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

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!

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.

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.

Cinnamon Toast and Mazel Toast!

  
Victorious!

Sam and Anne are hoisted on chairs

Sam and I were sitting at breakfast this morning reflecting on our wedding, which was a week ago yesterday. We were exchanging our favorite moments and stating what we enjoyed about that special day.

Everything about the day was beautiful. Although the weather on the days before and after was cold and rain-drenched, the day of the wedding had clear, blue skies and temperatures in the low 70’s, which allowed us to take photos outside among the gorgeous fall leaves. Friends and family members from across the country traveled without difficulty, and shared in our joy. Everyone was dressed to the nines and looked stunning. The ceremony was so beautiful that I cried through most of it. Thankfully, Sam was prepared and surreptitiously slipped me a tissue a few minutes into the ceremony.

The ceremony carried additional emotional weight as a result of the items that were owned or created by our relatives. Sam’s tallis was on top of the chuppah, so he wore his deceased Uncle Morrie’s tallis. My brother Dave made the paper for the ceremony programs using some fabric from my maternal grandmother’s wedding dress. My sister Stephanie did the graphic design for the ceremony programs (and all other printed materials). Sam’s sister Diana crocheted all the kippot that the Jewish men wore during the ceremony, and our ketubah was painted by my sister Michelle, as we mentioned in an earlier post.

Sam and I worked really hard to combine both Judaism and Catholicism into the ceremony. Two close family friends, a rabbi and a priest, co-officiated the wedding, and both did a phenomenal job of partnering together and taking the lead on our ceremony. At the beginning of the ceremony, Sam’s sister Stacey explained the Jewish rituals and symbols, and my brother, Chris,  explained the Catholic ones. The fathers recited the seven blessings together, and the mothers took part in the unity candle. A cantor friend of ours chanted the shehecheyanu and my sister Laura read from the book of Genesis. Afterwards, many of our family and friends came up to us and said, “I really enjoyed how you blended both religions in the ceremony.”

Anne’s favorite moment fell during the ceremony,  when our dads split up the Seven Blessings. Sam’s dad said them in Hebrew, and my dad said the translations in English. My dad is a professor at the local university and his diction is very clear and precise, so he over-enunciated every syllable in each of the blessings. In a very emotional ceremony, these blessings broke the tension and made me laugh.

Aside from watching my parents walk me down the aisle, Sam’s favorite moment was during the hora. After Sam and I went up on the chairs, our parents were also hoisted up on the chairs. Now, we had warned my parents about this dance when we first started planning our wedding. My mom was still scared when four men lifted the legs of her chair up and down, while my dad’s expression was the complete opposite. He had a blast! Every time they hoisted him up, his hands went up, as if he was on a roller coaster. It was a lot of fun to see that much excitement and joy on my dad’s face.

“You guys clearly had thought of every little detail, and I really enjoyed how everything tied together.” Yes, we did have a beer themed wedding. The place cards were beer bottles, the centerpieces were made out of beer bottles, the favors were bottle openers, and we even made our own beer to serve during the reception. My sister Stephanie created a logo for us which was made out of a sheaf of barley, bottle cap, and a hop cone that resembled a heart. This logo was on the invitations, ceremony program, signage, beer labels, and all of the printed material. The logo was even incorporated into a tile mosaic, crafted by my sister Carolyn, which functioned as our guest book. My youngest sister Theresa took this logo and made tags for everything in the hospitality bags for the guests to enjoy at the brunch afterwards. The guests at the brunch also enjoyed oversized Jenga and Kerplunk games built by my brother Andrew. All of the wedding details went off without a hitch thanks to Nicole, another sister, who was the day-of-wedding-coordinator.

“I have been to several weddings before and never have I heard the Best Man or the Maid of Honor’s toast so clearly and so well thought out.” The credit is all theirs. The Maid of Honor went to school for theater management, so speaking clearly in front of a large group of people is second nature to her. The Best Man’s occupation is planning long term medical treatments, so it is quite understandable that his speech had a very distinct beginning, middle, and end.

