Category Archives: Marriage

Bar Mitzvah Preparation for the Learning Disabled Child of an Interfaith Family

Rabbi Steven Lebow

Temple Kol Emeth 


Bar Mitzvah Preparation for the Learning Disabled Child of an Interfaith Family


The first time I heard Michael Graner read Hebrew I knew I was in for trouble.

 As a congregational rabbi it is my job to make sure that every child is adequately prepared for the bar/bat mitzvah.

Bar/Bat Mitzvah tutoring is not the most prestigious or glamorous part of my job. Nevertheless, I pride myself on being sure that every child can read the Torah blessings and Parsha (Torah portion) fluently.

When Michael came to my office that fall to have his Hebrew fluency evaluated I had no reason to expect that he would be any different from my other students. I had observed Michael during Mid-week Hebrew over the years and I remembered him as a normal, boisterous twelve year old.

“Go ahead and read the Torah blessings,” I said to him.

“O.K.,” he said. “Rabku at Edonee…” He stopped and looked up sheepishly.

“What?” I said. “Read it again.” It was late in the afternoon and I assumed that fatigue was affecting my hearing.

“Rabku at Edonee,” he read once more.

I winced at Michael’s mispronunciations and seeming disregard for the Hebrew vowels and even its consonants.

“No,” I said gently. “The first word of the Torah blessing is ‘Barchu’, not Rabku. You’re reading it backwards. Try it again.”

“O.K.,” Michael said agreeably. “Rabku at Edonee Haboregard…”

We were in deep trouble. Michael had been in Hebrew School for three years and had somehow managed to escape learning any Hebrew. In truth, he seemed to know some Hebrew, but he persisted in confusing one Hebrew consonant for another.

It was now October and his Bar Mitzvah service was seven months away. Faced with the almost insurmountable task of teaching Hebrew to Michael in seven months I took a deep breath.

“Try it again,” I said to Michael.

It was going to be a long afternoon.

For a moment I began to wonder why I had never applied to law school…

To add one more wrinkle was the fact that Michael came from an interfaith family who desperately wanted him to have a Bar Mitzvah but who lacked any ability to reinforce Michael’s Hebrew studies at home.

“Rabbi,” said Michael’s mom, “I’m not from a Jewish background, so I can’t really help him prepare for his Hebrew studies.”

“We know he can’t read Hebrew well, if at all,” said his father, but I’ve already forgotten most of the Hebrew I learned thirty years ago when I had my bar mitzvah.”

“What should we do?” the mother asked me.

“Well,” I suggested, “We could arrange for a private tutor for him.”

“Rabbi,” said the mom, “It’s expensive to be Jewish. We would hire a tutor for him, but our budget is already stretched tight.”

“If it were for summer camp,” said his Methodist mother, “I could probably get my parents to chip in and help with the expenses. But my parents are Protestant and they have no clue about the importance of this day in Michael’s life!”

“Rabbi, we know how important it is for interfaith families to affirm their child’s Jewish identity. But we just can’t afford the additional Hebrew tutoring. What should we do?”

“Oh,” I said. “Well, in that case, I will tutor Michael privately, at no charge.”

“”How hard could it be?” I wondered to myself.

Two months went by, very slowly. His reading of the Torah blessings was still deeply flawed. Close, as they say, but no cigar.

Michael’s Torah and Haftarah portions were in even worse shape. Michael could barely make his way through the first couple of words. How would he ever learn his parsha? How would I ever be able to train him to read directly from the Torah?

I honestly did not know how to teach Hebrew to someone who learned differently.

Law School was looking better all the time.

That October I had lunch with a friend who is an educational consultant. I described my frustration over Michael’s inability to grasp Hebrew.

“He’s obviously got Dyslexia or some kind of Language Processing Disorder,” she said.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“You know,” she said to me. “His brain is not processing language in the way same way that you or I do. He’s probably very bright,” she said. “But he’s got to learn a language in a different way.”

