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 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 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.

 

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?

Growing Our Interfaith Marriage “Garden”

  

emily and jose garden blogBefore Jose and I got married, I wondered how marriage would influence our personal growth. I frequently heard the term “growing apart” to describe divorce. I worried whether that happens to some extent in all marriages, that all couples drift apart in their natural self-evolution and whether some couples are just stronger at making the union work. Would growing alongside another person stunt personal evolution, constraining one to only grow so much? Or would a marriage stimulate more self-growth?

Even before setting off on a career as a yoga teacher, I was interested in the concept of self-improvement. I believe we must better ourselves to better serve the world around us. I always saw, and still see, only minor hurdles in Jose and I coming from different religions and cultural backgrounds. All spirituality teaches us to be compassionate and kind to others, and there are more similarities than differences. If our religions encourage us to serve and to love, then Jose’s Catholicism is not at odds with my Judaism in that sense. Still, what obstacles from our faiths might emerge within our continued growth?

As we sat outside enjoying frozen yogurt last week, I asked Jose to get a cup of water from inside the shop. He refused. I thought he was being lazy and I got annoyed, but he explained that he didn’t feel comfortable asking for a cup of water when they sell bottles.

Wow, I thought. I was raised to not spend money unless I had to. Tap water is always free, so why buy a bottle? He was raised to respect a shop owner’s right to sell a product and to buy the item they sell.

Part of the beauty of our interfaith, intercultural marriage is the subtle differences in values, opinions and behavior that shine light on our self-development. When you’re married, you allow yourself to be exposed and vulnerable, to reveal your faults and to be embraced by love. When you give your partner the chance to love you fully for your strengths and for your weaknesses, you become aware of how to grow as an individual and as a partner. When your starting point involves different backgrounds, you often face these opportunities for growth early on.

When you grow alone, you may shoot off in one direction, one path, and no one is there to reality-check you. You may have family and friends as a support system, maybe roommates you must learn to live with, but no relationship compares to a life partner in the way it forces you to face yourself. That’s part of the reason I was always afraid of marriage.

I used to think of marriage like a sandbox: You build the wood planks around the outside to set clear boundaries for your wishes, desires, dislikes, hopes and dreams, and you try to keep the sand inside because there’s a finite amount of it. You can play with the sand, shaping and molding it in different ways as you grow and learn together, but the sandbox itself never changes shape, unless you break it down and start from scratch. That’s the other reason I feared marriage—what if we grow out of the sandbox?

I realize now there’s a much better metaphor for marriage. The marriage itself can grow; it’s not a sandbox. The two partners grow as individuals, but at the same time the union itself grows with life experiences, hurdles overcome and shared memories. I see marriage now as a garden. What grows each season may change. Sometimes you have a fruitful harvest because you have tended your garden with care, while other times the external factors like too little rain, sun or warmth prevent growth. Ultimately, each season is new, a new beginning for you to replant and learn from your mistakes.

Our interfaith and intercultural marriage is a beautifully varied garden. Together we have more seeds to choose from, more lessons from our ancestors’ cultures and religions to explore. We can plant something new, something uniquely blended to our garden, when we have children. Most important, if the harvest of our self-evolution grows beyond the perimeter of our garden because we tended to each other and ourselves with care, we can expand the garden.

Our marriage, still in its infancy, has taught me that growing alongside another person is in fact a greater, more rewarding challenge than growing alone. Marriage forces you to grow to the very edges of your comfort zone, expanding within the shape you and your partner design. That allows you to grow fully in all directions, becoming a well-rounded individual and a loving, supportive partner. And just like a garden, marriage grows when seeds are planted for the future, and that growth happens when you aren’t looking.

Hopes for Our Future Children as We Prepare for Our Interfaith Wedding

  
Engagement photo

3 months until we celebrate the start of our interfaith marriage!

