Full of helpful advice for families starting to think about their child's bat or bar mitzvah, Bar & Bat Mitzvah For The Interfaith Family will be a helpful primer to all families (not just interfaith!).
This colorful booklet will give all the basics about this holiday which combines elements of Halloween, Mardi Gras and the secular new year. It is a holiday not only for children who know immediately that anything with a costume will be fun, but for adults too.
Connecting Interfaith Families to Jewish Life in Greater Cleveland by providing programs and opportunities for interfaith families to experience Judaism in a variety of venues, meet other interfaith families, and to connect to other Jewish organizations that may serve their needs.
This is an interactive, fun, and low-key workshop for couples who are dating, engaged or recently married. The sessions will give you a chance to ask questions about faith, to think about where you are as an adult with your own spirituality and to talk through what's important to you and your partner.
A great way for Jewish professionals and volunteers who work with and provide programming for people in interfaith relationships to locate resources and trainings to build more welcome into their Jewish communities; connect with and learn from each other; and publicize and enhance their programs and services.
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 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.
We’re Michele and Vanessa, and we’re getting married on April 30, 2017. Michele is Jewish and grew up just outside Philadelphia; Vanessa was raised in the Church of England (more or less equivalent to the Episcopal Church) a little outside London in the U.K. We got engaged in May 2015, and are thrilled to be counting down to the big day and our interfaith celebration.
Amidst our wedding planning (more on that another time), we’re also—like everyone else—planning our holiday celebrations. This is a pretty big year for us, as it’s our first Christmas in the U.S. For the last couple of years, we’ve gone to the U.K. and celebrated with Vanessa’s family; but this year we’re staying in Philly. For a while, I (Vanessa) was pretty sad: This is the first Christmas in 31 years that I won’t be with my family, watching my sister stare with trepidation through the oven door at the cauliflower cheese and roast potatoes and listening to my mum attempt the descants to Christmas carols on TV. But talking this over with Michele, and planning the holidays with her has brought me a lot of joy, as I’ve realized that this is actually a really exciting opportunity: We get to figure out how we can create our own traditions, and not just do whatever our families do, as we celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah.
This has led me to seek out cookie cutters in the shapes of dreidels and reindeer, menorahs and Christmas trees, and a variety of stars, both five- and six-pointed. I did a dance of delight in the Dollar Plus when I found Hanukkah garlands next to the Christmas tinsel. We started our own collection of tree ornaments that we’ll keep adding to each year, with a classy otter bauble from the Vancouver Aquarium on the first vacation we took together that didn’t involve either of our families. Our hope is that, in a few years’ time, our tree will be covered in ornaments that represent memories from our lives together. These things might sound frivolous, but for us, they symbolize the joining of our lives and our traditions; albeit in sparkly and (hopefully) delicious forms.
More seriously, we’ve had to negotiate with family members what holiday events we’re going to, with Hanukkah brunches and parties surrounding Christmas church services and the first Christmas dinner hosted by us for Michele’s family (complete with British stuffing and Christmas cake, sent all the way from England by my mum). We’ve had to think about what’s really important to us in terms of our own traditions, and about what elements we want to share with each other. I want to go to Christmas services because it’s important for me to hear a choir welcoming Christmas in with “Adeste Fidelis,” but I’m happy to let the cauliflower cheese go as we make the dinner kosher-style. Latkes are fairly high on Michele’s priority list, but being all together and visiting the various branches of her family is even higher.
It’s easy to get caught up in the mania of present-buying, tree-decorating, cookie-eating and playlist-curating, and to be honest I’m definitely enjoying all those parts. But Michele and I are able to use those things to have conversations about what the holidays mean to us, how our families traditionally celebrate them, and what we want them to be like in our married life together. Of course, I’ll still miss my family—but this December, I’ll be surrounded by the love of my new family, Michele and all the Zipkins, and I can’t wait. It’s a timely reminder that our wedding planning isn’t just about working toward a wedding, but a marriage. I feel incredibly lucky that we’re getting a head start on building our traditions for that marriage this year. Even if I’m covered in powdered sugar and my reindeer cookies look more like dogs.
