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.

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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!

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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.

 

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Going Custom: Writing Our Own Interfaith Ceremony

  
Laura and Zach sitting on a wall with mosaic turtles on either side in the Caribbean and relieving some stress.

Living that Caribbean lifestyle: the perfect stress remedy!

After my latest blog post on finding officiants for our Jewish-Catholic interfaith wedding, I got questions from both friends and fans about what the actual ceremony would look like. We had started a draft but needed to tie up some details, so we weren’t ready to share. I didn’t really think about it much in the past week, because we went to Cancun, Mexico, with my sisters and my parents to celebrate my parents’ 30th wedding anniversary. As much as I love how our wedding is coming together, and as much as I’m excited for us to get married and start our married life together, I cannot emphasize enough how beneficial this time off was. No cell service meant no emails to vendors, no looking online for wedding bands and no Facebook monitoring of friends’ wedding photos and measuring up our plans against theirs. I was barely on my phone all week and it felt amazing.

Brides and grooms, do this for yourselves. Give your partners the opportunity to do this for themselves. You don’t have to go anywhere, but take some time (an afternoon, a day, a weekend) and do something you love with people you love. It really helped me to regain a sense of mindfulness and a desire to be present in the moment and it will continue to help me make sure I don’t miss a moment of this exciting year—or what our wedding is really about: two people starting a new life together; two becoming one.

After this time off, we’re now ready to share the details of our ceremony. This custom wedding ceremony is a beautiful blend of our respective traditions. It was crafted using the years of interfaith experience of our rabbi, Rabbi Bleefeld, and several resources I found. I talked in my last post about using a book by Rabbi Devon A. Lerner: Celebrating Interfaith Marriages: Creating Your Jewish/Christian Ceremony—we borrowed heavily from the suggested ceremony components and order. If you’re not sure where to start, this book will not only give you sample ceremonies, but will also explain the importance of the different components of a wedding ceremony.

I also read blog posts such as this one from InterfaithFamily to get a sense of what others had done. As I’ve alluded to in earlier posts, it was really important for us to have both traditions not only represented but celebrated during our wedding ceremony. We both made compromises and sacrifices on the venue—me on my dream of being married in a Catholic church, and Zach on the familiarity and beauty of being married in his native California (some of our East Coast relatives would not have been able to make the flight). It was important that the wedding ceremony, like the outdoor space, feel like a reflection of us, because we were both in otherwise unfamiliar territory.

Beautiful pottery goblet

Roberta’s beautiful pottery goblet

Our rabbi has done several interfaith weddings and our first meeting with him was a great orientation to all we had to think about in the next year. He offered a suggested ceremony outline and explained the different parts and how he would handle explaining the significance of each to guests—he suggested printing explanations in the program, so we wouldn’t interrupt the flow and beauty of the ceremony with too many teaching moments. We built on that initial outline, got some input from the priest officiating, added some special touches and voila! An interfaith wedding. Here’s what it will look like:

After the procession (where there will be oodles of happy tears), Rabbi Bleefeld will open with a statement remembering Zach’s mother Roberta, who passed away four years ago from breast cancer and my grandfather Tom, who lost his battle with bone marrow cancer a year ago. These people were so important to us and we will miss them so much on our special day. We want everyone to know that we feel their absence on this momentous occasion.

In explaining the subsequent different components of the ceremony, the insight we got from Rabbi Bleefeld and Fr. Mike was consistent: The consenting and the vows is paramount in a Catholic wedding ceremony, while the exchange of rings is the high point of a Jewish ceremony. To that end, we’re asking my mother and Zach’s aunt to read from the New and Old Testament, respectively, to introduce each of those components. We’re getting the dads involved too—they’ll say the Seven Blessings, alternating in Hebrew (Zach’s dad) and English (my dad). We’ll mark the last blessing by drinking a cup of wine from a goblet that Roberta made for Zach, one of the many uniquely beautiful pieces of hers that we have in our home. My godparents will then read the General Intercessions, which are not required in a Catholic ceremony, but Zach says they’re his favorite part of the Catholic mass. (You can find an explanation for this part of the mass here, at paragraph 69. It is also called the Prayer of the Faithful or the Universal Prayer.) We’re writing our own prayer that reflects our hopes and values, as well as our desire for health and happiness as we start our marriage surrounded by the family and friends we love. 

Zach with Laura's parents and sisters in Xcaret, Mexico.

Zach with my parents and sisters in Xcaret, Mexico

Throughout the service, we sought opportunities to involve our parents and close family in the wedding ceremony because these individuals helped us form our sense of faith, tradition and family. It was important to us that they be intimately involved in the ceremony that would mark the start of our own new family with its own faith tradition.

I’m adding an outline of the ceremony below, for those who would like more details.

Our Wedding Ceremony

Procession

Remembrance Statement – Rabbi Bleefeld

Opening words of welcome and blessing – Fr. Mike and Rabbi Bleefeld

New Testament Reading – Mother of the Bride

Introduction to and recitation of vows – Fr. Mike

Old Testament Reading – Aunt of the Groom

Introduction to and exchange of rings – Rabbi Bleefeld

7 Blessings – Dads, alternating in Hebrew and English

General Intercessions – Godparents of the Bride

Pronouncement and Marriage blessing (Hebrew and English) – Rabbi Bleefeld and Fr. Mike

Stepping on glass – Rabbi Bleefeld

Kiss and Processional

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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!

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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.

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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.

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How Our Interfaith Ceremony Got Us Out of Writing Our Own Vows

  
Two silver shoes in the snow

We’ll have to practice stepping on glasses in these shoes – and we’ll keep our fingers crossed for good weather!

