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By Courtney Dunne
An “interfaith wedding.” What does that mean? I, after all should know what that means. My partner of 10 years and soon-to-be spouse is the CEO of InterfaithFamily. But understanding what it means to be in an interfaith relationship and putting it on display for all of your family and friends to witness…well, those are two different things.
Our families knew we would eventually tie the knot. After all, when we made the decision to move to Massachusetts, the ability to legally wed was a strong pull for us. Yet, life so to say, got in the way. Jodi was working full time in preparation for the transition in leadership at IFF and I was a first-time full-time stay at home mama for our active, inquisitive and adorable twin boys.
Yet, living in Massachusetts and not being married felt strangely different than living in Pennsylvania and not being married. No one, at the time, expected a same-sex couple to be married in PA. Yet, in MA people sort of looked at us in bewilderment when they found out we weren’t married. It almost felt like we were “living in sin” and as a Catholic school graduate, I knew what that felt like. Alas, new friends of ours gave us the added push of encouragement we needed to tie the knot.
So, 10 years. A house. A cat. A dog. Two kids. A BIG move to Massachusetts. And, finally…wait for it…marriage. I think we’re ready. Now, to share the news with our family and friends—this brought the expected excitement. The details—everyone wants to know the details. When? Where? Who? Most important, I’ve been asked by numerous people in an almost huffy and emphatic way, “Well, it will be interfaith, RIGHT?” Well, yes. Um, sort of.
Growing up Catholic, going to Catholic school and a Catholic university, I have always held very strong beliefs about humanity that did not always coincide with doctrine. When Jodi and I met, we connected very deeply on a spiritual level. We found commonality in our differences and took a humanistic approach to seeing how her Judaism influenced her existence and my Catholicism influenced mine.
A lot of thought went into raising our children Jewish, a decision I did not come to quickly or easily. Ultimately, it was a decision made out of love for them. About wanting my children to belong to a faith community; to believe in God; to participate in community service. And most important—at least to me—was to belong. I mean, truly belong.
That said, planning this wedding has forced me to really unpack the meaning behind what an interfaith wedding would mean for me. We made the decision to hold our ceremony in our synagogue, Kerem Shalom. We also made the decision to have our rabbi and friend, Darby Leigh officiate our ceremony. And here comes the line of questioning from my Catholic family members: “So, the rabbi is marrying you? And you’re getting married in the synagogue?” I can hear my mother’s Long Island accent: “I told her (my aunt) that you’re getting married in the synagogue but it IS and will be interfaith.”
Yes, mom. It is. But what does that mean? I might mention that my mother is also in an interfaith relationship—she’s Catholic and my stepfather is Jewish. But that’s a story for another time. So, how do you plan an interfaith wedding when some tenets of the Catholic faith (i.e. Christ-centered beliefs; Eucharist) contradict principles of Judaism? I found myself really questioning what an interfaith wedding would look like.
Luckily, we knew where to look for just the resources that would help answer some of our questions. Several helpful tips came out of the Guide to Wedding Ceremonies for Interfaith Couples. We also used the Tips for Inclusive Weddings to answer questions about involving friends and family (our parents will write personalized sheva b’rachot (seven blessings), choosing readings, creating an interfaith ketubah and more.
What I ultimately came up with was a Courtney-Jodi wedding that embraces our different faith traditions. Our interfaith wedding will include the pieces of our lives that that celebrate who we are; the spirituality that weaves in and out to create a bond and a tapestry. Our wedding will be in the synagogue and will have some of the traditional rituals present in Jewish weddings, such as the chuppah, the reading of the seven blessings and the breaking of the glass. However, it will also include blessings from our parents, who come from both Catholic and Jewish traditions. It will include family and friends that have been raised Catholic and family and friends who were raised Jewish. We have chosen to have our siblings, my two sisters and Jodi’s two brothers, be our chuppah holders, and the chuppah will have a Celtic web of life design. My sisters (Catholic) and Jodi’s brothers (Jewish) will provide the support for the canopy representing God’s presence in our lives and in our new life together.
Most important, our wedding will include two lives coming together in God’s presence—two lives who find commonality in spirituality. To me, that is an interfaith wedding. It may not include a priest. It doesn’t need to. What it needs to be is inclusive. Our lives and the choices we’ve made as a couple and as parents center around celebrating difference and inclusivity. Our interfaith wedding may not be your interfaith wedding. That’s the beauty of it.
Being interfaith is about noticing the differences and looking for the thread that ties you together but maintains individuality. Jodi and I found that thread 10 years ago. It has just taken 10 years to become a tapestry.
