have a lot of energy and excitement about the wedding, but it varies day by day whether that excitement is greater or less than my stress about “getting it all done.” To explain that, I need to go back to the beginning of the process and explain a few things.

man waving from behind door

My dad demonstrating the photo booth concept

From the beginning, we’ve been fairly flexible about what this wedding will look like. I don’t have a crystal-clear vision of what I want, so I have invited and taken suggestions from family and close friends. I was breezing along for the first nine months, checking things off my list, thinking, this is easy! Sure, there’s a lot to do, but I’m organized! I’m on top of it! We can do this!

In May I started to feel the pressure. And it was all because of Pinterest.

In the winter, we visited Lansdale and started thinking about decorations–again, an area where I didn’t have preconceived ideas about what I wanted. My parents own a beautiful old house, and my dad has completed a lot of home improvement projects. Back in the wintertime, we discovered some old doors and windows he had saved that sparked some crafty neurons in my brain. I thought, these things will be perfect for signage, table assignments, whatever! And it’s all free! Perfect.

It’s true that nothing in life is ever really free. I did not factor in how much effort it would take to polish all of those things. Washing, sanding and painting. Re-glazing some of the old window panes. Building stands for the doors so they aren’t a hazard. We spent a full day cleaning some of these pieces and drawing out multiple iterations of plans for how we would use all the pieces. Luckily my family (and fiancé) dove into the projects with gusto, each contributing their own talents to different pieces.

I went into that weekend excited, but I came out feeling overwhelmed. We had so many different ideas for how to use each piece. Plus, there were so many steps to bringing it all together–for example, to use one window we would need to wash it, sand the frame, repaint the frame, re-glaze the panes in the window and then write table assignments on it! I was having a hard time figuring out how we would get it all done, even with all the helping hands we had.

6 pane window with paint peeling

Example of one of the old windows we’ll turn into signage

I did two things in response to this overwhelmed feeling. First, I sat down in my cone of silence and came up with a plan. I laid out all the steps, determined the critical path, and wrote out which tasks we could complete on which weekends we would be coming to Lansdale from Washington, DC. I had it all figured out, but I still felt tense.

Then I did the second thing: I envisioned what our wedding would look like if these projects didn’t all come together. Surprise–everything was still beautiful. And we were still getting married! There would be officiants, food and a DJ. Somehow people would be welcomed, know where the bathroom was, and find their seat, even if it didn’t look like the way we had envisioned it.

I realized that I was, to some degree, in control of how much pressure I was feeling to “get it all done.” If I decided that some things, like the signs for the bathroom, were more important than others, I could give myself (and everyone else) permission to not get those other things done, if we ran out of time.

Sure, an old window with a quote from Song of Solomon would make a beautiful addition to our ceremony space–but it wasn’t as high on the list as, say, the table assignments. I needed to let some of these things go if I was going to enjoy the rest of this process. The time between engagement and marriage feels so special–you’re giddy and excited and hopeful, all leading up to this one day that will be over before you know it. The wedding day starts a blessed and fulfilled lifetime of marriage, but there’s something special about this expectant time, where you’re waiting for that next step, and I don’t want to miss that. I want to savor it.

picture of boats docked at dusk

Staying in the moment at fun events with friends, like concerts on the water

So, when I start to think about all that I “have to do,” I think about all the people around to help me. I think about what the “bare bones” of the event will look like, and I’m still happy. I think about standing in front of friends and family and promising to love Zach for the rest of our lives, and I know it doesn’t matter if we get the photo booth just right.

I’m choosing to use this time to prepare for a lifetime with my best friend, where the little things don’t shake our happiness together. And I make that choice anew every day. Some days are better than others, but I, like most of us, am a work in progress.

Happily Ever After Starts Here

  

Stephanie's weddingConfused. The best adjective I can use to describe how I felt about planning my interfaith wedding before learning about InterfaithFamily. I didn’t even know the word “interfaith” was the appropriate term for couples of different faith backgrounds! I had so many questions but did not know where to turn. It was important to my husband to have a Jewish wedding ceremony, but because I was raised Catholic, I didn’t even know if it was possible and if a religious officiant would marry us.

Two years ago, I was talking with a co-worker about wedding planning. I was discussing my concerns about coming from a different religion than my husband, not knowing a lot about Jewish wedding traditions and how we would plan a meaningful ceremony. I had no idea how to plan an interfaith wedding ceremony and I didn’t have the right tools or resources. She then made the recommendation to speak with her close friend who just so happened to be a rabbi who works for an organization called InterfaithFamily. I reached out to Rabbi Robyn Frisch, director of IFF/Philadelphia, to introduce myself and she connected me with InterfaithFamily.

