My First Yom Kippur

  
Laura & Zach on their honeymoon

Laura and Zach at Pena Palace in Sintra, Portugal, enjoying their honeymoon

Zach and I were married on September 16! We were away having a blast on our honeymoon in Portugal, but before we had time to post our honeymoon pics to Facebook or look through our wedding photos, Yom Kippur was upon us.

I had decided a few days before we got back that I would be joining Zach in the fast for Yom Kippur. For most of the other years we’ve been together, Yom Kippur has fallen on a weekday and I’ve been working. I would usually meet him for the evening service, but I had never joined him for the whole day fast. I decided that now that we were married, it was important for me to join him in this observance, so that we could begin our faith life as a family, not just two individuals.

Zach at the cross at Pena Palace

How interfaith! Zach (pictured) and Laura hiked up to the high cross at Pena Palace on their honeymoon

You may say, well, Catholics fast, right? And my answer would be, sort of. For example, Catholics are supposed to fast on Good Friday, the day that Jesus died, but this “fasting” means one full meal and two smaller meals, as long as they do not add up to a single normal meal. Needless to say, the undisciplined can go downhill quickly, myself included. My Good Friday fast usually includes a meatless lunch, but I convince myself that I need to eat enough to continue working at my job. Therefore, the prospect of going all day without food on Yom Kippur seemed daunting.

Let me tell you, friends–my first Yom Kippur went surprisingly well. First of all, I was worried that my “hanger” (anger resulting from hungriness) would get the best of me. I saw that, throughout the day, I was able to take strength in my weakness, and knowing that others were experiencing the same weakness filled me with patience and love for the community. Zach and I attended a morning service with Interfaith Families Project of DC, and I was able to see for the first time how this Jewish and Christian community worked (Zach had attended another service of theirs before). I was inspired by the inclusivity and friendliness of the community, as well as the different backgrounds or spiritual paths of the community members. It was a wonderful and welcoming experience.

Second, I learned that napping can be key to a successful Yom Kippur. We came back from the morning service, and about an hour or so after we had been quietly unpacking from the wedding and the honeymoon, the hunger set in, and I felt more and more tired. Instead of pushing past it, which is my normal tendency, I let my body be tired. I stopped working, even though there was still plenty to do, and read through our wedding guestbook, and then took a nap. Friends, I never nap. I need earplugs and a facemask to fall asleep on a normal night, but I was asleep in 10 minutes. Thankfully we set an alarm to alert us to get ready for the evening service.

We went to Sixth & I Synagogue in Chinatown for the neilah evening service. I had attended this service at this location last year with Zach on Yom Kippur, but as I mentioned, this was my first year doing the fast, and I was nervous about not only staying focused but standing up and not getting sick.

The collective strength of that community kept me on my feet and singing for the whole hour plus of the service. What a beautiful, urgent way to plead with God for mercy and forgiveness! It was a prayer for which we had emptied ourselves all day, which actually sharpened my focus rather than dulled it.

All in all, for me it was a Yom Kippur in which I not only successfully fasted, but I gained meaning, prayed intensely, practiced patience, surveyed my faults and mistakes and grew closer to my spouse. Yom Kippur presented a beautiful opportunity after we had returned from our honeymoon to reflect on the past year and prepare for the next year, the first in our married lives. I’m so thankful for that opportunity–and my next post will fill you in on our actual wedding! Spoiler alert: Multiple friends and family members told us it was one of the most beautiful wedding ceremonies they had attended. So stay tuned.

Laura and Zach on their honeymoon

Two Faiths Becoming One Family

  
Zach cooking latkes

Zach making curried latkes for Hanukkah

I recently joined a Facebook group that InterfaithFamily started to connect couples planning interfaith weddings (join here!). As I’ve mentioned in a few of my posts, Zach and I have our wedding pretty well planned already, and we’ve been working with great officiants to create a beautiful, meaningful and inclusive ceremony. I joined the group because I’ve realized during this process that the choice we made with this wedding to include and celebrate both traditions–to make both families feel welcome and represented–is a challenge and opportunity that we will continue to face in our married life.

I’ve mentioned a book called Being Both by Susan Katz Miller that solidified our decision to marry. The book isn’t about weddings; rather, it’s about what happens after. That was our biggest question in deciding to get married: What would we do if and when we decided to have children?