As we inch closer and closer to our wedding day, I catch my thoughts darting in a million different directions. “What cake flavor will we pick?”; “Will all of our vendors show up on the big day?”; “How much time will my bridesmaids and I need to get ready?” And while many of these questions have been consuming my thoughts during the wedding-planning process, I know that three months from now, all of it will be irrelevant as our wedding day will have come and gone and we will be starting a new chapter of our lives as husband and wife. This new chapter will have a whole different set of thoughts to keep our minds busy in the future.

As several of our friends and family members have gotten married before us and embark on the journey of marriage, they are now preparing to start families of their own. Watching friends and family members prepare to welcome their first children has made me start to think about what hopes I have for my future children. While every parent can agree that they want their children to be happy, healthy and always feel loved, there are additional hopes I have for my future children who will come from an interfaith marriage and be born into an interfaith family. These are the hopes I have for our future children:

I hope our future children know we chose love despite our different faith backgrounds. Jarrett was raised Jewish and I was brought up in the Catholic faith. We did not allow our different faiths to be a divider; rather, we used these differences to listen to what was important to one another and found compromises that worked for our relationship. I hope our backgrounds and experiences can teach our children to love and learn from others who are different from them.

Jarrett and I plan to raise our children Jewish, yet we still want to teach them that other religions exist and that not everyone has the same beliefs as them. I grew up in a town limited in diversity. Like me, my friends were raised Catholic and many of them even attended the same church as me and my family. I saw my friends at church on Sundays; we went to CCD classes together, received Communion and Confirmation together. It wasn’t until I went away to college that I met and became friends with individuals of different faith backgrounds.

Jarrett’s upbringing was similar in that all of his friends were raised Jewish and attended Temple and Hebrew school together. In the diverse world we live in today, I think it will be beneficial for our children to have exposure to and understanding of different religions. While I want our future children to embrace the religion we have chosen to raise them in, I also want them to understand other religions; especially Catholicism and the traditions that are important to me as someone raised Catholic.

I hope our future children feel confident in their religious identity despite coming from an interfaith family. In our ever-changing culture, interfaith families are becoming more and more common, but if my children are raised in a predominantly Jewish community, I hope my children will be able to educate their peers about their own interfaith family and never feel excluded because they come from an interfaith family. I hope they are proud of where they come from and who they are.

Finally, I hope our future children choose love like we have. Years and years from now when my future children meet the person who they want to share their life with, I want them to pick their life partner based on love. If our future children choose to marry, we will support them whether or not they choose interfaith marriage because we will support what makes them happy. Interfaith marriage is what we have chosen is right for our lives and I look forward to beginning that marriage in less than three months. As we continue the countdown to the beginning of our interfaith marriage, I also look forward to what the future holds when we decide to turn our interfaith marriage into an interfaith family.

See Me for Who I Am

  

Annoyed_WomanI am a lot of things in this diverse world. I am a female, a daughter, granddaughter, sister, fiancé, niece, friend, Catholic, dietitian, animal lover, coffee and chocolate enthusiast… in no particular order. While I identify as many different things, there are many things I am not and won’t try to be. As I continue to grow and navigate through life, I am finding that the way I define and present myself to the world is more important than the way someone else defines me. However, when someone tries to define or label me differently than how I see myself, it can be hurtful.

I have had so many positive experiences over the last several years as one half of an interfaith couple. I have had the opportunity to learn so much about the Jewish faith. I have embraced Jewish traditions and culture and continue to learn ways to incorporate these new traditions into my life. I have been welcomed with open arms into a Jewish family that I will officially be able to call my own family when I say “I do” in an interfaith wedding ceremony six months from now.

Unfortunately, when small, negative experiences occur, they can put a damper on even the most joyful occasions, just like a rain cloud can ruin a beautiful sunny day. These negative moments can linger causing sadness and frustration. I have encountered very few negative opinions in response to my interfaith relationship but that doesn’t mean it hurts less when these situations do arise. My hope is that individuals today can continue to become more open-minded and non-judgmental. As the Catholic half of a Catholic/Jewish interfaith couple, below are some experiences I’d like to avoid repeating in the future.