“Put the Torah blessings on YouTube, and let him listen to them over and over. Have him write the Hebrew out phonetically in English. See if that helps jumpstart him.

“He’ll get it eventually,” The consultant said to me. “He is going to learn the parsha a little differently than other kids. Just have faith.”

I went home that afternoon thinking about learning disabilities and wondering what else I didn’t know about teaching Hebrew. The weeks went by and I tried new techniques every week.

I posted the blessings on line and made Michael listen to them every day. I recorded a sound file of his parsha and downloaded it to his iPod. Michael listened to the sound files every single day, as if they were the newest lectures from Tony Robbins or some other motivational speaker! I taught Michael to recognize syllables, instead of just words. I had Michael whisper the prayers and then I experimented with having him shout them at the top of his voice.

I tried at every Hebrew lesson to have faith in Michael. And even on the days that he faltered and failed to recognize any of the Hebrew I tried to just put my faith in, well, You-Know-Who..

Keep trying,” I told him as we were struggling with the Torah portion one day. “Never give up,” I said to him. “Never give in.”

A month later when he learned to sing the Torah Trope Michael’s face brightened. My educational consultant had suggested that this might happen. Some kids with learning disabilities do better when they sing, than when they read.

“Go and figure,” I said to myself. “I’m a congregational rabbi, not a neuropsychologist!”

One day in February Michael walked into my office. He opened his siddur and without a word of introduction he sang in a clear voice “Barchu et Adonai…”

“What?” I asked incredulously.

He then again repeated the Torah blessing fluently and without a mistake. Just like that. One week he couldn’t do it and then the next week he did it flawlessly. Michael had gone from not knowing it to getting it. I couldn’t credit my inspired teaching or even the advice from the consultant I had used. It was almost as if a miracle had happened.

“How did you finally learn it?” I asked Michael.

“I just practiced like you told me,” he replied. And then Michael looked down and began to chant the “V’ahavta”.

A few months after that Michael came to the bima and chanted the entire service effortlessly. He then chanted his aliyot, without a mistake. Only a few people in the room could truly know what a triumph that moment must have felt like for Michael.

Of course Michael’s Jewish grandparents were moved by the bar mitzvah of their grandson. But even Michael’s Methodist grandparents were touched by the importance of Jewish values their daughter had helped give their grandson.

I learned many lessons from tutoring Michael that year.

Learning disabled kids are just like other kids. They need help and they need love. And interfaith families are the same as all Jewish families. They need to know that their rabbi will support them in what can be the difficult task of raising Jewish children when one parent isn’t Jewish.

As Michael was chanting his haftarah I caught a glimpse of his parents, their faces bathed in pride. I looked away, my own eyes starting to mist. We were watching a young boy begin the long odyssey from ignorance to literacy, from confusion to commitment.

Watching Michael that day I marveled at the strength that God gives us to overcome whatever flaws or deficits we may have. Having conquered his inability to read Hebrew, Michael was now over the hump.

I guess I was, too.

The legal profession was safe from me, at least for the time being. The rabbinate had suddenly become fulfilling again.


Rosh Hashanah Sermon 2011 – 5772

Rabbi Yoni Jaffe, Congregation Emanu‐El


In my final months of high school, my parents became increasingly afraid that I would one day marry my best friend. Let’s call her Lisa. That’s not to say they didn’t like Lisa. She was incredibly kind, generous, a straight A student; all of the things a parent would wish for their child. But as you might have guessed, Lisa was not Jewish. The great grand‐daughter of Protestant missionaries, Lisa’s family had two Christmas trees.

While Lisa and I were only friends, I bristled at the idea that my parents would reject even the notion of such a relationship. After all, they had left the Jewish community of Chicago to pursue careers and raise a family in the non‐Jewish wilderness of Honolulu. And though they did everything they could to imbue my sister and I with a love of Judaism, the question still nagged at me: How could my parents make the process of assimilation rather easy and then react so sharply when they encountered even the slightest chance of my acting upon it?