By Sarah Martinez Roth Photos by Celia D. Luna Weddings
How We Met
Growing up Catholic, I knew I wanted to marry a man of faith; however, when I met Jonathan, I realized maybe things were not so black and white, and maybe faith in God was what I was searching for.
Jonathan and I met our freshman year at Colby College in Maine. While in college, we grew closer as friends and I got the chance to admire his commitment to his faith as a friend before we started dating. Even though Jonathan grew up in a Conservative Jewish household, he was very much aware of what being Catholic meant since his mother converted to Judaism from Catholicism before she got married. In addition to celebrating all of the Jewish holidays, Jonathan’s parents would celebrate the Christian holidays with his mother’s family. I think growing up in that background made Jonathan more open to dating me. Conversely, I grew up without the exposure to the same level of religious diversity, so I was not sure how my family would react.
Soon after we graduated, I remember having a conversation with my mother and asking her what she would think if I started dating Jonathan. She said: “Sarah, he believes in the same God. As long as you communicate and are open and honest about what you want, you will be just fine.” I took her advice, and we started our relationship soon after.
As we began to plan our wedding we knew we wanted to tie together our Jewish and Catholic faiths. Our situation was especially unique, since Jonathan is a Conservative Jew, I am Catholic and we were having an outdoor wedding ceremony. We needed clergy that would be accommodating to all three of those things. After many months of searching, we were honored to have my husband’s childhood rabbi and the priest that confirmed me marry us.
Our wedding weekend began with our aufruf, which technically translates to “calling up,” at Jonathan’s childhood synagogue. An aufruf is a custom where the bride and groom are called up in front of the congregation, usually during a Shabbat service, to be welcomed by the Jewish community. We invited both sides of our immediate family to our aufruf, where Jonathan and I were both asked to join the rabbi on the bimah and participate in the service by saying the blessings over the challah and wine.
The cantor sang “All of Me” by John Legend in Hebrew, which we thought was very meaningful because my family, who doesn’t understand Hebrew, was able to recognize the song. At the end of our aufruf, the congregation threw little candies at us, which represented sweet blessings for our marriage.
Signing Our Ketubah
Traditionally, it is two male non-family members who are Jewish that sign the ketubah, the Jewish marriage contract. Adhering to that rule would mean that no one on my side would be able to sign such an important document in my life.
I mustered up the courage to ask our rabbi if I could have someone from my side sign it, and he said of course; there is no rule that three people could not sign it. So in the end, our ketubah was signed by my husband’s best man, a close family friend of my husband’s family and my godmother.
One of the most memorable parts of our wedding to me was the circling tradition. In Judaism, when the bride circles the groom seven times it represents the creation of our new family circle and the intertwining of our lives together. This was a beautiful moment for me because as I circled Jonathan I felt our lives truly becoming one. Our rabbi suggested that my mother and mother-in-law help me with my veil and dress while I circled Jonathan. Even though that moment was supposed to be about the new home Jonathan and I were creating, it was reassuring to know that our families would always be right behind us to support us.
We wanted our wedding to be as traditional to both faiths as possible. Our rabbi kept the structure of the traditional Jewish wedding in its entirety until before the breaking of the glass, when our priest shared a reading from the New Testament, followed by a homily and blessing over our marriage. Then they both pronounced us husband and wife. Given that my family is bilingual, it was important to me to have the Spanish language included on our wedding day, and our priest was more than willing to conduct the reading and homily in both English and Spanish.
Our chuppah, or wedding canopy, was made from white birch wood, which reflected our roots from college in Maine, and the tallis (prayer shawl), which covered our chuppah, was my father-in-law’s and was handmade in Israel.