For starters, please do not call me a “shiksa” if you would like to maintain a friendship with me. Calling me this term will not make me laugh and I will not think it’s funny. The word “shiksa” means “non-Jewish female,” however, other translations for the word include “impure” and “abomination.” This word is not a term of endearment and every definition I have ever read for this word describes it as derogatory. Most definitions even directly indicate that this word should not be used as a label or reference for someone. It is 2016, I am a Catholic woman who fell in love with a Jewish man and there is nothing forbidden about our love. If you are a person who identifies as Jewish who is not aware of the correct definition for the word “shiksa,” please take the time to research the word and then ask yourself if the person you’re referring to would be offended by this.

I am Catholic. I am “of a different faith background” but would prefer not to be called a “non-Jew.” I have read articles about the controversy of the term “non-Jew.” It made me stop and think about my feelings toward this term. I get it. I’m not Jewish and I’m not trying to be. I am marrying someone who identifies as Jewish while I identify as Catholic. To me, this is very concrete. The problem arises when someone else starts identifying me by what I am not rather than what I am. When someone calls me a “non-Jew” it makes me feel like I’m on the outside looking in or excluded from a group. The term “non-Jew” also makes me feel as though the person referring to me as a “non-Jew” feels superior because they are Jewish and I am not. Individuals should be identified as what they are rather than what they are not to avoid hurt feelings or discomfort.

Finally, I have been asked on a number of occasions since my engagement if I plan to convert to Judaism. While I respect the question and a person’s interest in our different faith backgrounds, I don’t feel as though I need to convert to my partner’s religion in order for it to be acceptable to get married. Don’t get me wrong, I love that conversion is an option and that in the future, if I feel conversion is right for me, I can make that decision. On the other hand, I love that intermarriage is accepted by many today and that I can continue to practice my personal religious beliefs while building new traditions with my partner who has personal religious beliefs that are different from my own.

I don’t know what the future holds for my partner and me as we move closer to our wedding day but my hope is for continued acceptance and respect for individuals of different faiths and interfaith couples. We will continue to surround ourselves with friends and family who accept and embrace our different faiths and support us as we build this new life together!

Our DIY Ketubah

  
Ketuba_grandparents

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

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.

Surprise! It’s a Rabbi!

  

Wedding rings on the Torah

In the days after our engagement, we began to imagine our wedding. I had thought about a possible future wedding many times in the past, but the realness of that imagined wedding became heightened by our official engagement. Distant ideas like, “getting married outside might be nice,” were suddenly translated into Google searches for “outdoor wedding venues.” One of the first questions we asked ourselves was, “Who do we want to officiate?” I was actually surprised by how quickly the answer came to me. After flipping through the various options in my mind, I knew a rabbi was the right choice for us. I asked Amma what she thought of the idea, and without skipping a beat, she completely agreed.

Just a couple of years ago I don’t think either of us would have guessed that we would be married by a rabbi. For starters, neither of us is technically Jewish (depending on how you define Jewish). One could argue (and I often do) that I am Jewish because my grandparents are. Whether or not that argument wins, depends on the audience. Because I wasn’t raised Jewish, and whatever lineage I do have is on my father’s side, some would say I’m a far cry, but that has never stopped me from feeling Jewish! And that isn’t the only reason we want a rabbi for our ceremony.

As Amma and I examined our decision, we discovered our desire for a tie to something greater than ourselves to play a meaningful role in our wedding. We may not be religious, but we do feel a strong spiritual connection to humanity, the universe and God. It was clear to us that we wanted the person leading us into our marriage to be someone who is dedicated to that greater spiritual connection.

Sally Jane Priesand, the first woman in the United States to be ordained as a rabbi.

Sally Jane Priesand, the first woman in the United States to be ordained as a rabbi.

