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By Karl Gierach
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!
By Nataliya Naydorf
“I don’t think being with someone who isn’t Jewish compromises my Judaism.” I said to my fiancé 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 continued 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.
Andy 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.
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.
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.