As I browsed the website, I knew I had found the answers to all of my questions. Since learning about the organization, we had the opportunity to participate in Love & Religion workshops where we met other interfaith couples we could relate to and learn from while strengthening our own interfaith relationship as we prepared to tie the knot. I had the honor of sharing my wedding planning experiences through blogging for the InterfaithFamily wedding blog. We asked Rabbi Robyn Frisch to officiate our wedding in October 2016. By working with Rabbi Robyn and utilizing the IFF resources online, we were able to plan the most personal and meaningful wedding ceremony. We continue to receive compliments about it eight months later from both Catholic and Jewish family members and friends.

I cannot thank IFF enough for providing me with abundant resources, new friends and experiences. It is why I continue to stay connected to IFF and why I am giving back to help other couples who are navigating their own interfaith path. I hope you will consider joining me by making a gift to InterfaithFamily today and turning the confusion for so many couples like us into possibilities.

Not Saying “I Do”

  

By Karl Gierach

Karl & Sherrita didn't grow up Jewish, but are planning a Jewish wedding

My fiancé and I did not grow up in different religious traditions. Sherrita was raised in Detroit as a Christian, attending Episcopalian, Baptist and Pentecostal services. I was also raised as a Christian—a Lutheran in the Detroit suburbs with a very conservatively evangelical upbringing. I attended 14 years of Lutheran school and during high school, I started having doubts regarding several aspects of the Christian faith. In college, as those doubts intensified, I felt drawn to Judaism. Upon introspection and research into the religious traditions, I ultimately converted to Judaism in 2007.

A decade of various levels of observance, becoming a member of congregations and attending a Birthright Israel trip led me to feeling confident and positive about my Jewish identity in the face of family disapproval. Overall, the Jewish community has been warm and welcoming with occasional mild confusion, typically from younger people.

Because I had struggled with acceptance both outside and inside the Jewish community, I wanted to date and ultimately marry a Jewish woman. After all, I wouldn’t want my children’s Jewish identity questioned the way mine had been, but I realized that my Jewish faith and personal practice had less to do with creating Jewish babies than with encountering and struggling with the divine and engaging the outside world. And then, I met Sherrita online in 2014.

After talking online for about a week, we were smitten and went on several amazing dates in rapid succession. We were engaged two years later in March of 2016. Happily, and newly, cohabitating in Detroit’s Cass Corridor/Midtown area, we unexpectedly learned that Sherrita was accepted at the Drexel University College of Medicine and would start the next week. We hurriedly said our goodbyes because I had to stay on to finish my semester of culinary school and work at a country club. I planned to join Sherrita in Philadelphia in the last week of 2016. The time apart only intensified our love, making us realize the gift of supporting each other in pursuit of our goals. Getting married was the best possible decision!

Once we entered the planning stages of marriage, Sherrita did not hesitate to say that she would like to have a Jewish wedding. She knew that it was important to me and wanted to support this new interfaith family that we were starting. I began the search for wedding venues in local churches, wanting to express my love and commitment for Sherrita more than any particular religious or cultural sentiment. However, the further along we got in planning, the happier I was with the Jewish direction we were taking.

We had vastly differing experiences in attending weddings—mine were more religious and hers were not. In both of our experiences, though, there were readings of the vows and both partners saying “I do” once the clergy said their part.

Once we found the rabbi who would perform our ceremony, we both learned what was involved in a Jewish wedding. As a person who loves to learn, Sherrita was excited about new terminology and traditions that were going to be a part of our family and that we could share with our extended family.

But the one thing that Sherrita wanted for the wedding was to say, “I do.” She didn’t know that it would not be part of a traditional Jewish ceremony. It seemed so trivial, but it made her wonder: Had she ever actually stopped to think if she really did want to have a Jewish wedding ceremony?

Sherrita had not been a practicing Christian in recent years and neither of us were interested in having our wedding co-officiated. But Sherrita hadn’t fully reconciled the idea of our wedding being the start of an interfaith family. We both thought that it would be easier to only have one religion present in the ceremony, but Sherrita was getting concerned that she could be losing part of her identity. After several meetings with our rabbi, she suggested we change the wording of vows in the ketubah so that they could be answered as questions with “I do.”

Even though our concerns are often still present as we continue planning for the big day, we are always able to work through them. We continually commit to hearing each other and compromising when necessary. And now, with just over a month to go until our wedding, we could not be more excited!

Breaking the Dating Rules

  

By Nataliya Naydorf

Nataliya and her fiance & breaking the dating rules.

“I don’t think being with someone who isn’t Jewish compromises my Judaism.” I said to my fiancĂ© on our first date. “As long as my partner is open, tolerant and willing to learn about my traditions, I can’t say it would be a huge issue.”

