As someone who identifies as “not super religious” but is drawn to the most meaningful aspects of Judaism, Jen Shuman of Boston “always planned on having a wedding with the iconic Jewish elements”. However, her childhood rabbi cannot officiate at the wedding since she is marrying a non-practicing Catholic.
So she heard of Unorthodox Celebrations through a close friend (also one of her bridesmaids), and decided it was the ideal program for the couple.
“I feel that at life's milestones we tend to turn toward our religion, and getting married is no exception to that for me. Incorporating Judaism into our wedding/marriage and life in general is important to me, because being Jewish is a big part of who I am,” Shuman says. “My mother converted from Catholicism to Judaism, and it has always felt so significant to me that she recognized something so special in our religion and was drawn to it so strongly as to convert in order to raise a Jewish family.”
Shuman is not alone. According to the 2013 Pew study “A Portrait of Jewish Americans”, 58% of Jews are married to someone of another faith. Enter a new program called Unorthodox Celebrations, a website that seeks to connect Jews in need of outreach by matching them with officiants for their life cycle events.
Founded by Rabbi Getzel Davis, Associate Rabbi and Jewish Educator at Harvard University, in May 2015, the website works similarly to other Internet startups that link clients with the professional services they need. Potential users fill out a personalized form, where they can explain their unique backgrounds, what they want in an officiant, and the ceremony they are envisioning. Rabbi Davis and staff then search their database of two hundred rabbis and cantors to find the right fit. Within 72 hours, the couple receives three or more matches who are available on their desired date, and can interview them.
"I became a rabbi because I believe Judaism has the power to reconnect us to our community, our family (living, past and future), and God. Unfortunately, searching for a rabbi can sometimes make people feel disconnected or worse. I want to build communities that celebrate each and every person's complexity," Rabbi Davis says.
90 couples have turned to the website so far, most often for weddings, though people can use the site to find officiants for Bar/Bat Mitzvahs or baby namings as well. About half of them are interfaith couples; others are less observant Jews, members of the LGBT+ community, or simply looking for a rabbi who will perform weddings on Shabbat.
“By assisting families in navigating the great number of Jewish resources and choices, these (rabbis) ultimately help in making Jewish rituals more meaningful,” Rabbi Davis adds. “Growth is snowballing as the word gets out.”
Unorthodox Celebrations builds on the established model of InterfaithFamily's website, InterfaithFamily.com. The difference is, whereas users of InterfaithFamily receive access to a list of hundreds of rabbis willing to perform their weddings, then have to make the calls themselves, Unorthodox Celebrations staff “do the legwork themselves” and “take the no’s out of the process”. They are careful to only match couples with rabbis who are an ideal fit: ready to “meet the couple where they are, in terms of practice and identity” and available on the desired date, Rabbi Davis says.
Shuman and her fiance received a list of seven officiants from different backgrounds, both rabbis and non-rabbis from the Boston/Providence area, and interviewed three before deciding on one. They have met with their rabbi twice, and plan to meet more frequently in the coming months. With eight months until the wedding, Shuman says this continues to make the planning process easier.
“What drew me in was that it opened us up to a ton of officiants/rabbis we may never have come across otherwise,” she said.