How I Officiate at Interfaith Marriages

By Rabbi Helen Nakdimen


I believe everyone–regardless of background and/or current beliefs–is capable of experiencing the sacred. I love choreographing and facilitating a personal ceremony that opens the bridal couple and as many of their family and friends as possible to a deeper, wider level of divinity. “I don’t care what language you use, as long as it’s meaningful to you,” is what I tell couples who come to me.

I try my best with every couple to balance honoring my ancestral Judean-Israeli heritage with the world as it is now and my own experiences of spiritual, mystical dimensions. All of these are important to me.

When a couple comes to me, I say something like: “This is where I come from and I offer you what I feel are the best of its fruits.” Then we talk about where each of them is coming from, where they’re at together in relationship to each other. Then I emphasize the community building aspect of a public wedding and we talk about which family members or friends they want to involve directly in the ceremony itself.

Since my own mystical experiences have fallen more and more outside Jewish movement boundaries of any stripe–which is not surprising to me since America is a multicultural landscape–this enables me to offer what I consider that much richer an experience to interfaith, multicultural couples. Over the years I’ve developed a wide variety of techniques to enhance people’s appreciation of their own inner lives, and I put these to particular good use in weddings, which I define as major rites of passage–natural times of intensity and change.

For years I’ve built ceremony on an ancient Jewish esoteric formula called Emesh, which is a Hebrew acrostic for the four elements–air, fire, water, earth–and which is also connected to the four Jewish Matriarchs–Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. I discovered it in a Hebrew text called Sefer Yetzira (Book of Creativity). I use it because it works to ground couples in their own reality and inspires them to work with me to create a ceremony that truly belongs to them.

I guide each couple towards choosing their own personal symbols for these four elements, and they put their symbols on a small table, which is a kind of altar underneath their chuppah/bower. By the time the wedding happens, we’ve talked about these symbols at length and it’s easy for me to explain them as part of the introductory aspect of the ceremony.

Basically, I invite everyone present to participate as sacred witnesses rather than as friendly observers. Then I tell them what the symbols are and how they came there, since not everyone can see those details from where they’re sitting in the hall, park or wherever. This talk, plus poetry in Hebrew and English, forms the first part of the ceremony.

Then we go round the table and do and say things based on the particular symbols chosen by the couple, as well as a synthesis of what I’ve gleaned about who they are–both as individuals and as a couple together. I always insist that the couple say something personal to each other as they exchange rings towards the end of the ceremony and usually give them some of my favorite poetry from a wide range of sources to get them started. We conclude with the smashed glass–interpreted variously as a method to scare away demons; a symbol of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem; a symbol of the couple’s pledge of fidelity to one another, with the broken glass meaning that no one else can drink from the cup over which they pledged fidelity; a symbol of music and the kiss that everyone loves; or as a popular Jewish tradition that they would like to follow.

Examples from weddings I’ve done for couples in which both, one, or neither were Jewish, include the following:

One couple–she Wiccan, he Jewish–had her beloved owl wing in the air place, a yahrzeit/memorial candle for his mother in the fire place, a bowl of river water from their favorite park in the water place and a potted flower to be planted in their home garden in the earth place.

Another couple–she Catholic, he Jewish–at whose ceremony I co-officiated with a priest–chose an incense censor from the church in the air place, a Unity Candle in the fire place, a Kiddush/Shabbat blessing cup with wine for the water place, and photos of their child and other family members for the earth place.

Another couple–she Jewish, he British Anglican–chose his St. Christopher medallion (patron saint of travelers) and a toy airplane in the air place, yahrzeit/memorial candles for beloved grandparents in the fire place, a double wedding cup with waterfall water from their favorite park in one side and wine in the other in the water place, and photos of their house and dog in the earth place.

The feedback I’ve treasured the most–after checking with the couple to make sure they’re happier after the ceremony than before–has been from wedding guests who’ve told me how part of it they felt and how they cried–to their surprise. It means a lot to me for the ceremony to be an experience in which people feel they’ve participated rather than a scene which they watch.

It’s simply impossible to detail all the ways in which these principles manifest in ceremony in a short article like this. Essentially, my ceremonies are more work and more play. My standard of integrity is that everyone present knows that the ceremony could only be for that particular couple and I don’t stop ’til we get there. If I have to choose one message, it’s that the Spirit loves fun and that delights me!


About Rabbi Helen Nakdimen

Rabbi Helen Nakdimen educated in Orthodox Jewish schools and college in the US and Israel prior to attending and graduating from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, PA--divides her worktime between her art-making, ceremony-building and workshop teachings. Rabbi Nakdimen's most recent synthesis--for the Art & Spirituality Center, a multicultural organization based at Tabernacle United Church in Philadelphia--is: "God is an Onion: Peeling Away the Layers to the Sacred Artist Inside."