Later, I realized that I was not alone in this question. As we well know, post war American Jews made it their mission to assimilate into American culture. The melting pot theory dictated that one leave their Yiddish and European ways at the door. Identifying Jewish marks such a kippah, tallis or even a beard were removed. Meanwhile, American Jews entered into previously unchartered cultural territory. They flooded universities once kept out of reach through the quota system. They entered non‐Jewish suburbs and preached the virtues of public schools as the great social equalizer. All barriers and distinctions between Jews and Christian America were removed.

As anti‐Semitism dissipated, a funny thing happened. The children of these Jewish assimilationists began to marry their newfound neighbors. Only 60 years ago, less than 10% of American Jews were intermarried. By 1990, the National Jewish Population Survey reported that over half of American Jews were married to non‐Jews. In highly assimilated communities such as Marin, that number now reaches 75%. To this, the elder statesmen of the Jewish community wring their hands and frown upon their subsequent generations. To which we may respond – what exactly did you think would happen? If you raise us to look, act and feel like other Americans, then of course we will eventually fall in love and create families with them. It is as if you sent us to swim school, equipped us with goggles, snorkels and flippers and are then shocked and dismayed to see us jump into the water.

The issue of intermarriage is nothing new. Yet the Torah offers at best a mixed perspective on the matter. Our patriarch Abraham instructs his servant, Eliezer, to avoid selecting a wife for his son Isaac from the surrounding Canaanites. A generation later, Isaac’s wife Rebecca insists that her son Jacob not marry from the “daughters of the land”. And yet when Abraham’s grandson Joseph happily marries an Egyptian wife, her foreignness is not an issue. Moses, the greatest prophet of all, marries the daughter of a foreign priest. When his sister, Miriam, publicly criticizes Moses for his choice, God forcefully rebukes and punishes her.

This evening, I would like to consider how we may transform the reality of intermarriage into a blessing for the 21st century Jewish community. No, I am not encouraging intermarriage; but this issue need not be cast as the threat it is often made out to be. And since intermarriage is a fact and is here to stay, we ought to figure out how to incorporate or even benefit from this newfound reality.

Let us begin by observing that the high rate of intermarriage is a sign of the amazing success of our past generations’ mission to assimilate and to therefore ensure equality and opportunity for the Jews of today. The fact is, the average American considers a Jew to be an “up” marriage ‐ they like the idea of marrying and spending their life with a Jew. We are considered to be hard working, intelligent, educated and decent parents. As this is directly related to the assimilatory efforts of our earlier generations, the only way to dramatically reduce the rate of intermarriage would be to weaken this positive view. So unless you are hoping for an anti‐Semitic resurgence, you should probably get used to high rates of intermarriage. Take it as a compliment.

Nevertheless, intermarriage clearly poses a threat to Jewish continuity. Those refusing to officiate at intermarriage ceremonies often cite research showing that up to 90% of the children of intermarriage will intermarry themselves. The children of intermarried couples overall demonstrate lower rates of affiliation and expressions of Jewish identity. For a small and shrinking population of Jewish Americans, this should give us great pause when we consider such a sensitive issue. Rabbi Eddie Feinstein astutely summarizes this view when we writes, “If you love Shabbat candles and Passover seders, building a sukkah and lighting the Hanukkah menorah, going to the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah; if you love hamantaschen, latkes, fried matzah, apples and honey, if you think about the Holocaust, about Israel, about Torah, wouldn’t you be happier spending your life with someone who shared all this with you?”

But at the same time, I believe that we do ourselves great damage when we hasten to write off the hundreds of thousands of descendents of intermarriage who think of themselves as Jewish or at least have the potential to do so. Furthermore, I believe that the low affiliation rate of intermarried couples is at least somewhat due to the frigid response often delivered by the Jewish community. What would the numbers look like if we developed a welcoming and encouraging posture towards interfaith couples?