Also on a spiritual level, being two women, we felt that our union would be best endorsed and honored by the heart, experience and wisdom of a woman. Reform Judaism has not only been ordaining women and LGBTQ rabbis since the early 1970s but also supporting its followers in the LGBTQ community. This history of equality and acceptance was yet another great reason for us to adopt Judaism into our wedding and our lives.

So we knew we wanted a rabbi, but we still had to find the right one. I didn’t know what I would find when I started my search. Not only had we just moved to Philadelphia, but we also weren’t part of a Jewish community. I went online and Googled “Philadelphia rabbis,” and up popped an ad for InterfaithFamily. I didn’t know what InterfaithFamily was, but it sounded inclusive and open-minded, so I clicked. I liked what the InterfaithFamily community stood for and it seemed like it had grown from a wonderful place of wanting to bring people together. The fact that they had a rabbi referral service was more than I could have dreamed of.

The referral service was exactly what I needed, and my request was handled with care and attention. When I received a response from Rabbi Frisch, it felt like a gift. The questions on the referral form were used to compile a list of potential rabbis who were appropriately matched to our needs. It was fun learning about all these different rabbis. I did an Internet search for each candidate to find out more.

After narrowing the list down to a handful of rabbis who I thought might be a good fit, I sent out initial emails. I felt hopeful as the responses began popping up in my inbox. There were two or three who, through the tone and wording of their emails, felt like they could be “the one.” But over the next week or so, each conversation resulted in a dead end due to various issues, and there I was back at the drawing board, feeling defeated.

Rabbi Frisch must have heard my prayer, because the next morning I received an email from her asking how my search was going. I wrote back describing my fruitless efforts. In my reply I also felt inspired to talk about my strong desire to have a rabbi marry us, and why. Much to my surprise, but true to her generous nature, she offered to be our rabbi. I can’t begin describe my delight. Not only did I already feel like I was getting to know her through the emails we had written back and forth, but I absolutely knew she was a perfect fit for us.

There is something about the way everything worked out that just feels like fate. Since Rabbi Frisch agreed to officiate, we have met in person to chat and get to know each other better. Suffice it to say, we all hit it off wonderfully! We plan on meeting a few more times before the wedding to talk about the ceremony in more detail, and we can’t wait to see her again.

Top 3 Wedding Planning Tips from a Beginner

  
Crossing one more item off the to-do list! Creating our wedding registry!

Crossing one more item off the to-do list! Creating our wedding registry!

I have planned exactly one party in my lifetime. It was a surprise sweet sixteen birthday party for my best friend during our sophomore year of high school. The party was held in my parents’ basement decorated with balloons and streamers. Party guests successfully pulled off the surprise and spent the rest of the evening gobbling slices of pizza and birthday cake while mingling and listening to the latest tunes playing on my boom box.

Fast forward 12 years to 2016. I am knee deep in planning the biggest party of my life…my wedding! Jarrett and I are approaching our one year engagement anniversary (March 20th) and have been busy wedding planning for nearly 11 months now. We continue checking items off of our to-do list as we move closer to our October 2016 wedding. While our to-do list is much shorter than it was 11 months ago, it’s safe to say I probably looked like a happy deer in headlights last April. I was so excited about our recent engagement but had NO idea where to begin when it came to wedding planning. So I thought it might be helpful to share some planning tips that worked for us. We are by no means professionals when it comes to wedding planning but we’re having a lot of fun figuring it out!

1. Talk Details! Jarrett and I sat down one day and discussed everything we knew about weddings (mostly from the weddings we had recently attended). We brainstormed what we wanted and did not want in our day. We talked seasons: Summer? Too hot. Winter? Too cold. Spring? A spring 2016 wedding would only allow one year of planning which felt too rushed. We also discussed that weddings are very expensive and the additional months of planning would allow us to save more money. We had made our decision. A Fall 2016 wedding would allow a year and a half for all of the planning, decision making and money saving (it also happened to be my favorite season!). We drafted a guest list based on who we knew we would be inviting plus estimated a number for our parents’ guest lists. Our guest estimate totaled 150-200 individuals so we knew we needed a venue that accommodated at least 200.

