What the Wedding Might Look Like

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I wrote a feature for the Huffington Post that was published today: What Chelsea Clinton’s Ceremony Might Look Like. It’s written to explain, to people who might not be familiar with Jewish wedding ceremony customs, what they might be seeing if the couple decides to have a Jewish wedding or incorporate elements of a Jewish wedding in their own.

I’ve been getting a lot of calls from the media about upcoming wedding. It occurred to me that the decisions Chelsea and Marc make could have a big impact on the decisions of other interfaith couples. For better or worse, what celebrities do has a lot of influence. Think how many people got interested in kabbalah because of Madonna.

If Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky were to make Jewish choices either for their wedding or after, a lot of other young interfaith couples might want to think twice and more favorably about doing the same for themselves.

This post originally appeared on www.interfaithfamily.com and is reprinted with permission.

Hillary Clinton on the Upcoming Wedding

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Thanks to Phillip Weiss for putting this story out – Hillary Clinton was interviewed by NBC Nightly News on July 18 and starting at about 14 minutes and 54 seconds into the interview, she was asked how she felt about Chelsea marrying “in an interfaith context:”

I think it says a lot about not only the two young people involved and their strong love but also their deep faith, both of them. But it says a lot about the United States, it says a lot about this wonderful experiment known as America, where we recognize the right that every single person has to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And over the years so many of the barriers that prevented people from getting married, crossing lines of faith, or color or ethnicity, have just disappeared. Because what’s important is, Are you making a responsible decision, have you thought it through, do you understand the consequences? And I think that in the world we’re living in today, we need more of that…

Other than pretty much confirming that Bill Clinton will not be officiating, Secretary Clinton didn’t disclose any more details about the wedding. When she said both Chelsea and Marc have “deep faith,” maybe that suggests a co-officiated ceremony. It remains a mystery.

This post originally appeared on www.interfaithfamily.com and is reprinted with permission.

Will Chelsea Clinton Have a Jewish Wedding… Part 3

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The media is abuzz again about Chelsea Clinton’s upcoming wedding to Marc Mezvinsky. It’s now been reported that the nuptials will take place on July 31 at Astor Courts in Rhinebeck, New York. But apparently no one in the press knows who will be officiating at the wedding.

The overall fascination with celebrities in our culture is another subject, but there certainly is incredible fascination with this wedding in the Jewish community. Back in November we had an early blog post as soon as the engagement was announced, followed by a longer post on the subject of rabbinic officiation, under the title “Chelsea Clinton may not need help finding a rabbi for her wedding, but…” The traffic to our website was the highest we’ve had in our recent history, with more than twice as many visits as our usual highest days.

Then in March, we were featured in a widely-republished Associated Press story by Rachel Zoll,  Is a Jewish Wedding Ahead for Chelsea Clinton, that was also picked up by the JTA. We decided to start a discussion board: Should Chelsea Clinton have a Jewish wedding? What kind? Who should officiate?

All of this is prelude to the latest – a long post on Sunday July 11 on Politics Daily by religion reporter David Gibson:  Will Chelsea Clinton Convert? Jews Wonder — and Ponder the Implications. The post is interesting, not because it highlights the “lively discussion” on our site, but  because Gibson, himself a Catholic, takes the occasion to provide a short review of the Jewish community’s overall response to intermarriage. He starts by saying that the usual level of interest in the issue is magnified: “Yet this being the Clintons, and the religion in question being Judaism, the interfaith angst is taking on a significance far beyond that of the usual family tsuris over such matters.” After reviewing a number of different issues, Gibson concludes that “’official Judaism’ is taking steps to adapt” and refers to “a growing body of research that indicates welcoming a non-Jewish spouse can benefit Judaism in the long run.” He quotes Rabbi Lester Frazin’s comment on our discussion board about why he changed his position and started officiating at weddings of interfaith couples: “I have found in my career that you attract more people through compassionate acceptance than obstinate refusal.” Gibson’s take on the issues is well worth reading.

There’s an interesting discussion of Gibson’s post from Rabbi Jason Miller, a Conservative rabbi I recently “met” when we were featured on a web chat hosted by the Detroit Free Press. Rabbi Miller lists a range of issues that the wedding brings up, including whether observant Conservative and Orthodox Jews won’t be able to attend a wedding on July 31, a Saturday (although we don’t know the time of the wedding, as far as I know). He also quotes Rabbi Irwin Kula for a trenchant as usual observation that “This is great article for studying just about every pathology in American Jewish life… an entire article on intermarriage and Jewish weddings all about its threat and not one sentence on the possible meaning of the ritual that might actually create meaning and value. It’s chuppah/Jewish wedding as tribal marker and intermarriage as either threat to the tribe or grudging opportunity to increase numbers. Why should Chelsea convert? To make sure we don’t lose her kids to our tribe so worried about our size!”