Let us consider two narratives. Adam and Cristina meet with the rabbi, who explains that he simply cannot marry a Jew to a non‐Jew. Yes, he will happily marry two atheist Jews so long as their mothers are both Jewish. But a marriage between a Jew and a supportive non‐Jew is prohibited by Jewish law and therefore cannot be blessed as anything holy. Cristina is hurt and Adam ashamed that the rabbi does not deem them to be worthy of his blessing. Years later, this anger and resentment remains and Adam drifts away from the Jewish establishment which rejected him and his bride. Adam and Cristina raise their children as secular citizens or within Cristina’s religious community, sheltering them from the Jewish establishment that rejected their parents. I would surmise to say that many of us have family members who can identify with this story.

Now consider an alternate path. Adam and Cristina meet with the rabbi, who explains that a Jewish wedding is a celebration of the creation of a Jewish home. While Cristina is not ready to convert, she agrees that children thrive in a home united by a single religion and so agrees to build and sustain a Jewish household. The rabbi invites Adam and Cristina to take the year long introduction to Judaism class together, so that they may explore and discuss primary issues of Jewish religion and culture. They are guided through discussions regarding raising their children, Jewish education and how ritual and the Jewish calendar will exist in their home. On the day of their wedding, both Adam and Cristina understand and honor the symbols of the chuppah and the breaking of the glass. They embark on a life together with a deep appreciation for Jewish custom and a shared understanding of what part it will play in their lives. A month after the wedding, the rabbi invites the couple to discuss how they can be best served by the synagogue and incorporated into the Jewish community.

I believe such an approach presents a game changer and carries the possibility of significantly lifting the affiliation rates cited earlier. Through this example, I am urging us to reframe the discussion from how to limit intermarriage to how to best welcome and incorporate a spouse who is not Jewish into Jewish life and therefore sustain the Jewish home.

Already, the supportive non‐Jewish spouse plays a pivotal role in the Jewish community. Karen Kushner, chief education officer of (and wife of our own scholar in residence Rabbi Larry Kushner) uses the term “common law Jews” for those non‐Jewish spouses who support and sustain Jewish households. Here at Congregation Emanu‐El, I come into contact with many common law Jews. We are blessed by their presence here today. You are the non‐Jewish spouse who regularly brings your kids to religious school. You are the non‐Jewish spouse who encourages your Jewish partner to light Shabbat candles. You are the non‐Jewish spouse who finds comfort and support mourning for family members through Jewish ritual. You are the non‐Jewish spouse who carefully prepares food for your Passover Seder and perhaps even brings your ambivalent Jewish partner to Erev Rosh Hashanah services.

This evening, thousands of Jews throughout San Francisco are at home, still at work, maybe at the gym or the movies. Either way, they are not here. And yet tonight, hundreds of you non‐Jewish partners and spouses join us. You are here to support and be supported by the Jewish community. You are here for your partners and your families and for yourselves. Let me say something which you ought to hear from the Jewish community more often: Thank you. We really appreciate all that you do. You bless us with your presence and make us all into better Jews.

In researching the effect of supportive non‐Jewish spouses, UC Davis Professor Ari Kelman comes to a surprising conclusion: A weakly connected Jew is actually more likely to participate in the Jewish community by marrying a supportive non‐Jew rather than a fellow ambivalent Jew. Let me say that again – A person who is only ambivalently Jewish is actually more likely to raise their kids as Jews by marrying a supportive non‐Jewish partner than someone like themselves.

If you think about it, this makes sense. The curious spouse brings all sorts of questions to their partner. What is Passover? Why are some foods kosher? Why do we fast on Yom Kippur? The Jewish partner is forced to revisit issues long ago forgotten and to encounter Judaism on an adult level for the first time.

They are often embarrassed by their own ignorance and inspired to learn more about their heritage. This is not a curse but rather the blessing of intermarriage. The fact is, marrying Jews to other Jews alone doesn’t produce Jews. Jewish experience is the key, not Jewish lineage. And there is nothing to say that a non‐Jew cannot play a crucial role in this process.