“Even though I just met you, I feel like I have known you for years.” In some cases, family or friends from one side of the family had gotten to know our “other half” through this blog. In others, it was a reflection of how strangely similar our families are. When I was putting together a slideshow of Sam and I growing up, for the brunch following the wedding, there are some images of my family doing a goofy face and I found images of Sam’s family doing that same goofy face. Our siblings and cousins had a ball dancing with each other, especially to songs such as Wagon Wheel by Old Crow Medicine Show, and “Cotton Eyed Joe”. It was great seeing everyone on the dance floor having such a good time.

“Keep on blogging.” Many of our guests have been following this blog. There were a few people that I met in person for the first time at the wedding who knew me only through these blogs. Sam and I are both very grateful to Interfaith Family for providing us with this forum for communicating with the world our love for each other in our different faiths.  Best of luck to the other couples on this wedding blog; I hope your weddings are as joyous, loving, and fun as ours.

It's a bear!

From left: siblings Chris (and his fiancee Katie), Nicole, Theresa, Stephanie, and Dave (and his son Ryder) Keefe, Stacey Goodman, Anne Keefe, Sam and Diana Goodman, Laura, Michelle, Andrew, and Carolyn Keefe

Symbols and Rituals and Traditions. Oh my.

  

These last few months have been busy with dress fittings, selecting the menu, arranging the seating chart, creating the invitations, ordering the suits, and other wedding plans. Sam and I continually remind ourselves that the wedding is only one day and we should focus on preparing for a marriage. This lifelong commitment to each other begins at the wedding ceremony. With that in mind, we are trying to combine the rituals and symbols of both Judaism and Catholicism in our ceremony.

            Sam’s parents (Pennye & Phil)                    on their wedding day

We specifically chose our priest and rabbi to not only co-officiate the ceremony, but also to guide us along this spiritual journey. The rabbi is someone very dear to Sam and the priest is the presider of my family’s parish. These two special people have been a part of various life cycle events in Sam’s and my life. They know us and our families very well, and we are honored that they will be officiating our marriage ceremony. The rabbi and priest continue to help us in the marriage preparations by proofing our ketubah language, assisting with Diocesan paperwork, and helping us with the order and symbols of the ceremony. In our first meeting with the priest, he gave us words of wisdom to keep in mind, throughout this entire process (and our lives): “Keep your own faith at heart, but do not minimize or trivialize the faith of the other.”

If I were converting to Judaism, or Sam to Catholicism, we would have chosen a specific house of worship for our ceremony, such as a synagogue or church. Because we are not, we decided to have our ceremony in a country club, a “neutral” location. This way, both faiths are equally visible and our guests won’t be uncomfortable in attending a wedding in another house of worship. By having our wedding on a Sunday afternoon, Sam and his family can still go to Shabbat services, and my family can go to early Sunday morning Mass.

Throughout the ceremony, we want to honor each other’s faiths, focusing on the similarities, rather than the differences. We have asked my brother, Chris, and Sam’s sister, Stacey, to help us explain the wedding rituals and symbols in each of our faiths at the start of the ceremony.

There are a few symbols that are used in both religions, such as bread, wine, rings, and most importantly, the vows. Sam and I will say the blessings over the bread and wine in our own respective religions.  The priest and rabbi will guide us in exchanging our vows and rings.

We have adapted some rituals and symbols to be more conducive to an interfaith wedding.  The chuppah is a symbol unfamiliar to my Catholic family, whereas the unity candle is a symbol unfamiliar to Sam’s Jewish family. We will sign our ketubah during the ceremony rather than before it, honoring the Catholic tradition of the bride and groom not seeing each other beforehand. The traditional Jewish Seven Blessings will be said, with both fathers participating.  At the end of the ceremony, we will break the glass. This has many meanings in the Jewish faith, but for the two of us, it will also symbolize the breaking down of barriers between people of different cultures and faiths as our families are now joined together.

By incorporating some Jewish and Catholic wedding rituals in our ceremony, we will signal to our friends and family our intent to continue practicing our religions.  We hope that this public declaration of faith will communicate our plans to remain strong in faith while supporting our partner’s religious practice.