The title of Gibson’s post doesn’t exactly fit because there’s not much in the post about whether Chelsea Clinton will convert – a subject that we never raised. There’s more emphasis on “the idea of Jewish pride at one of the tribe finding a catch such as Chelsea Clinton” that he attributes to our friend Julie Wiener.  He quotes Samuel Heilman as saying “most American Jews will be looking for some nod to Judaism not being second class at the wedding – a chuppah, the crushing of a glass under the groom’s heel, maybe a yarmulke here or there.” But we’re still wondering – and hoping – that the couple will have decided that they want to have a Jewish wedding, with a rabbi officiating.

This post originally appeared on www.interfaithfamily.com and is reprinted with permission.

Rabbi David Gruber and Julie Wiener

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We were pleased to see our friend Julie Wiener devote her new column in the New York Jewish Week to highlighting our friend Rabbi David Gruber.

Aside from his fascinating, perhaps unique personal journey – an Orthodox trained and ordained rabbi who now officiates and co-officiates at weddings for interfaith couples – I know Rabbi Gruber is an extraordinary kind person based on my own discussions with him. I’m glad that his experience with InterfaithFamily.com’s Jewish Clergy survey
and talking with Rabbi Lev Baesh, the director of our Resource Center for Jewish Clergy, helped him develop his own practice.

You can find out more about Rabbi Gruber from his profile on our Network. And you can find out about his conversation with former President George W. Bush in an article he wrote for us just two weeks ago: Hail to the Chiefs: How I Officiated at a Wedding in the Presence of Two Presidents, and what it’s like to officiate a wedding on MTV in Lights, Camera, Mazel Tov–How I Officiated a Wedding on MTV.

This post originally appeared on www.interfaithfamily.com and is reprinted with permission.

Officiation News

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Today’s Cleveland Jewish News reports that Rabbis Richard Block and Roger Klein, from the Temple-Tifereth Israel, one of Cleveland’s largest Reform synagogues, have announced that they have changed their positions and will now officiate at weddings of interfaith couples under certain circumstances. The article reports that the rabbis will only officiate at the weddings of couples “in our congregational family” who are “committed to raising Jewish children, creating a Jewish home, and participating in the life of the community.” Rabbi Block, one of the most highly-regarded Reform rabbis in the country, reportedly said that the couple should commit to joining and maintaining membership in a synagogue, and that he will ask interfaith couples to take an introduction to Judaism course; he will not insist that the non-Jewish partner consider conversion, but will “urge them to do so.”

The timing of this announcement is interesting — the Reform rabbis’ association, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), is meeting in San Francisco March 7 – 10, and prominent on its agenda is the release of a report from its Task Force on Intermarriage. The CCAR’s last resolution on officiation, dating from 1973, disapproves of the practice. We had hoped that the CCAR would approve a new resolution changing that position, but word is that the no new resolution is forthcoming.

I do sense that more and more Reform rabbis are changing their position in favor of officiation. For example, we re-published an important article by Rabbi Daniel Zemel, another very highly-regarded rabbi, from Temple Micah in Washington DC explaining his reasons for making that change.

But officiation remains a challenging issue. The January 2010 bulletin of Temple Sinai in Rochester New York reports that their junior rabbi, Amy Sapowith, decided that she would officiate at weddings of interfaith couples. Her senior rabbi, Alan Katz, does not officiate, but supported her decision to do so. Rochester has a Board of Rabbis which does not allow its members to officiate; when Rabbi Sapowith announced her change, the Board asked her to resign. Rabbi Katz then voluntarily resigned from the Board of Rabbis.

InterfaithFamily.com’s Resource Center for Jewish Clergy has been working to help rabbis address the officiation question. We’ve held workshops for clergy in Boston (May 2008) and Philadelphia (February 2009) and have another coming in Atlanta on March 15, 2010. At each of the first two workshops, experienced rabbis told us that it was their first opportunity to have a meaningful discussion of the issue.

InterfaithFamily.com is exhibiting at the CCAR convention, so we’ll blog about the Task Force report when it comes out.

This post originally appeared on www.interfaithfamily.com and is reprinted with permission.

Chelsea Clinton May Not Need Help Finding a Rabbi for Her Wedding, But…

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Chelsea Clinton’s engagement to Marc Mezvinsky is big news; Ruth Abrams’ blog post here yesterday was picked up by the Atlantic’s blog, the Atlantic Wire.