Meanwhile, what I had heard from clergy, both Jewish and Catholic, was that “being both” was not an option. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops claims that religious leaders agree that raising children of interfaith marriages exclusively in one religious tradition is best. While this may be true, I had a hard time finding studies on the alternative, save for Miller’s book. Additionally, both Zach and I felt that a piece of us would be missing from our future family if our future child or children was or were raised exclusively in one tradition. Being Both offers examples of families and congregations that enable families to participate in both traditions fully, rather than having one or more family members as a spectator to that tradition.

couple standing in front of a lit-up Christmas tree

Laura and Zach by her parents’ Christmas tree, 2015

I’m not entirely sure what the right answer is for us, but reading that book made me realize that our family might not feel completely at home in either tradition, because of our desire to not just respect but incorporate both traditions into our one family. As a Catholic woman from a Catholic family, where we get together for baptisms and First Communions, that is a realization that, honestly, I still struggle with.

But I draw strength in my conviction that the benefits outweigh the negatives. I’ve already written about how well Zach and I complement each other, and I also see a unique calling or mission in creating an interfaith family. I love celebrating Jewish holidays with Zach, and I can’t wait to share those beliefs, prayers and family traditions with our children. Similarly, when I go to church on Sunday, I think about sharing with them my family’s stories, beliefs and rituals. I think our overall desire is to raise children comfortable and familiar with both traditions, who see and appreciate God in all forms. Because, when it comes down to it, I see God in my relationship with Zach, and I refuse to be bound by the lines our religious communities have drawn around us. Our love is boundless, and our family will be too. That’s been the biggest realization for me in this process–we’re starting something new, that no one in either of our families has done before, but connecting to the larger interfaith community, with families who have years of experience before interfaith marriage became commonplace, is so valuable.

I recently decided to take the last name Drescher. I struggled with the decision for a while. I like my name as it is: Laura Rose Free. I like the connection that “Free” gives me to my family. I like the pun possibilities (bachelorette hashtag: #freeasilleverbe). But marriage signifies the start of something new–of two people coming together as one, acting as partners, and making decisions together. For me, taking the last name Drescher is a step in that direction; it’s an act that symbolizes that change for me. In addition to all of the practical reasons, this symbolism made me decide that I want to change my name. I’m not saying it’s the right decision for all couples, but I feel it’s the right decision for us–it’s the first step toward the new family that we’re starting. I’m thankful to have this community to support us and show us the ways they have chosen to create new families and traditions.

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

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.

This Is What We Are Going To Look Like For the Rest Of Our Lives

  


I made a comment to Lisa while we were getting our hair done together this week. This is what you and I are going to look like on our wedding day. It was a jarring statement that caught Lisa off guard.

I did not mean that we were walking down the aisle in jeans and hooded sweatshirts. I meant that if you asked 5-year-old Ryan what he would look like or who was the man he was going to be on his wedding day, he could not have imagined it. And everything is different from what I imagined on my 15th birthday. And even at 25, I would not have believed you I would be getting married 600 miles from where I grew up and that was only four years ago.

At the beginning of this blog, I was asked to introduce Lisa and me as a couple. That couple could not have planned what lay ahead for the both of us. It is amazing to look back when I first started writing in April and see the changes in our lives that have happened since then. Many of them were not planned, but Lisa and I remained a team and got through all the ups and downs together. The wedding we planned in April is nowhere near identical to the wedding that is happening in just 8 days.

Where am I going with this? I don’t know.

My spiritual mentor Scott and I talked about the power of “I do not know” this week during our weekly chat. Sometimes in life, it is best not to know. There is a lot of truth in that statement. We tend to get caught up on what we do know, and forget that we do not need to know everything in order to be successful. We simply have to trust that G-D has got it worked out.

Easier said than done. Especially this close to the date and you feel like you have to know everything. Everything needs to be set in stone. And maybe for the wedding it does have to be. However, at the moment, in life, it is best that I do not know life’s full plan. Knowing that I love Lisa with all my heart is really all I need. Life’s other details will be taken care of with or without my help, it seems.

I have talked about being spiritually ready to get married throughout the course of this entire blog. I can say that I am ready and have not even gone to the mikveh yet. What I thought “spiritually ready” looked like in April, and actually feeling it now, into my soul, are two very different things.