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When a couple from my congregation makes some time to speak with me about the possibility of officiating at their wedding, I … ah well…
First, let me take a few moments to see if I can remember the handful of times this has actually occurred during my 14 years as a rabbi. In my current rabbinate I officiate at an average of 10 weddings a year. Maybe one a year is for those who are members (or related to members) of the synagogue. In the vast majority of cases, when the couple came to meet me they had no connection to my synagogue. So most of the time, when I meet with couples about their wedding it is for the first time.
My reasons for officiating at unaffiliated couples' range from the ideological--I am a rabbi to serve the Jewish people--to the practical--it can be a helpful supplement to my current income--to the personal--I genuine enjoy and derive great satisfaction from the process of officiating at weddings. But there is another underlying reason, one that encompasses the ideological, the practical and the personal.
When I first arrived at my current pulpit five years ago, I told prospective couples that if you want me to marry you, you should join the synagogue. I thought I would be growing the community. Instead, I was creating scenarios where the couples and the synagogue were forced into a shidduch that was disingenuous and in most cases destined to fail.
When couples come to me to talk about officiating at their wedding, generally they are not members of synagogues, nor are they on the cusp of synagogue membership. Until they have children and the children reach an age that the parents feel obligated to do something about religion, they are unlikely to consider membership. Moreover, my synagogue does not and probably will not develop some kind of program or outreach that will effectively change this phenomenon.
Therefore, I see officiating at these couples' weddings as laying the cornerstone for my synagogue community down the road. They are not yet ready to join a congregation, but when they are, they will have an already established relationship with me.
Once we have decided that I will officiate at their wedding, I offer couples the choice of how to deal with remuneration for my time. They have the choice of making the commitment to the synagogue and becoming members--for which a "benefit" of membership is the rabbi’s participation at life cycle events. Or, they make choose to pay an honorarium to me.
So, I do not give them a hard sell on synagogue membership. I do not want them to join if either they are not ready to affiliate at this point in their family’s life or if my synagogue is not the right fit for them. After all, the commitment to become a member is much more significant in terms of time, energy and financial resources. If they are not up to the commitment, it becomes a burden on them and on the synagogue.
This conversation is the only difference between my experiences with these two sets of couples. Once the process begins preparing for the wedding, there is no distinction. I spend the same amount of time and energy on both. Ultimately my role helps the couple to recognize and acknowledge the divine aspect of their covenant with one another. That work transcends qualifications like affiliated or unaffiliated.