Ruth said it would be interesting to see how the famous couple handles the interfaith aspects of their relationship. One aspect of that of course is whether they will want to have a rabbi officiate, or co-officiate with other clergy, at their wedding.

One blogger speculated that Mezvinsky is affiliated with the Conservative movement based on the couple’s attendance at High Holiday services at the Jewish Theological Seminary. If the couple do want to have a rabbi officiate at their wedding, Conservative rabbis aren’t allowed to do so; they’ll have to look elsewhere.

I’m sure that such a well-connected couple should not have any trouble finding a rabbi. But that isn’t the case for everyone. One of the most important services InterfaithFamily.com provides is our Jewish Clergy Officiation Referral Service. So far this year, we’ve responded to 1,135 inquiries from couples all over the country asking for help to find a rabbi or cantor to officiate or co-officiate at their wedding. (In fact, we’re running a “promotion” right now – couples who request a referral are eligible for a drawing for a $500 gift card – that’s quite an engagement present!)

If it were easy for couples to find Jewish clergy for their weddings, we wouldn’t be experiencing demand for our service. We’d actually be glad if, some day, our service was no longer necessary. But officiation is still controversial among rabbis, so we don’t see that happening any time soon.

The reason we offer our referral service is simple. Recent research confirms that the negative experience many interfaith couples have seeking Jewish clergy to officiate at their weddings is a “huge turnoff” (Intermarriage and Jewish Journeys, National Center for Jewish Policy Studies 2008). Through our officiation referral service, and our work with rabbis, we hope to make that experience one that leads to more Jewish engagement, not less.

So if Chelsea and Marc do want to have a rabbi participate in their wedding, we hope their experience is positive, and we hope it leads to more Jewish engagement – we think Chelsea Clinton would be a great addition to the Jewish community in whatever way she chooses to participate. And the former President and the Secretary of State wouldn’t be too shabby as grandparents for Jewish grandchildren, if that’s the direction the couple decides to take.

And if by any chance they would like help finding a rabbi for their wedding, we have some great ones on our list, both in New York, and ones who travel to Martha’s Vineyard too.

This post originally appeared on www.interfaithfamily.com and is reprinted with permission.

Birthright Israel, Jewish Wedding Ceremonies, and Jewish Commitment

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Tucked away in the new Birthright Israel study released yesterday by the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis is a very important discussion about Jewish wedding ceremonies and Jewish commitment among intermarried couples. (I discussed the main findings of the study in a separate post.)

The study authors write:

“Marrying a Jewish person is not the only measure of Jewish commitment. Although such a commitment is difficult to assess, the nature of the wedding ceremony is an additional indicator of Jewish commitment, particularly for intermarried couples. Although not a perfect predictor of future choices, decisions about officiation and wedding rituals provide a window into the place of Jewishness in the lives of these individuals.”

Of intermarried respondents in the study, about half had no clergy, Jewish or otherwise, at their wedding. But among those who had religious officiants, “an estimated 65% made an unambiguously Jewish choice by having a rabbi or cantor alone officiate.” Moreover, at weddings of interfaith couples with a rabbi present, 93% had both a huppah and a ketubah, and another 4% had one or the other.

The authors conclude: “When intermarried participants who chose a Jewish wedding ceremony are added, figuratively, to those who married a Jewish person, the overall propensity for ���marrying Jewishly’ increase to include the vast majority of married [Birthright Israel trip] participants.” Participants had a 72% chance of marrying a Jew, and those who married a non-Jew had a 31% chance of being married by a rabbi alone. “Consequently, participants had a very high likelihood of being married in circumstances where Jewish identity was predominant.”

The likelihood of a non-trip participant being married in circumstances where Jewish identity is preeminent were lower, but not insubstantial – they had a 46% chance of being married to a Jew, and those who married a non-Jew had a 34% chance of being married by a rabbi alone.

These findings are very heartening to us at InterfaithFamily.com. In early 2008 the first studies appeared that showed a correlation between having a rabbi officiate at interfaith couples’ weddings and their later Jewish engagement. But I’ve never seen a study that acknowledges and recognizes that the nature of the wedding ceremony and of wedding officiation in particular is an indicator of Jewish commitment for intermarried couples.

One of IFF’s important activities is our Jewish Clergy Officiation Referral Service. We offer a free, high quality referral service to a list of over 325 vetted rabbis and cantors and we are responding to 100 requests for help a month from all over North America (and a few beyond). Coincidentally, at the same time the Birthright Israel study was released, we sent out one of our routine feedback requests. Here are two of the responses we received yesterday:

“Unfortunately, we had no success in finding someone willing to participate in our son’s wedding. Our daughter will say Hebrew prayers during the ceremony. I understand a rabbi’s feeling of not wanting to participate, but I am saddened to see our son pushed away from our family’s religion.”