Just last week, I asked my 8th grade class the following question – “who here believes it is important to marry someone Jewish?” Out of 40 students, not a single one agreed. I then asked, “Who here intends to raise their children as Jews?” Every single one agreed. Now you may simply call these students naïve. But remember that a majority of them are being raised themselves in interfaith households. And yet they are choosing to continue their Jewish education post‐bar and bat mitzvah. Their mere presence illustrates the fact that Jewish experience is not necessarily bound to Jewish lineage.

On the other hand, from time to time, I encounter interfaith families who choose to raise their children under dual religions, with the hope that one day the child will decide which one to follow. In this case, what sounds like a good idea can often turn into the projection of an unresolved argument onto the child. Ultimately, choosing a single religion may become akin to choosing the parent who subscribes to it. And if the child ultimately refuses to decide, they lose both religions, because to admire all religions is to lack a claim or identity with any religion. We must tread carefully in such situations.

It is for this reason that our clergy here at Emanu‐El adhere to a basic policy regarding intermarriage. We are honored to officiate over interfaith weddings, given that the bride and groom do three things. They must commit to creating a uniquely Jewish household. They must both take our nine month introduction to Judaism course. They must raise and educate their children uniquely as Jews. Thus we hope to welcome and embrace our interfaith families while at the same time protecting the continuity of the Jewish people. No, this system is not perfect, but I have yet to encounter another which so effectively answers these dual goals.

I have a second message beyond mere praise for the non‐Jewish members of this community. Please understand that Jewish custom surrounding proselytizing and conversion are based upon 2,000 years of anti‐Semitism and political powerlessness. The notion that we could be considered an “up” marriage was unthinkable until only very recently. Conversion to Judaism meant giving up one’s political and civil rights. And so we have built a societal habit of downplaying and even dissuading conversion. But as we no longer live in this world, tonight I say to you the opposite – as we enter into a new year, full of promise and opportunity, perhaps it is time that you think about formally becoming a Jew. Many of you have been trying on Judaism for so long – and it clearly fits you so well. Maybe it’s time to make public and certain what has clearly evolved over years of personal practice.

If this prospect intrigues you, I invite you to speak with me or any of my colleagues and to sign up for our introduction to Judaism course, which begins after Yom Kippur. Join Rabbi Bauer’s conversion discussion group, also beginning in a few weeks.

Despite all I have said, many of you might be surprised to hear that many non‐Jews attend RH services here at Emanu‐El. We as a Jewish community often make the mistake of assuming our own communal homogeneity. But this is clearly not the case. Professor Marc Dollinger, head of the Jewish Studies Department of San Francisco State University was recently posed the question: What percentage of American Jewish families qualify as traditional, which he defined as two heterosexual parents, both in their first marriage, both born Jewish, with children, who are not adopted. This family serves as the mythical target audience for Jewish policy and institutions even to this day. The answer: five percent. We cling to a mythical ideal of Jewish identity for which 19 out of 20 of us fail to qualify. The sooner we dismiss this idea, the better we will properly understand our constituency and effectively embrace the many non‐Jews who support and nourish us every day.

Tonight, I put myself in my parents’ shoes. How would I respond if one of my children were to consider marrying a non Jew? As a parent I would largely worry about continuity. It’s not that I think that people from other religions make for worse spouses. It’s that I worry that my grandchildren won’t inherit the precious gift with which we were bestowed; a gift which survived the fires of Auschwitz and expulsion from Spain – that I would become the broken link in this valuable chain of tradition.

As an active Jew, I see the world through Jewish eyes. My sense of time beats to the rhythm of the Jewish calendar. I relate to the world in terms of mitzvot and the ideal of tikkun olam. I fear that my grandchild or even my child might not feel the same connection to Judaism and that we may become distant because of it. That I one day will invite my granddaughter to Passover Seder and she will ask me what it is. I am terrified by this prospect.