Forty-four days, 23 hours and 53 minutes to go to the big day (but who’s counting?), so we thought we’d give you a sneak preview of how we’ve constructed our interfaith ceremony. All the way back last summer, we had a lovely meeting with our rabbi, IFF/Philadelphia‘s Rabbi Frisch, and our priest, Mother Takacs, where we talked about the elements of the wedding services from our religions and which of them were particularly meaningful to us.

There was no question that we would stand under a chuppah; after walking down the aisle separately, we’ll hold hands and stand underneath it together, entering the special space as equals. We’ll begin with the Kiddush, and then the “Declaration of Intent” from the Episcopalian tradition, in which we’ll both announce to everyone that we intend to get married and stay married!

Both our officiants will say a few words, and Rabbi Frisch will read our ketubah text aloud as well (we’ll sign it before the ceremony). We then move onto the part of the ceremony that, for Vanessa, was the most important part from her tradition: the vows. Rather than writing our own vows, we’ll say the traditional ones derived from the Book of Common Prayer. These vows encompass everything that we could possibly want to cover, promising to remain faithful to each other through the best and the worst times. After exchanging our rings, we’ll hear the Sheva B’rachot (seven blessings), and have the second Kiddush. One final blessing from the priest, and then – we’ll break the glass together!

Hopefully you can see from this description that we’ve tried to weave our two traditions together: We’re not keeping the Jewish parts of the ceremony separate from the Christian ones, but rather combining them to make a wedding service that does justice to how we plan to continue our lives together. Our conversations with Rabbi Frisch and Mother Takacs helped us to figure out what we needed to do to make our ceremony perfect for us and our families, and the process of planning the ceremony has given us the space to reflect on exactly what each part means to us. So much of the wedding planning industry tells us to spend hours picking the perfect menu and flower arrangements: Why shouldn’t we spend just as much time thinking about the words and actions that will be the centerpiece of our ceremony?

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A Rabbi and a Priest Officiate a Gay Wedding. (That’s it. There’s no punchline.)

  

Recently we’ve been thinking about what it means to be planning a religious wedding as a same-sex couple. Until the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage less than two years ago, marriage was simply not an option for many couples like us. Although we’re now able to participate in the tradition of marriage, things still remain far from clear-cut when it comes to religious attitudes toward our relationship.

We feel very lucky that our family and friends have wholeheartedly supported our relationship. Our wedding will be officiated by a rabbi and a priest who have been nothing but immensely kind and supportive. But we know that for many conservative proponents of both Judaism and Christianity, our relationship is not a sanctioned one. The Church of England bishops voted to maintain their opposition to same-sex marriage a little over two weeks ago. If we were to get married in the U.K., where Vanessa is from, we would not be able to get married within the religious tradition that she grew up with, and in which her mother is a priest. In the U.S., some rabbis and priests would also refuse to marry us. Googling “religion and gay marriage” brings up pages of sites, many of which are not in support of same-sex marriage.

So we asked ourselves if we should still have a religious ceremony, given the discrimination that many LGBTQ people face from their religious communities.

Our answer concluded in a yes. We choose to stand alongside those in our religious communities who welcome and support people who have historically been marginalized and alienated. We, and our families, try to have conversations with people who find it more difficult to accept our relationship. Sometimes, simply showing up as gay people in a religious context is enough to start making change.

We strive toward understanding how our religions can inspire such a range of opinions, not just about LGBTQ people but also about people of other faiths, colors and economic circumstances, and we stand up against people who use their religions as an excuse to hurt and vilify other human beings. So yes, we #ChooseLove by proudly celebrating our interfaith same-sex wedding with the support of 150 family and friends, and we will base our marriage on our shared religious principles of love and acceptance.

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Ketubah: The Bass-line of Our Marriage (Get it? Like a tuba)

  

One of the items that we needed to tick off our Wedding To-Do List this month was ordering the ketubah. As an interfaith, same-sex couple, we were looking for a text that spoke to the myriad possibilities of what it means to be in a loving, committed relationship. In a moment in the wedding industry when interfaith and same-sex ketubah texts are relatively scarce, we were happy to find something that struck a chord with us.

The Church of England doesn’t have anything similar to a ketubah. The traditional wedding ceremony involves words and vows that have remained more or less the same since the Book of Common Prayer wedding service was first codified in the 17th Century. Our own wedding ceremony will combine these long-recited vows with elements of the Jewish tradition, so we won’t be taking the opportunity to express our more personal thoughts about marriage within the service itself (partly because the Church of England vows are very meaningful and beautiful, and partly because Vanessa would become a blubbering wreck). So, the ketubah felt like a wonderful opportunity for us to reflect on our conception of marriage and to verbalize our priorities and commitments for the years ahead.

A small preview of our ketubah

A sneak peek at our ketubah!

In the end, we decided to choose a ketubah that encompasses more of a poetic, abstract notion of love. The design is relatively abstract too: an impressionistic tree with blue and gold leaves, with its roots drawing strength from the text underneath. Our ketubah tells the story of a partnership between two people using beautiful metaphor, but a metaphor that is rooted in concrete behavior.

Wedding planning can be stressful, and we’re combining it with finishing our graduate degrees and looking for jobs: So when we read our ketubah text that speaks of supporting each other’s dreams and comforting each other’s sorrows, we know that the beautifully-illustrated document is not just for show. The line that describes holding each other in both our arms and our hearts has never seemed more appropriate than in recent weeks, as we’ve huddled together under a blanket on our sofa, escaping the delightfully chilly weather/miserable freezing temperatures (depending on who you ask).

So, the ketubah is on its way. Many more things remain on the Wedding To-Do List, the vast majority of which relate to a single day. But this is one element of our planning that we’ll see every day for the rest of our lives, throughout our entire marriage.

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