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The Promise

One wedding. Two proposals.

My wife Breena and I became engaged beside an ocean cliff on a breezy Memorial Day afternoon in 2001. By the Fourth of July, the wedding plans were set. A cancellation at a stylish New Hampshire inn that was large enough to hold our expected guests, some flexibility on our part on the date, and we had a place to be wed. Our favorite local blues band was available that night and agreed to make the trip. She took charge of the menu. My job was to find a rabbi to perform the ceremony.

Ken Gordon's Family
Breena, Brandon and Ken Gordon

I was raised a Reform Jew. While I had not been affiliated with a congregation for more than 10 years, I still identified with my faith, and considered it a part of my identity and culture. Breena was brought up a New England Yankee, with deference to Christianity, but with no attention to denomination. She was raised in a home of liberal thinkers, who considered their five children's religion, like their politics and fashion, to be topics of personal choice for them as adults. They didn't see religion as something parents imposed on children from birth.

While my bride's family considered the marriage of one New Englander to another to present no conflict, spiritually or otherwise, we knew that in the eyes of my religion, our union would involve two faiths. Locating a rabbi to perform an interfaith ceremony posed a challenge.

Our first call was to Rabbi Jeffrey Glickman of Temple Beth Hillel in South Windsor, Conn. He did not immediately dismiss the idea of performing our ceremony. He invited us to his synagogue, where we could discuss the matter. If nothing else, he offered a little lox and a few bagels to entice us to make the trip.

He quickly got down to business. "I'll do the ceremony," he told us, "but not without condition." He wrote a list of some eight items to which we were required to agree. We must light Shabbat candles for two straight months. Agreed. We must read certain portions of Torah with him, and meet with a local rabbi to discuss family issues. No problem.

Then came the proposal that affected our marriage, if not the ceremony: "I will do it," he said, "on the condition that you affiliate with a congregation for at least one year, and that Breena complete a 16-week course in Jewish studies." I pulled myself back, and the rabbi aside.

I could not abide by the final two conditions. I told him that if and when we decided to affiliate with a congregation, it would be because we freely chose to do so, not to satisfy a condition to our wedding ceremony. I told him that if my soon-to-be wife enrolled in a Jewish studies course, it would be because of her interest in my religion and culture, not to satisfy a deal.

"Those are my terms," he said. "They're always my terms. That's what I do." I relented.

Before I could break the news to her, Breena returned to the table. "When and where do I start the course?" she said. "He's right, you know. If we are going to raise a Jewish child, I want to know what my child will be learning first."

It was a good time to pay attention to my bagel. I recognized was in the presence of wisdom, even if I did not yet absorb it. We joined Temple Isaiah in Lexington, Mass., the next week.

We were married that October. Our promise to join a synagogue for one year has been renewed seven times. Five years ago, we were blessed with a healthy baby boy. He looks forward to attending "Tot Shabbat" once each month, and sings all the words to "Bim Bim Bam" for his Jewish grandmother. He loves his Jewish pre-school class that has met once each week for the last two and a half years, vacations and summers excluded.

The longer we remained affiliated with our synagogue, the more reasons we found to stay. At first, we were somewhat of a curiosity among fellow congregants. Reluctant to become involved, we largely kept to ourselves, as though we were just passing through, just keeping a promise to a rabbi.

But we stayed long enough to get a taste for a new type of Reform Judaism that had eluded me during my childhood. A recent sermon at Temple Isaiah characterized Reform Judaism as an adult's religion, one that could not be truly comprehended or appreciated by an immature mind, despite years of Sunday school. Were it not for a promise grudgingly kept, I would have retained that juvenile misperception. Our curiosity led us to learn more about this open-minded brand of Judaism, and to find a rekindled appreciation for its teachings.

A little at a time, we began to fit in with the congregation. We at first attended, and then assisted, with Tot Shabbat. My wife, a former caterer, has assisted with some culinary projects, and plans do to more. She has become so comfortable with the temple community that the few congregants who know ours is a mixed marriage probably believe my wife is the Jewish one.

And what of the 16-week classroom commitment? Breena and I attended the course together, and learned about a culture that has been part of my life, and would soon be part of hers. We studied Torah anew. We dissected passages, and analyzed complexities in the text. None of that would have occurred if we had not satisfied a promise.

Back when we were planning our wedding, Rabbi Glickman acted out of his sense of confidence and pride in his faith. If we were interested enough to ask a rabbi to officiate our ceremony, we should be interested enough to learn more about Judaism in return. What started as a request to officiate a wedding--a request that many rabbis would have turned down–-resulted in an opportunity to bring two people into the Jewish faith. All that had to be done was obtain a promise they'd walk through the door.

Challenged by my initial refusal to accept the proposal, Rabbi Glickman explained his reasoning. "I don't care how I get you there," he told me that day. "But I know that once you arrive, I won't have to keep you. You'll stay."

We're still here.

Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.
Ken Gordon

Ken Gordon is an attorney practicing in Boston. Before he became a member of the bar, he was a journalist for 10 years with the Boston Globe and other publications.

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