At the same time, I realize that my child’s future partner does not have to be Jewish in order to share and contribute to this tradition. That an interested, participative non‐Jew can play a significant role in the creation of a Jewish home. That there is no one set model for the Jewish family.

Most of all, I believe in Judaism and refuse to subscribe to our image as the eternally dying people. I believe in the traditions, rituals and structures that have evolved over thousands of years. I believe in Judaism’s malleability, in its ability to change shape to conform to the needs of every environment. I believe that we endure and prosper by the maintenance of a highly porous membrane, which brings in the best of external influences. Surely Judaism will adapt to this moment as well, so long as we focus less on what happens during the half hour spent under the chuppah and more on the lifetime that ensues once the couple walks down the aisle.

Two years ago, my parents’ prophecy came to fruition. I married my high school friend, Lisa. In fact, I married her to a really nice, Jewish guy. My high school friend and non‐Jew par excellence is now the proud step mom to two Jewish boys and mother to an adorable baby girl with another on the way. She is helping her oldest step son to prepare for his Bar Mitzvah. This past December, I received my first ever Hanukkah card from my old friend. And I smiled and cried a bit when I saw it. Such things give me faith that this moment may not consume us, but rather, may bless us with the opportunity to make us better.

The Mitzvah Of Marriage

May 21, 2010

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy

Friends, this evening we are celebrating Shabbat as Melanie and Richard Blitz will be hosting our Oneg in honor and gratitude of their 35th wedding anniversary. Earlier this week one of the more precocious Nursery School children came up to Richard and asked: “Did you know that in some parts of Africa a man doesn’t know his wife until he marries her?” Without missing a beat, Richard quickly responded, “Why single out Africa?” Marriage is indeed a continual revelation of one person to the other … In truth, while speaking with Melanie and Richard about tonight, theirs is a deep and abiding love, the kind of love that grows and deepens over the years, forged by triumphs and challenges.

Part of my joy as your rabbi is performing weddings, particularly for the children of the congregation, now grown into adulthood, many of whom I have known from their earliest years. In the next few weeks I will be conducting four such ceremonies. So, with those in mind and with the context of this Shabbat, I thought it might be a good opportunity to speak on the Mitzvah of Marriage from a variety of perspectives.

From the Gates of Mitzvah, published by the CCAR, written by Rabbi Peter Knobel we learn: “It is a mitzvah for a Jew to marry and to live together with his/her spouse in a manner worthy of the traditional Hebrew designation for marriage- Kiddushin- set apart for each other in a sanctified relationship. In Judaism the decision to marry implies a willingness to enter wholeheartedly into a sacred covenant with another person.” (p. 29)

Like many mitzvot, no where in Torah does it actually say that you have to marry. In truth it is no sin to be single. Still, marriage is the norm. The starting points for marriage are the statements in the Book of Genesis Chapter 2. First God comments, “Lo tov heyot ha-adam l’vado- it is not good for a person to be alone. I will make a helpmate. (18) and then later concludes, “So it is that a man/woman will leave his father and mother and cleave unto his/her spouse.” (24) Hence the institution of marriage is designed for men and women to be with one another, support one another, as they separate from parental ties. We call this growing up, not that one discards parents at marriage, but there is a significant reorientation as a new generation prepares to continue the cycle of life through love.

I thought you might be interested to know my process for dealing with marriage and the Jewish ceremony that I conduct. My technical title when it comes to marriage is the “M’sader kiddushin.” I am the person who sets the order of the Kiddushin rituals, which set a couple apart from all others according to Jewish tradition. I consider this a great responsibility as well as pleasure.

However, my first concern is not what happens on the day of the wedding, but more upon the days, weeks and years after the wedding. And so I conduct multi-session pre-marital counseling meetings, based upon a program in which I have been trained. During these discussions we cover issues such as communication, conflict resolution, goals and values, personality challenges, sexuality, Jewish genetic diseases about which couples should be aware, creating a Jewish home and much more. Most couples find these talks enjoyable and helpful.