Finally, while the wedding day is about celebrating us as a couple, we knew the majority of our guests would be traveling to celebrate with us and we did not want our wedding day to be an inconvenience for our friends and family. We knew we wanted a Saturday evening wedding with the ceremony and reception at the same location. So we had determined season, guest count and venue wish list. Then we discussed budget. We listed each wedding vendor we would need for our wedding day (Venue, Caterer, Photographer, DJ, Florist and Officiant). We created a budget range for each potential vendor prior to setting up any appointments. From there, we estimated a total budget range for all wedding vendors plus additional details (wedding dress, invitations, etc). It seemed we had it all planned on scratch paper! Now what?!

2. Get Organized! After our engagement, friends and family members had bought me a number of wedding magazines and I was so excited to start browsing through for inspiration. Over time, I started cutting ideas I liked out of the magazines so I could keep them in a pile and easily access them. I realized I needed somewhere to hold all of our wedding planning resources. I bought a three-ring binder and visited one of my favorite websites, Pinterest, and searched for “Wedding Organization Printables.” I found free print-out dividers and resources for “financials,” “guest list & seating” and “timeline/to-dos.” I knew that everything would be in one place and nothing would get lost. Through each step, I write in the amount we spent and checked it off the to-do list! As we decided on each vendor, I placed signed copies of our contracts in the binder so I could refer back to them when I needed a quick reference or to see when a future payment was due.

I created a wedding binder to stay organized during the planning process!

I created a wedding binder to stay organized during the planning process!

3. Do Your Homework/Be Willing to Be Flexible! I began searching for wedding vendors in the Philadelphia/South Jersey area. I utilized “The Knot” website/app on my phone to search vendors by location. The app made it easy to learn details about different vendors and read reviews from people who had utilized their services. I could even look at samples of vendors’ work (ie: photography/floral arrangements) on “The Knot” app.

First, we chose wedding venues to tour based on those that met our search criteria. We knew we would need a confirmed wedding date and venue selection before being able to book any additional vendors. I made the vendor appointments and Jarrett came along to every meeting to provide his opinion and support. It is helpful to make the decisions together since after all, it is our wedding day! We made a list of questions to ask before each meeting so we would be prepared. The reason I suggest being flexible is because many wedding venues, especially popular ones book up far in advance. We toured a wedding venue in April 2015 and fell in love with it. We knew we wanted to host our wedding there but it was booked through September 2016 for Saturday weddings. This is how we decided on an October wedding date (based on venue availability). If you have your heart set on a specific wedding date, you may need to be flexible with your venue choice. The more time you allow for planning, the more choices you will have!

Wedding websites

Some of the apps and websites I used for wedding planning inspiration and ideas

Other selling points for our venue included the staff; they thoroughly and professionally answered all of our questions and put our worries at ease. We learned that we could have both our ceremony and reception on-site and they even had on-site catering and bar service so we were able to save a few steps. Once we selected our venue, we continued booking our remaining wedding vendors one by one. We carefully read the vendor reviews, made lists of questions and compared prices and availability for our chosen wedding date.

My final planning tip would be to have fun! Many people have told me wedding planning is so stressful and they were happy when it was over. Truthfully, because we gave ourselves a lot of planning time, I have been enjoying this life chapter and may miss it when it all comes to an end because it’s truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. We are still seven months away from the big day and there is still so much to do but I am content in what we have been able to accomplish thus far; especially since we’re figuring it out on our own and with the support of one another! Next up on the to-do list: designing invitations and yarmulkas! Stay tuned for more wedding fun.

A Rabbi, a Puppy, a Catholic and a Jew Walk into a Bar

  
Emily and Jose take a break from wedding planning to enjoy time outside.