Our vows were a unique part of our wedding—we completed the traditional Jewish ring exchange in Hebrew and in English: “Behold, you are consecrated unto me with this ring in accordance with the Law of Moses and the People of Israel.” After that, we exchanged our own personal words.
At the end of our ceremony, the last prayer, called the Priestly Blessing, was sung by our rabbi in Hebrew and our priest in English. We were wrapped by both of them in my husband’s tallis from his bar mitzvah. At that moment it really felt like we became husband and wife.
My Advice to Couples
My biggest piece of advice for couples planning their interfaith wedding is to not give up. Whatever your vision is, there will be someone who will help make it come true. Just have faith and don’t get discouraged. Planning a wedding can be very stressful, and at times overwhelming. When also trying to balance and manage the interfaith component to your wedding, it can get increasingly complex.
Create your vision for what you and your future spouse want, and I promise this will be the happiest day of your life. When you are standing next to your partner as you are committing yourselves to each other in holy matrimony during your unique and special ceremony, your different backgrounds and faiths will fuse together in the most beautiful moment of your life.
Are you planning a wedding? Find clergy from InterfaithFamily here.
The decision to get married inevitably invites inquiry. How did you meet? What is the proposal story? Can I see the ring? Have you set a date?
The decision to proceed with an interfaith marriage invites it even more so. For example, in response to an earlier blog where I shared news of our recent engagement, I received comments asking whether we had made a decision about how we would raise our children.
These well-intentioned comments, which presupposed that we even plan to have children, offered their views of how to solve the apparent conundrum of two faiths under one roof.
The answer is that we have talked at great length about how we will raise children if we are so blessed. These conversations have been some of the more difficult discussions we have had as the issue is a deeply personal one.
While we do not purport to be experts on how to blend two religions into one family, we compromised and reached an agreement that seems workable for us, at least in theory. (I promise to resume blogging someday to share whether it actually works in application!) Our ability to reach this compromise, I think, solidified the fact that we were “engagement-ready.” The process was challenging and illuminating. We learned how to communicate effectively and compassionately about a sensitive subject.
As we progress in the wedding planning process, I anticipate that we will continue to hone those communication skills as the inquiry about children is only one of many questions we will face (and have faced) while planning our wedding.
Would the ceremony be Jewish? Catholic? “Interfaith?” And, who would officiate? After much thought and consultation with each other and our parents, we decided on an interfaith ceremony officiated by a rabbi (Rabbi Robyn Frisch, director of IFF/Philadelphia) on a Saturday evening in December.
Prior to finalizing the decision, I had to ask myself whether I was comfortable with our plan. Our wedding will more closely resemble a Jewish wedding (albeit on a Saturday evening and with a Catholic bride). Having only attended one Jewish wedding, I feared that I might feel disconnected from the ceremony – and that my Catholic family would too.
Fortunately, we found an officiant willing to incorporate elements into our ceremony that are meaningful and familiar to me. And, distilled to its essence, a Jewish wedding ceremony supports and celebrates the union of two people. While the formalities may be different, conceptually, this is a tradition that I am familiar with.
Still, our tailor-made interfaith wedding is a far cry from the traditional, Catholic weddings of my parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents. They have questions and they, too, want to feel connected to the ceremony. My Irish grandfather actually asked me earlier this month whether he should wear a kippah (yarmulke) to the wedding!
Over the next few months, we will be working closely with our officiant – asking questions and answering them – to craft a ceremony that suits us as a couple, celebrates our differences and allows our families to meaningfully participate in our once-in-a-lifetime day.
But when all is said and done, and the majority of questions have been asked and answered, the most important question in this process will be our willingness to make a lifelong promise to each other. Though I may not know the answer to the myriad questions about interfaith wedding planning, my answer to that most important question is a resounding, unequivocal yes.