And of course we cover the wedding itself, inclusive of the meaning behind the rituals, much of which links bride and groom to a variety of aspects of Jewish history.

A typical wedding ritual begins with what we think of as pre-ceremonies. Prior to walking down the aisle, we usually have a Bedecken and Ketubah signing. As opposed to non-Jewish weddings, bride and groom do see one another before the chuppah. First is the Bedecken, where the groom places a veil over the bride’s face, just as Rebecca wore a veil prior to uniting with Isaac. The groom also ensures that this is in fact the correct bride, lest he make Jacob’s mistake of marrying the wrong sister. In an egalitarian way, I also confirm with the bride that this is the right groom. As Rebecca was blessed by her family, I invite the parents of the couple to offer words of blessing at this juncture.

Then we sign the Ketubah. Traditionally, this was a legal document inclusive of terms for dowry and essentially contracted the bride from her father’s house to her husband in a patriarchal society, signed by two witnesses not related to either bride or groom. Our Ketubah is a statement of equal commitment of husband to wife in the context of creating a Jewish home. Today there are magnificent artistic expressions available on line, not the simple certificate that I imagine Richard and Melanie received years ago from Rabbi Share.

Now it is time for the wedding to begin. Participants will proceed down the aisle to the chuppah, which is a reminder of Sarah’s tent and the Jewish home that the couple is committed to create. There are many customs as to who walks down the aisle and in what order, but in truth no absolute rules. After all is said and done we need the rabbi, bride and groom to arrive. All else are nice, but not required.

Many have seen the tradition of bride circling the groom either seven times or three. This has multiple explanations, but primarily reflects the old concept that the bride is leaving the parental orbit and entering into her husbands. There is also a nicer concept that she is building an invisible wall around the new couple entity. The number of times links to different verses of the Bible. Today, if my couples circle at all, each will circle the other three times and then united, circle once and proceed to the chuppah, with the bride standing to the groom’s right, according to a verse in the Psalms.

Now we really begin. We welcome bride and groom and can proceed with the Kos Erusin. I say “can proceed,” since some couples choose to skip this Cup of Betrothal. Its roots are in a time when betrothal was a formal process with strict rules concerning contact between bride and groom, which no one kept. So, the rabbis merged two separate ceremonies. Still, we do this to mark the idea that couples are engaged and now committed to one another in all ways.

Next come vows and rings. In truth the vows are purely a modern insertion. This is where bride and groom respond, “I do” to a pledge, usually “to love, honor and cherish one another through good fortune and adversity and to seek together with the other a life hallowed by the faith of Israel.” It is not unusual today for couples to create their own vows.

What is more significant from the Jewish perspective will be the exchange of rings. This is the key legal aspect of the Jewish wedding ceremony. The groom will place the ring, which historically is symbolic of the support that will be forthcoming for the bride upon her right index finger (not the ring finger). The lore is that there is a vein that leads to the heart, but practically, she can publicly show all in attendance that it has been bestowed upon her.

Today all of my brides and grooms wear rings and then recite: “Harei at/atta mekudeshet/m’kudash – With this ring, be consecrated unto me as my husband/wife in accordance with the laws of Moses and Israel.”

This is followed by the sheva brachot, seven wedding blessings, essentially a seven part toast to the couple with the Kos Kiddushin, the cup of sanctification. The blessings commence with blessing the wine, then expand to bless humanity, men and women coming together, the reality that this couple is unique, such that there never has been a couple like them since Adam and Eve. Then it focuses upon the fact that they are married in the context of a Jewish community which celebrates their joy and culminates in multiple forms of good wishes for the happiness and fulfillment of the couple. The couple will then drink from the cup of wine, often sharing it with parents.

