Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Weddings a moneymaker for some rabbis

Today is the wonderful commercialized holiday of Halloween. It happens to be my LEAST favorite of any holiday. I think of it as the schnurring holiday. Since I hate the day and it is my blog, I am choosing to post some non-art. Like this horrific photo from a Hasidic wedding.
Today we read a story from RACHEL ZOLL, an AP Religion Writer who writes about people who PERFORM marriages for their own reasons... More schnurring...

Rabbi Barry Tuchman has no congregation, no ties to a recognized Jewish movement and an ordination that was far outside the norm for American Jewish clergy.

But the interfaith couples who contact him don't want to see his diploma. They want to know whether he's willing to marry them. And Rabbi Barry, as he calls himself, is ready to oblige.

He officiates anywhere: in churches, alongside Christian clergy, on the Jewish Sabbath and at Roman Catholic weddings. A student of Shamanism, he can perform American Indian rituals, too.

"What I do," Tuchman said, "is throw the liturgy out the window."

Interfaith couples whose rabbis won't marry them are going to the fringes of American Judaism to find someone who will. And there are plenty of rabbis for hire.

Rabbis with unconventional, even dubious, credentials will create ceremonies that can look Jewish, even if they're not. Fees can run into the thousands of dollars, but business is booming. The rabbis have more work than they can handle.

"It's religion in America for a new generation," said Rabbi Richard Hirsh, executive director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, which represents rabbis in his movement. "It's pretty much an individual consumer culture of professional services. They are used to getting the services that they want."

The intermarriage rate for U.S. Jews has been above 40 percent since at least the 1990s, according to researchers for the 2001 National Jewish Population Survey. As the rate has climbed, so too has pressure on pulpit rabbis to perform the ceremonies. Advocates for interfaith families say officiating at the weddings can increase the odds that couples will raise their children Jewish.

Most rabbis aren't convinced.

The Conservative and Orthodox movements bar rabbis from performing the ceremonies. Even in the Reform and Reconstructionist branches, considered the most welcoming to interfaith families, leaders think most of their rabbis won't marry the couples, either. And those who will officiate often set limits that couples consider deal-breakers: no church weddings or non-Jewish clergy.

"This is really the biggest issue in American Jewish life today," said Rabbi Charles Kroloff, co-chairman of a new Reform movement task force on intermarriage. "Some rabbis feel if they officiate at the interfaith ceremony that's like approving it, so they draw a line in the sand."

Independent rabbis like Tuchman have been crossing that line in a big way.

Rabbi Roger Ross and his wife, the Rev. Deborah Steen Ross, run Loving Hearts Ceremonies in New York. They once performed a Jewish-Christian marriage that included Wiccan prayer, a Celtic apple-dunking, and a few words in Klingon for the groom — a Star Trek fan.

"It's your wedding," said Ross, who says he has performed several hundred mixed-faith ceremonies. "As long as it's legal and respectful, why shouldn't you have things in it that you want?"

Rabbi Monte Sugarman generally does what the couples ask, as long as ministers who officiate with him don't pray in the name of Jesus. His Web site is filled with photos of him in his tallit, or prayer shawl, flanked by smiling brides and grooms. One shot is of the rabbi at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Judaism's holiest site.

"When I opened myself up to interfaith weddings, I decided that I was going to do everything because we were already outside of Jewish law," said Sugarman, a hospital chaplain who lives near Saratoga Springs, N.Y. But he insists, "we're totally Jewish. I don't care what other people say. We're just more interfaith about it."

It's a philosophy that Sugarman and Ross studied while preparing to be ordained.

The two are graduates of Rabbinical Seminary International in New York, founded by a 95-year-old Holocaust refugee from Hungary, Rabbi Joseph Gelberman. He wanted more Jews to spread his message that the core beliefs of all religions can be boiled down to one idea: Treat others as you would want to be treated.

Most Jews have never heard of his seminary, for good reason. It has no building, no watchdog board of directors and no "intricate technical studies of Jewish law," since so few Jews follow it. Asked about his school's set up, Gelberman, a small, kindly man who lives in a penthouse by Central Park, pointed skyward and said, "God is my board of directors."

Students pay about $3,000 annually to enroll, and can become eligible for ordination within weeks or months if Gelberman decides that they already know enough about Judaism. Major Jewish seminaries require five years of study, including one year in Israel.

Rabbi Richard Allen of Abington, Pa., an alumnus of the Rabbinical Seminary, says Gelberman offered to speed him toward graduation. Allen said he'd been leading services as a layman for years before he applied to the school.