“I wanted to take this opportunity to say thank you for helping me find a rabbi to officiate our ceremony. We had our wedding at the end of July and thanks to the help from your site, it was a wonderful day.”

Another of IFF’s activities is our Resource Center for Jewish Clergy, which helps rabbis and cantors address questions arising from intermarriage, including – but not limited to – the question of officiation. The RCJC offers “for clergy only” articles and videos, clergy conference/workshops, and one-on-one consultations.

IFF wants to support all rabbis who are welcoming to interfaith couples whether or not they officiate at their weddings. We respect rabbis’ decisions and would never say that the decision not to officiate is wrong. But the purpose of our Jewish Clergy Officiation Referral Service and in part of our Resource Center for Jewish Clergy is to minimize if not eliminate the “turnoff” experience that many couples report when seeking Jewish clergy to officiate. We find a good deal of validation of our approach in the new Birthright Israel study, and applaud the study authors for reporting on the significance of wedding ceremonies where Jewish identity if predominant.

This post originally appeared on www.interfaithfamily.com and is reprinted with permission.

The Associated Press and Officiation

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Associated Press religion writer Rachel Zoll recently wrote an article about
the difficulties interfaith couples can face trying to find a rabbi to
officiate at their wedding. She gives examples of rabbis whose status as
rabbis is questionable, who do not respect Jewish tradition in the weddings
they conduct, and who charge unreasonable fees for their services.

Rabbi Lev Baesh and I were interviewed and photographed for the article. We
told her that there is a trend for more and more legitimate and respected
rabbis who do respect Jewish tradition to officiate at intermarriages
without charging unreasonable fees.

In a sidebar to the main article, Zoll wrote the following Tips for Interfaith Couples:

Jewish groups are trying to help interfaith couples avoid the anxiety and potential risks of searching on the Web to find someone who will marry them.

Interfaithfamily.com, an advocacy and education group based in Newton, Mass., has hired Reform Rabbi Lev Baesh to start a free referral service for mixed-faith couples planning their weddings. Baesh also checks up on couples six months after they marry to see how they’re faring.

Unfortunately, very few publications picked up and ran the Tips, and worse, some publications ran the photograph of Rabbi Baesh and me with the article and without the Tips, leaving readers to assume that we are associated with the unscrupulous rabbis described in the article itself.

InterfaithFamily.com would like interfaith couples and their relatives and friends who read Zoll’s article to know that there are respected rabbis who officiate, and that our Jewish Clergy Officiation Referral Service is a way to find them.

This post originally appeared on www.interfaithfamily.com and is reprinted with permission.

An Unnoticed Outreach Hero

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Rabbi Abraham J. Klausner died on June 28. The obituaries in the Jewish press, including JTA and the Jerusalem Post, described how Rabbi Klausner, the leader of a Reform synagogue in Yonkers, N.Y., for 25 years, was the first Jewish chaplain in the US Army to enter Dachau and had been a leading advocate for Holocaust survivors. The New York Times obituary tells that story too, with quotes from Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, that Rabbi Klausner was “the father figure” for more than 30,000 survivors found at Dachau, and was instrumental in improving conditions in the displaced persons camps after the war. But the Times tells one more story about Rabbi Klausner that the Jewish press didn’t mention.

In 1986, Rabbi Klausner wrote a book titled Weddings: A Complete Guide to All Religious and Interfaith Marriage Services. The book, though out of print, is still available from online sources. it contains texts for wedding services from many religious traditions with suggestions for combining texts of different faiths.

The Times notes:

For Rabbi Klausner, refusing to marry interfaith couples was a mistake. “It’s a very traumatic experience to have a clergyman reject your judgment,” he told The New York Times in 1989. “I don’t think this is the role of religion, which should be to heal and help.”

I don’t know why the JTA and Jerusalem Post didn’t mention Rabbi Klausner’s stance on rabbinic officiation at intermarriages in their obituaries. I think it was a lost opportunity to show that such an obviously wonderful Jewish hero was willing to take a stance on what remains, over 20 years later, a divisive issue.

Coincidentally, Rabbi Lev Baesh starts work today as InterfaithFamily.com’s first Rabbinic Circle Director. Part of his work will be to create resources for intermarrying couples and the rabbis who work with them. We’ll explore whether we can incorporate some of Rabbi Klausner’s work, or possibly reprint it, as part of that effort–an idea for which we thank our friend Rabbi David Kudan.

This post originally appeared on www.interfaithfamily.com and is reprinted with permission.