Emily and Jose take a break from wedding planning to enjoy time outside

A rabbi, a puppy, a Catholic and a Jew walk into a bar… Sounds like the setup for a bad joke, right? Much the opposite. It was a brainstorming session for incorporating religious traditions and the things we love into our wedding ceremony.

Jose and I joined a reform synagogue last year—Rodeph Shalom on Broad Street. We joined not because I felt particularly religious at the time, and not because Jose is planning on converting, but because we felt a strong sense of community there. Jose accompanied me to a High Holiday service there a few years back and we noticed same-sex couples, multiracial couples and folks of all ages. It was eye-opening to me. Growing up in Baltimore, I had not seen that kind of diversity inside a synagogue. Jose and I instantly felt a welcoming and inclusive vibe and figured this synagogue must be doing something right. Jose even remarked that this was not the exclusive, “chosen” mentality he’s previously encountered with Judaism. I agreed.

We took a class with a young rabbi by the name of Eli, and it proved extremely beneficial for us in understanding each other’s spirituality. The class was called “Judaism 101,” but it was not designed to preach Judaism’s teachings. It was a discussion about the basic tenets of Judaism and whether we identify with those principles and ideas of god (little “g” and big “G”). With our classmates old and young, Jewish and not, religious and not, and of various racial and ethnic backgrounds, we discussed how each of our upbringings have influenced our thinking. Jose got to dip his toes further into the world of Judaism and I got a refresher course and some new information.

Rabbi Eli invited the class to his beautiful apartment in the city for Shabbat dinner and we loved the experience. We’ve since gone to a few other Shabbat/Hanukkah dinners through the synagogue and through InterfaithFamily, and we have kept in touch with events happening at the synagogue. Through the wedding contest that we recently won, the officiant was chosen for us. She is amazing (see my previous blog post!), but I wanted to incorporate a personal touch for the Jewish aspect of the wedding. The ketubah signing (Jewish marriage license) traditionally happens right before the ceremony and it is very important to me, so we reached out to Rabbi Eli to see if he would be interested in officiating it.

Rabbi Eli suggested we meet at a bar (how cool is that?) and we brought along our 7-month-old puppy and sat outside at one of the best bars in the city. If you had asked me at age 13 whether I’d be having drinks with a rabbi at a bar I would have slapped you and called you crazy. If you had even asked me whether I’d belong to a synagogue and have a rabbi that I called on, I might call you crazy for that. Needless to say, there we were.

We spoke with Rabbi Eli about the most meaningful thing to us in the wedding—the ceremony. Although we were there to discuss the ketubah signing, he became an amazing sounding board for all of our questions about the ceremony. We discussed what religious traditions we could incorporate and how the choices would be significant to our families and friends. We talked about how to involve our families in the ceremony. We disclosed that while we enjoy sharing our love publicly (if you are friends with us on Facebook you know), I am private about things that are important to me and I want the ceremony to feel intimate. Most of all, we expressed how we are using our engagement as a time for reflection about our relationship. We are honest about what we each want from our marriage and we recognize that this is the time in our lives to speak openly about it. (Sidenote: It’s a lot less scary to ask your partner direct questions than to wonder what they think, and it’s a lot easier to do it now than in 10 or 20 years.) Plus, we want to build a solid foundation for the rest of our lives together and we want to be prepared for any challenges that may arise.

One of the biggest challenges in planning a wedding is to avoid getting wrapped up in the minutiae. I am eternally grateful to have won a wedding contest, because it has, for the most part, allowed us to remain relatively free of financial woes and family drama that is usually inherent in planning a wedding. Surely, the time will come when those challenges appear, but for now we are able to keep our focus on the marriage, not on the wedding, and we can focus on the foundation we’re building together.

