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On Becoming a Justice of the Peace

June 2006

Since May 1, 2001, I have been the director of the BRIDGES Program, an outreach program for interfaith families--a position and program that I continue to be pleased with and proud of. As of June 9, 2005, I can add something new to my résumé: I am officially a justice of the peace. How did this come about?

The process starts when someone whispers in your ear or comes right out and says to you, "I think you would make a wonderful justice of the peace!" In my case, the next thing that happened was trying to figure out how to become one. I went through a nominating committee meeting of the Democratic Party in New Canaan and then was unanimously approved by the entire committee. Finally, I was sworn in by the Town Clerk.

The larger question may be, why did I want to do this? To paraphrase Tevye , "It's simple, I know!" Any joining of two human beings, be they of the same religion or of different religions, be they a heterosexual couple or a same-sex couple, should be a celebration of love and commitment.

Through my work at BRIDGES, I know the difficulty interfaith couples can have in finding someone to marry them. There are certainly times when a couple, through discussion and compromise, will find a religious leader who speaks with them and to them. On the other hand, there are times when some of the hurdles they might be required to cross are too great for them to overcome at this point in their lives. Or perhaps a couple does not want a religious service. Either way, in conversation with parents of engaged couples I have come to realize the need for an alternative to religious union--a ceremony by a justice of the peace who will honor the love and commitment which has brought a couple to this juncture--who will help support them, respect them and, with their loved ones, honor them.

I have always looked for ways to become part of the solution and not contribute to a problem. I realize of course, that this is subjective--what I might think of as working towards a solution another might think of as compounding the problem. But, at the age of forty-seven, I understand that love and commitment are not something to be taken lightly, nor do we have the right to deprive anyone of the joys of sanctioned togetherness. I hope my friends in the community see this new role of mine as just a continuation of what I try to stand for each and every day of my life: bringing people together, in joy and peace--exactly my description of the definition of a justice of the peace.

I have performed many civil unions since becoming a justice of the peace. All are special but one of the most memorable was when I was asked to join Steve and Ron, a couple who had been together for almost thirty years, in an interfaith civil union. Ron's family is Orthodox Jewish, Steve's is Irish Catholic. In developing the ceremony, we incorporated Jewish traditions including sipping from a glass of wine (in this case grape juice), reciting the blessing, and breaking the glass--the latter being slightly modified for our purposes in that their eight-year-old grandson joined them in this. Ron and Steve took great pleasure in involving both sides of their families in the planning of the day--everything from Ron's father being the official photographer to Steve's family handling the catering. To see these families brought together in love and support was an honor. There wasn't a dry eye in the house; by the end of the ceremony, I, too had tears of joy streaming down my face on this a day of celebration of a true and lasting love, now legally sanctified.

Shalom!

Elise Klein

Elise Klein was the director of the BRIDGES Program and was the president and founder of Teachers Against Prejudice, www.teachersagainstprejudice.org, an international grassroots nonprofit founded in 2000 which uses media to explore prejudice and discrimination. An activist for civil rights, human right and equality for all, Elise Klein passed away in November 2009.

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