This painting in my grandparents’ home provided inspiration
After our first pre-wedding meeting with Rabbi Frisch, we were giddy with excitement. We walked the 10 blocks home reviewing all the things we had talked about. (Check out my last blog post to see how we chose Rabbi Frisch to officiate.) One detail that stood out was when Rabbi Frisch asked us if we were going to have a ketubah. Amma said something like, “Oh is that the canopy thing that you stand under?” and I said, “No, no, that’s a chuppah!” I thought I was so smart for half a second, until I realized I didn’t know what a ketubah was either.
We learned that the purpose and meaning of the ketubah, like many traditions, has changed over time and still varies from one Jewish community to another. Currently, within our particular community, it is basically a written and signed statement of love and commitment between the couple getting married. You can read InterfaithFamily’s kutabah explanation here.
You should have heard all the ketubah mispronunciations we came up with in the days following our meeting as we discussed whether or not we were going to have one. That week we went to our friends’ house for dinner and brought up the subject with them. They were married two years ago in a Jewish ceremony. They showed us their ketubah and told us the story of searching for just the right one. Not satisfied with anything they could find in the area, or online, their rabbi put them in touch with an Israeli scribe. The result was a stunning, sacred document with thick black Hebrew lettering and gold accents. As an artist and a bride-to-be, I was inspired.
Knowing I am an artist, Rabbi Frisch mentioned that if we did decide to go for it, I could make our ketubah myself, so I set to work researching the various versions and styles and decided it was definitely something I wanted to try my hand at. I loved the circular designs I was finding in my searches. Knowing I was bound to take a lot of liberties adjusting the meaning and language to suit our needs, I wanted to use more traditional colors and motifs to balance out the inevitable modern flair.
As I was familiarizing myself with ketubah art, one particular image made its way into the forefront of my mind; a small painting my grandparents have had hanging in their house for as long as I can remember. The combination of shapes and colors (and the fact that it had a line of Hebrew text below it) was just the inspiration I needed. I also loved that I would be drawing my inspiration from something that tied back to my family, giving the whole project a deeper foundation. I found a photo of the painting I had taken last year, while documenting some of the art and tchotchkes around my grandparents’ house. I collected my paints and inks and began designing our ketubah.
Our DIY ketubah
I continued to use the original painting as a reference throughout the composition of the piece. In the original, a strange bird sits atop a large golden egg and the whole image is framed by a circle. It occurred to me that a bird sits on an egg to protect and nurture it, so perhaps it could do the same for our promises to each other.
I found a ketubah text that suited us beautifully, and painted it in black ink within a gold circle, meant to represent the egg from the original painting. Among decorative shapes, I painted the same strange bird from my grandparents’ painting, sitting on top of our promises, keeping them safe. I regretted not knowing how to write in Hebrew, but knew I could at least copy a few words. I searched online for a morsel of Jewish wisdom that would add value to our ketubah.
Within seconds, I came across the perfect words: “Shalom Bayit,” or “Peace in the Home,” a Jewish concept referring to domestic harmony. I did my best to copy the words letter for letter, bringing my creative journey to an end. I presented the finished piece to Amma, and we were both excited to welcome it into our ever-evolving vision of our wedding, and our marriage.
An “interfaith wedding.” What does that mean? I, after all should know what that means. My partner of 10 years and soon-to-be spouse is the CEO of InterfaithFamily. But understanding what it means to be in an interfaith relationship and putting it on display for all of your family and friends to witness…well, those are two different things.
Our families knew we would eventually tie the knot. After all, when we made the decision to move to Massachusetts, the ability to legally wed was a strong pull for us. Yet, life so to say, got in the way. Jodi was working full time in preparation for the transition in leadership at IFF and I was a first-time full-time stay at home mama for our active, inquisitive and adorable twin boys.