After our meeting at the bar, Rabbi Eli shipped us a book he recommended we read, called Meeting at the Well: A Jewish Spiritual Guide to Being Engaged. I’m about halfway through it, and it’s great. The focus of the book is on using the engagement period, however long it may be, to work through how you both feel about certain issues, religious and otherwise. While some of it can be cheesy, it does have exercises and discussion points on topics ranging from raising kids to intimacy to finances to how you spend your free time. It’s a great resource for us to discuss things we never thought would be important. I learned some new things about Jose in the process, which truly surprised me after six years of dating and five years of living together.

Over the next few months, I’m looking forward to the fun stuff: bachelor and bachelorette parties, the tastings, the engagement photo shoot, working with the DJ on what songs to include and planning our honeymoon (no that’s not included!). Stay tuned for more updates on our wedding planning!

The Beerorah

  

The 4th Annual Beerorah (From 2013)

One of my favorite holidays is Hanukkah, and for that, I give a lot of the credit to the Beerorah. The Beerorah is something that my fiancé Derek and I came up with the first Hanukkah we were dating – well, really it’s a gift pack from He’Brew brewing company (a division of Schmaltz brewing) that his best friend had given him when the friend found out he was dating me.

We joke that the Beerorah combines our two loves: “My love of God with his love of beer.” And Derek really does love beer – it’s his hobby in a true aficionado’s way. I have learned more about craft beer in the four-and-a-half years we’ve been together than most people learn in a lifetime, and we love to visit beer bars and breweries just to try new and rare beers. Also he and his best friend have a collection of over 500 bottles of (craft) beer, carefully inventoried in their “beerventory.”

As for me though, the love of God part is apt too. A Conservative Jew, Judaism has always been a large part of my identity. Growing up, I attended synagogue every Saturday because I wanted to – not only to gain guidance from the Rabbi’s sermons or to enjoy the serene satisfaction of the silent Amidah (one of my favorite prayers), but because it was the center of the social circle for my friends and I. Go on a date? Having family drama? Meet at synagogue and we can discuss it.

But going to synagogue and practicing Judaism were also integral to my identity in part because of the climate in which I grew up. I am from Riverdale, NY – home of eight or nine different synagogues and many many Jews. Nonetheless, my synagogue was swatstikaed one weekend when I was in Hebrew School. On the night before Kol Nidre (the holiest night of the year) a year or two after September 11th, our synagogue was firebombed with Molotov cocktails. We attended services while eager news crews waited outside to interview us and have gone through metal detectors and pat downs with varying regularity ever since. So my Judaism and its essentialness to my identity came in part from the fears to my safety that came with it – and the way those fears bound my group of close friends and I together to the community and to each other.

The 5th Annual Beerorah (From 2014)

That said, it was never essential to me to date a Jewish guy. I greatly enjoyed learning about different religions and cultures and watching people experience aspects of Judaism for the first time. I always had a strong opinion about how I wanted to observe Judaism and had my own relationship with God. I knew that my kids will be Jewish, that I am Jewish, that my family is Jewish, that I will never be anything but Jewish. And honestly, I knew I needed a laid back low-maintenance sports fan kind of guy – I wasn’t sure I would necessarily find that within the Jewish community.

You can say “Oh, but traditions! But continuity! But faith!” but I have also found that Derek has been much more respectful of my faith and practice than the Jewish guys I’ve dated. One got mad at me for not answering the phone while I was at a Friday night Shabbat dinner. I got in a heated argument with another who asked, “But WHY do you believe? WHY do you have faith? Where’s the rational proof that God exists?” Both were the moments when I knew the relationships wouldn’t work out. The Beerorah was one of the first examples of Derek’s openness and respect of my faith. And when we light it together each Hanukkah (this year was its fifth iteration), it reminds me of that – that we can meld what matters to us together to create something just as wonderful (or more wonderful) than the original. I haven’t compromised anything – I’m still Jewish, and I still have my love of God and my observance. He still has his love of beer. And we both have each other.

Happy Holidays!