He had asked me whether I was OK with dating someone who wasn’t Jewish and how I reconciled that with my beliefs. Our original plan was to play pool, but instead we ended up sitting and talking for four-and-a-half hours about everything that you’re not supposed to talk about on the first date. At that point, we had most definitely broken the cardinal rule of first dates by discussing politics, religion and children. Let’s just say that I’m not great at being subtle and knew it was a good sign that he didn’t try to flee the scene.

I met Andy when we were working on the same project at a consulting firm in Washington, DC. Our first non-work related conversation occurred after our building was evacuated during the district’s earthquake in 2011. We bonded over our shared anxiety about using public restrooms. Afterwards, we began to speak more frequently and eventually began dating.

Our first date conversation regarding religion was only the beginning of our continuedNataliya and Andy photo shoot on street dialogue. As we became closer and our relationship grew more serious, we learned to traverse our religious differences together. I am a Ukrainian Jew who identifies most with Conservative Judaism. While I am not shomer Shabbat (I do not keep to the strict rules around observing Shabbat, such as not using electricity), I do keep kosher, go to Shabbat services at least once a month, and make sure to light candles and say kiddush on Fridays. Andy was raised Catholic but dislikes organized religion and considers himself somewhere in between agnostic and atheist.

Thankfully, one of the most significant strengths of our relationship is our ability to communicate effectively. Our conversations regarding religion, while sometimes difficult, have been meaningful and have helped us to better understand each other.

When our relationship became serious and more questions regarding religion arose, I realized that I wasn’t able to answer many of them. While I was following some traditions and was involved in Jewish learning, there were still many things I was ignorant about. In the past, I had assumed that my partner would be Jewish and would be in charge of most of the religious traditions. When I realized that I would be the partner that would take that role in our home, I began to learn as much as I could. With the full support of Andy, I took a six month sabbatical from work to study Torah and Talmud at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. It was an amazing experience that helped me to take more control over my religious beliefs and practices.

As we spoke of marriage and children, Andy devoted time to learning more about Judaism too. It was already a part of our lives in terms of food and Friday nights, which resulted in him being extremely knowledgeable about kashrut and the Shabbat songs and prayers. He furthered his education by reading books about Judaism and Jewish history, especially This is My God by Herman Wouk. Additionally, we took an introduction to Judaism class and attended an interfaith workshop at the DC JCC.

When we first started planning our wedding a year ago, I had a feeling that one of the hardest things would be to find a rabbi who would marry us, be supportive and be willing to perform a traditional Jewish ceremony that was inclusive of friends and family. However, there turned out to be many resources for finding a rabbi to perform an interfaith wedding, including Unorthodox Celebrations and InterfaithFamily’s referral service for finding officiants.

Unfortunately, after speaking with several rabbis, I did not feel a true connection with any of them. Feeling ready to give up, I decided to do my own research. We are getting married near a small Virginia town which happens to have a Reform synagogue. On a whim, I called the synagogue and asked them if their rabbi performs interfaith ceremonies. The very helpful gentleman on the phone told me that the current rabbi does not and it crushed me. Fortunately, he then told me that their previous rabbi who had just retired did and gave me his contact information. It turned out to be perfect. The rabbi’s wife’s family was also from Ukraine and we had a lot in common. We met with him recently to plan the ceremony.

Nataliya and Andy engagement photoAndy and I decided together that our ceremony would be Jewish, but would still be inclusive of our friends and family who are not Jewish. Our go-to wedding book was A New Jewish Wedding by Anita Diamant (she has a new version that just came out, The Jewish Wedding Now). It helped us tremendously with finding traditions that resonated with the both of us. After reading the book, we worked closely with our rabbi to discuss the parts of a Jewish wedding that we wanted to include. One of those elements includes a ketubah, which we are getting through Ketubah.com.

We are including both of our sisters as witnesses and used InterfaithFamily’s “Choosing an Interfaith Ketubah” resource to create our custom ketubah text. We will also be having a chuppah with two friends and two family members as chuppah holders, a tnaim ceremony for our mothers and yichud, which is a short interlude after the wedding ceremony where Andy and I can have a moment to ourselves during what will be a happy, albeit chaotic, day.

Because we had so many resources to aid us in planning our wedding, because we had the support of a rabbi and because of our ability to communicate our thoughts and feelings about religion, planning our wedding has not only been incredibly meaningful, but it has strengthened our love and commitment to each other. We are three months out from our wedding day and we can’t wait to say “Cheers,” “L’chaim” and “Nazdarovye” with all of our friends and family.

 

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.