"He said, 'I could make you a rabbi in two weeks. You have everything you need. You know what to do,'" Allen said. "I said, 'No rabbi. I prefer to go through the whole coursework.'"

The seminary has ordained only 18 people so far. But Gelberman co-founded another New York school, The New Seminary, that trains people of all religions to become what he calls interfaith ministers. The school says it has graduated nearly 2000 people in two decades, including Ross and his wife, who now run it. And like the Rosses, graduates of the two seminaries often team up to perform intermarriages. (Ross sometimes calls himself "The Rev. Rabbi Ross" to tweak the tradition-minded.)

Tuchman took another route.

After studying one-on-one for several years with rabbis where he lives in the Los Angeles area, he was ordained through a tradition called semikhah, or laying on of hands. Jewish law permits the practice, which has roots in ancient times. But only a minority of modern-day Jews consider it valid.

The person in charge of Tuchman's ordination was Rabbi Loring Frank of South Beach in Miami, who is known for his deep tan, his appearances on local TV and his quickie conversions to the faith. Frank calls his approach ready-to-wear Judaism.

He didn't attend a seminary. Frank says that his father, Reform Rabbi Emmett Frank, who also fast-tracked converts, ordained him in 1987, three months before he died.

Frank says he now performs more than 200 interfaith weddings a year in the United States and overseas, advertising under the banner, "Have Chuppah Will Travel." He says he has personally ordained about 30 people who share his philosophy.

"The goal is to spiritually uplift them and to accommodate them and to make them happy," Frank said of the interfaith couples he marries. "The call for the rabbis we are is to go out into the community, find out what the people are doing and serve them accordingly."

Kimberly Lippmann of Melville, N.Y., was grateful to find a Long Island rabbi with a similar outlook.

Lippmann, who is Jewish, and her husband Colby, a Catholic, spent several anxious weeks trying to find a pulpit rabbi and priest to co-officiate at their 2005 wedding. Spirituality is important to the couple, and they hoped to include as many rituals as possible from both faiths.

"A rabbi wouldn't do it with a priest there, and a priest wouldn't do it regardless," unless the pair underwent Catholic Pre-Cana, premarital counseling, she said.

They both felt rejected by their communities.

Then, while surfing the Web, she found, where Rabbi Stuart Paris, a Rabbinical Seminary graduate, and his wife, the Rev. Enid Kessler, a New Seminary alumna, advertise. Lippmann hired them, and said they created "the most personalized perfect ceremony."

"It went against everything else that we had heard, that you're going to have to choose one or the other" faith tradition, she said.

Lippmann said she checked the pair's credentials to make sure each school was "an established organization," but didn't research further. "We were more enamored with the fact that there were religious representatives out there who were not exclusionary," she said.

There are few legal risks for couples hiring rabbis they don't know. Most cities and states have loose, if any, regulation of marriage officiants. The government doesn't want to be in the role of deciding who is properly ordained.

Rabbis who have been marrying interfaith couples for years say more independent clergy are doing the same, with some setting prices meant to undercut the competition.

Interviews with a dozen of the rabbis found fees ranging from $600 for a local wedding to as much as $3,000 and $4,000 plus expenses for ceremonies overseas. They said they have a sliding scale, and provide as much premarital counseling as the couples need. Yet only a minority of the rabbis interviewed had formal training as counselors.

"I didn't have the time to go back to school to go for a psychology degree," said Allen, who is in his 70s. "I did study psychology in school and I'm quite good at it."

The prices on the low end of the scale are close to a typical fee that pulpit rabbis collect when they officiate for couples who aren't part of a congregation. For dues-paying synagogue members, rabbis customarily perform family weddings for free.

However much money he makes from interfaith marriages, independent Rabbi Shimon Berris of Cherry Hill, N.J., sees himself as a hero, not a mercenary.

"I think these people should be helped, should be assisted and also should feel their religion is not throwing them out the door," said Berris, who says he was ordained by an Orthodox seminary in Chicago in 1956, but won't identify it because "they hate me."

Berris created the Interfaith Clergy network, which has more than 50 Jewish, Protestant and Catholic clergy on call, and arranges as many as 600 intermarriages alone annually. Couples pay him $600 for one clergyman and $900 for two. He takes a $100 cut for each event he sets up, while officiating at some of the services himself.

"Everybody has their own idea of what's right," Berris said. "It's the way we live now. People don't live in ghettos anymore."


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Anonymous said...

Well, I think you won't be surprised to know they got a divorce. Apparently SHE was gay. Yes! Musta been the cigarette...