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October 17, 2013
Over a hearty espresso in a coffee bar in southern Italy, Reverend Jens Hansen and I put the finishing touches on the wedding ceremony that we would perform together. Sarah, a young Jewish woman from the United States and her fiancé, Fabrizio, a young man from an Italian Christian family had fallen in love and were planning to marry. This is how Reverend Jens, a Valdesian Baptist pastor, and I, a modern pluralistic rabbi came to be sipping espresso that morning. We were to be the co-officiants for Sarah and Fabrizio’s Jewish-Christian interfaith ceremony.
As a rabbi who has served Jews for nearly 15 years, five in the United States and nearly 10 here in Italy, I have officiated at scores of interfaith weddings and dozens more where I stood side by side with a priest or minister to conduct the wedding service together. And over the years I have found that my commitment to interfaith and co-officiated ceremonies has brought unexpected joys and blessings.
The most recent intermarriage statistics from the Pew Study indicate that 58 percent of all Jews who married between 2000 and 2013 are intermarried. And maybe even more significant, interfaith marriages are on the rise. Marriages between 1990-1994 were then at 46 percent intermarriages. And only 17 percent before 1970. In 30 years, a jump of 41 percent.
All this means that many Jewish brides and grooms who want a spiritual component to their wedding ceremony also want that spirituality shared with the faith traditions of their spouse. As a rabbi who is dedicated to serving Jewish interfaith couples who want to invite God into their partnership, I have worked hard to create a wedding service that combines Jewish tradition while celebrating the faith of the non-Jewish spouse. When the wedding service includes a co-officiant, I take responsibility to initiate a discussion among all the participants so that the end result is a seamless presentation. For couples who choose a co-officiated Jewish interfaith wedding, I suggest the following:
1. Begin with the rabbi. Not all rabbis will officiate at interfaith weddings and fewer will co-officiate. Choose a rabbi who views the co-officiated service as a joy to share rather than a problem to be solved.
2. Contact the co-officiating priest or minister. (Or service leader if other than the Christian faith). If the co-officiant is a family pastor or friend, all the better. Again, choose a co-officiant who has a positive attitude.
3. Establish ceremony guidelines. As a rabbi, I ask my co-officiant to agree that the focus of the ceremony be on the one God above and that readings reflect those tenets of faith that both religions have in common.
4. Ask your co-officiants to stand side by side. This simple gesture has been one of my most successful. With a priest or minister at my side, we can model cooperation and respect and easily divide the ceremony between us rather than creating two separate ceremonies.
5. Include Jewish essentials. That means plan for the ceremony to take place under the chuppah and include the ring exchange, the Shevah Brachot (the Seven Wedding Blessings), a ketubah signing (many beautiful interfaith ketubot are now available) and the breaking of the glass.
6. Incorporate both faith traditions. Readings are a special way to highlight the faith traditions of the partner who is not Jewish. Catholic co-officiants often choose a reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians on the meaning of love. A Muslim service leader with whom I shared a Jewish Persian service chose to read poetry by Khalil Gibran, while an Irish reverend included a familiar Gaelic wedding blessing.
7. Blend traditions with family ritual items. In addition to traditional Jewish ritual items such as a family kiddush cup or bar mitzvah tallit, a Christian family Bible can be used for a special reading and the covering of the chuppah can be a piece of lace lent with love by a Christian grandmother. In a co-officiated Persian ceremony, the “sofre” table featured a menorah, along with the traditional foods. The co-officiants can highlight these items and their special meanings in their opening remarks.
8. Create a wedding progam. A co-officiated wedding may be an entirely new experience for your guests. With a wedding program in hand, guests can read explanations of the spiritual elements of the Jewish co-officiated service. I often share sample programs with my wedding couples as well as with my potential co-officiant to assure that we’re all “on the same page!”
9. Inform the families. After the couple has met with me and following my meeting with the co-officiating priest, minister or lay leader, I offer to meet (either in person or by telephone) with both sets of parents. As a rabbi I want to assure the Jewish family that the wedding will be basically Jewish, but enhanced with ritual elements from the additional faith tradition. For the family of another faith, I explain that the service will be inclusive and welcoming and that they will not feel like outsiders at their son or daughter’s wedding.
10. Meet and greet. At the ceremony’s conclusion, it is important that both officiants warmly greet both families. As a demonstration of appreciation for the opportunity to share faith traditions, I often suggest that the rabbi greet the family that is not Jewish first, while the priest or minister greet the Jewish family—a small gesture that goes a long way.