In the middle of the grueling Intro to Judaism class, I decided to devote yet more time to the synagogue and take the Beginner Hebrew class, taught by the Rabbi’s wife. We met on Sunday mornings, which meant I could go to the synagogue directly after the earliest Mass. The beginner class focused on the letters, pronunciation, and meanings of some basic root words and the intermediate class focused on the Hebrew in some of the common prayers. I ended up taking both Hebrew classes. For the last session, before summer hiatus, I read the Avot to both the Rabbi and his wife. The Rabbi would fix my pronunciation without even looking up and I would have to repeat the word until it was perfect. At the end of what seemed to be the longest hour of my life, the Rabbi asked me why I am taking all of these classes.
Without even thinking, I responded, “I’m not doing it for Sam. I’m doing it for me.” No one had ever asked me this question before and I hadn’t really thought about it, so I was shocked at the automatic response. It’s true; Sam was not pressuring me into taking any of these classes. He didn’t even ask me to take any of the classes. I took the initiative and signed up for the classes on my own, did all the reading, and practiced all the Hebrew, (and sometimes even refused Sam’s assistance).
“I’m doing it for me.” I want to learn about Judaism because it’s such a big part of Sam’s life. He devotes his Friday nights, Saturday mornings, and his life to Judaism and I want to understand why. I want to understand him better. I want to help Sam choose the Hebrew text for our Ketubah, and then be able to read and understand it. And, if we do decide to raise our children in the Jewish faith, I would like to be able to help them.
Throughout this quest of understanding why Sam is so devoted to Judaism, I am finding the religion, culture, and the language to be fascinating. The prayers, songs, and rituals of Friday night service are incredibly rich and deeply rooted in history. I find Sam’s synagogue to be a very peaceful and comforting place. Going to services regularly is spiritually fulfilling (to an extent). I feel a sense of belonging in his congregational community, and I also play on the temple’s softball team. I enjoy the home rituals, especially the challenge of finding Kosher for Passover recipes. However, in learning about the Jewish faith, I am reminded that it is not the religion for me.
As Sam and I plan our lives together, I will continue learning about what makes him tick. I will take my time and go at my own pace to find where I belong in the religion aspect of his life. (Religion is one of those things where you have to find it at your own speed and enjoy it.) I do not plan to convert to Judaism, but I plan to continue learning about Sam’s religion, for myself.
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I signed up to take an Intro to Judaism class at Sam’s synagogue. When I went to (what I thought was) the first class, I sat amongst a classroom filled with 20 other adults. Everyone was taking the class for various reasons: to re-affirm their faith, learn the basics, teach their children who were going through Hebrew school. Then there was me — I was just curious to learn about Judaism.
Class began and I soon realized that this wasn’t the first class session. The class was trying to come up with a concrete definition of a Jew. Is it one’s actions or faith or name? Are you born a Jew? Are there specific qualities that make someone Jewish? Everyone was referring to specific Torah passages, famous historical rabbis and different articles and writings. Not having read any of the material, I quickly got lost in the conversation, and became more and more frustrated as the class continued.
I talked with the rabbi after that first class to see if he could offer me some guidance. He gave me the syllabus, book list, and articles to read for the next class. He told me that this class could be used to convert to Judaism if I wanted to take that step. In that moment, I felt under attack. I only wanted to feed my curiosity about the religion. I was insulted that the rabbi seemed to take my expression of interest as a chance to proselytize.
I got home that evening and stress-ate an entire 1lb bag of M&Ms. I didn’t want to continue the class because I didn’t feel spiritually ready to have my religious beliefs criticized. After some careful prodding by Sam, I drudgingly forced myself to go to class the following week.
Fast-forward 12 weeks and I love the class! Over the course of the class, I’ve gotten to know the rabbi and his mannerisms, and I now recognize that that first comment was not meant to be demeaning, but only to offer an opportunity to convert if I was so interested. I have made it clear that I do not intend to convert to Judaism, but have used this class to reaffirm my own faith.
There is another Catholic in the class, which I am grateful for, although his mannerisms and occasional off-topic meanderings remind me of my grandfather. The class has dwindled down to a core group of 7 people: 3 who were born and raised Jewish, 2 who converted to Judaism in their adult lives (including the rabbi’s wife), and 2 Catholics. It has been really interesting hearing the different stories and interpretations that everyone brings to the class.
A few class sessions ago, we talked about the different Jewish life cycle events, discussing the symbols and meanings behind the brit milah/baby naming, bar/bat mitzvah, and marriage. The marriage segment of the class turned into a Q&A about our upcoming wedding. The class was curious as to whether we plan to have the standard Jewish symbols and customs at our wedding, such as the chuppah, smashing the glass, etc. Those were easy yes and no questions that Sam and I had previously discussed. Then they asked the why questions. Why are having those specific traditions and customs and how did we come to those conclusions. My answer was to read this blog!
We are about half way finished the course. So far, we have had in-depth conversations about a number of topics, including the afterlife, order of the Shabbat service, Torah, holidays, and history of Judaism. The second half of the class is delving into the history of Judaism. I am consistently doing the weekly readings (sometimes over 300 pages!), answering the study questions and always bringing my own set of questions. This prep work has made class a lot less frustrating and a lot more fascinating!