Yet, living in Massachusetts and not being married felt strangely different than living in Pennsylvania and not being married. No one, at the time, expected a same-sex couple to be married in PA. Yet, in MA people sort of looked at us in bewilderment when they found out we weren’t married. It almost felt like we were “living in sin” and as a Catholic school graduate, I knew what that felt like. Alas, new friends of ours gave us the added push of encouragement we needed to tie the knot.
So, 10 years. A house. A cat. A dog. Two kids. A BIG move to Massachusetts. And, finally…wait for it…marriage. I think we’re ready. Now, to share the news with our family and friends—this brought the expected excitement. The details—everyone wants to know the details. When? Where? Who? Most important, I’ve been asked by numerous people in an almost huffy and emphatic way, “Well, it will be interfaith, RIGHT?” Well, yes. Um, sort of.
Growing up Catholic, going to Catholic school and a Catholic university, I have always held very strong beliefs about humanity that did not always coincide with doctrine. When Jodi and I met, we connected very deeply on a spiritual level. We found commonality in our differences and took a humanistic approach to seeing how her Judaism influenced her existence and my Catholicism influenced mine.
A lot of thought went into raising our children Jewish, a decision I did not come to quickly or easily. Ultimately, it was a decision made out of love for them. About wanting my children to belong to a faith community; to believe in God; to participate in community service. And most important—at least to me—was to belong. I mean, truly belong.
Courtney and Jodi at Boston Pride with InterfaithFamily and Keshet
That said, planning this wedding has forced me to really unpack the meaning behind what an interfaith wedding would mean for me. We made the decision to hold our ceremony in our synagogue, Kerem Shalom. We also made the decision to have our rabbi and friend, Darby Leigh officiate our ceremony. And here comes the line of questioning from my Catholic family members: “So, the rabbi is marrying you? And you’re getting married in the synagogue?” I can hear my mother’s Long Island accent: “I told her (my aunt) that you’re getting married in the synagogue but it IS and will be interfaith.”
Yes, mom. It is. But what does that mean? I might mention that my mother is also in an interfaith relationship—she’s Catholic and my stepfather is Jewish. But that’s a story for another time. So, how do you plan an interfaith wedding when some tenets of the Catholic faith (i.e. Christ-centered beliefs; Eucharist) contradict principles of Judaism? I found myself really questioning what an interfaith wedding would look like.
Luckily, we knew where to look for just the resources that would help answer some of our questions. Several helpful tips came out of the Guide to Wedding Ceremonies for Interfaith Couples. We also used the Tips for Inclusive Weddings to answer questions about involving friends and family (our parents will write personalized sheva b’rachot (seven blessings), choosing readings, creating an interfaith ketubah and more.
What I ultimately came up with was a Courtney-Jodi wedding that embraces our different faith traditions. Our interfaith wedding will include the pieces of our lives that that celebrate who we are; the spirituality that weaves in and out to create a bond and a tapestry. Our wedding will be in the synagogue and will have some of the traditional rituals present in Jewish weddings, such as the chuppah, the reading of the seven blessings and the breaking of the glass. However, it will also include blessings from our parents, who come from both Catholic and Jewish traditions. It will include family and friends that have been raised Catholic and family and friends who were raised Jewish. We have chosen to have our siblings, my two sisters and Jodi’s two brothers, be our chuppah holders, and the chuppah will have a Celtic web of life design. My sisters (Catholic) and Jodi’s brothers (Jewish) will provide the support for the canopy representing God’s presence in our lives and in our new life together.
Most important, our wedding will include two lives coming together in God’s presence—two lives who find commonality in spirituality. To me, that is an interfaith wedding. It may not include a priest. It doesn’t need to. What it needs to be is inclusive. Our lives and the choices we’ve made as a couple and as parents center around celebrating difference and inclusivity. Our interfaith wedding may not be your interfaith wedding. That’s the beauty of it.
Being interfaith is about noticing the differences and looking for the thread that ties you together but maintains individuality. Jodi and I found that thread 10 years ago. It has just taken 10 years to become a tapestry.