As we near the end of the ceremony, I will publicly read the Ketubah, pronounce the couple married according to both Jewish and civil law, and pause for a moment of silent prayer on their behalf, followed by the Priestly Blessing, found in this week’s Torah portion… “May God bless you and keep you.”

Then comes everyone’s favorite ritual, the breaking of the glass. With multiple explanations available, we realize this is simply a custom, but a very popular one. No, it has nothing to do with being the last time the groom gets to put his foot down in the marriage. Rather, it links to shattering moments, either historically linked such as the destruction of the Temples of Jerusalem, or personal moments that will occur in life. My take is the hope that there will be few, but when they occur, the love that is consecrated that day will fortify the couple for all such occasions.

Bride and groom then kiss and go off for a few moments to be alone, known as yichud. Traditionally, this was to break the fast that they had been on prior to the wedding and consummate the marriage, which along with the ketubah and the exchange of rings are the three different ways that one technically can marry in Judaism. Realistically this is a moment for the couple to catch their breath and enjoy some brief intimacy in what otherwise is a very public day.

Our hope is that they will live happily ever after. Of course we know the reality is otherwise. The divorce rate amongst Jews is probably not that different from the rest of the population, somewhere between 40-50%. I have not done an absolute study, but I believe my success rate among couples is approximately 75%, but I take no credit. It has more to do with the couples with whom I am privileged to officiate.

When speaking of marriage in the Jewish community, of course there is always discussion of interfaith marriage. A recent headline in our Times Picayune read: “Reform Rabbis Embrace Intermarriage- New position meshes with growing trend.” The headline was actually somewhat misleading if you read the article. For the past three years a Task Force on the Challenges of Intermarriage for the Reform Rabbi, consisting of a spectrum of well respected members of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, some of whom do and others who do not perform interfaith ceremonies, explored the many facets of how Reform rabbis can best respond to the reality of interfaith marriage. This study did not rescind the long held resolution on the performance of interfaith marriage, which would have been highly divisive. Rather it focuses on the many different paths that rabbis can positively pursue to interfaith couples who are part of our Reform Jewish community. This includes everything from simple sensitivity to finding ways of respectful inclusion, while maintaining Jewish integrity and respect for the beliefs that others hold.

While we open the door to the possibility of conversion for the non-Jewish partner at some time, that is not something we should or do push. Education about Judaism? Yes. Encouragement to convert? No. That is up to the individual should he or she ever so choose. At Gates of Prayer we already incorporate much of what has been suggested by the study in our culture.

As many of you know I am among the majority of rabbis who do not perform interfaith marriage ceremonies. If you reflect upon how I have described that ritual this evening, I think you can see how it would not be appropriate unless both partners are committed, not only to each other, but to Judaism. My position is not a judgment on the couple, but based upon how I see my appropriate role as a m’sader kiddushin and rabbi.  In response to the request to be involved with an interfaith couple and their wedding, I do not simply turn them away, but instead offer alternatives. First, I provide pre-marital counseling as I do for all couples. Marriage is a holy opportunity and I am willing to guide them towards success. I also assist couples to create loving, meaningful ceremonies, which will incorporate themes that the couple fully share, love, family, friendship and faith, but not those they do not. Then I help them find an officiator who can conduct the ceremony. Is it the same as a Jewish wedding with a chuppah and breaking the glass? No. Those symbols have specific Jewish meaning, thus not reflective of whom the couple is, but it can be a lovely, spiritual ceremony.

Many studies on interfaith couples and their subsequent involvement in Jewish life have shown that the wedding alone is not a significant indicator of future commitment. Rather, how they are treated and how synagogues provide programming, policies and opportunities to feel comfortable are more important. I believe we do a pretty good job of that here, but can always do better and welcome input.

Friends, all weddings begin with hopes and dreams. Many are fulfilled, some shattered. For the successful marriages, couples learn to adjust, change and grow, continually nurturing the relationship. On this Shabbat we celebrate one couple and their marriage, as we honor all couples who participate in the mitzvah of marriage.