Chelsea Clinton Got The Interfaith Ceremony I Didn't ... With My Rabbi

7 years ago

Just like anyone else might be doing on a Sunday morning, I was reading the weekend news on my computer screen. As I scanned the headlines, my eyes settled on Town Elbows Way In To Clinton Wedding. I peruse the page, noting nothing really, it read like most celebrity wedding stories -- a nod to the parents for keeping her wedding under wraps as much as possible, a small list of the famous folk on the guest list and, of course, a description of the bride's dress. Okay, so all of that is normal normal. I continued to read along and then it happened. One sentence and I felt my stomach lurch, "The interfaith ceremony was conducted by Rabbi James Ponet and the Rev. William Shillady."

Rabbi Ponet? RABBI PONET! I must have read that wrong, it cannot be the same Rabbi Ponet, I tried to assure myself. After all, I didn't see Yale University mentioned anywhere in the article, surely that would have been included since the Rabbi Ponet I knew was at Yale. I grabbed the phone and I called my mother. I wanted confirmation that it wasn't the same Rabbi Ponet.

Ring, Ring.

Mom: Hello?

Bit of a pause. It was a little difficult to talk because it felt like I had just swallowed a bug.

Me: Hey, I was just reading the New York Times. It says a Rabbi James Ponet co-officiated Chelsea Clinton's wedding.

Mom: Yes, he did.

Me: Our Rabbi Ponet?

Mom: Really Devra, did you think there was another?

Me: No. But I had hoped it wasn't true.

There was silence on the other end, because my mother had my heart. She could hear it in my voice. She understood why I wanted it to be a different rabbi with the same name. You see, 20 years ago, I had asked Rabbi Ponet to co-officiate at my wedding, and he told me "No." But he did not do so harshly. In fact, he took me out for coffee at a local cafe bookstore in New Haven and there, at a back table, he explained to me why he would bless my wedding in the basement on High Street (what served as a small Hillel shul of sorts before the Slifka Center existed), attend my wedding, but not officiate at my wedding.

And I totally understood where he was coming from. I did. You see, it had never been my intention to intermarry. I always had figured on marrying a nice Jewish boy. I even met my betrothed at Jewish summer camp! He was the caretaker's son. Think Dirty Dancing, only we weren't in the Catskills, we were in Colorado and neither of us performed a synchronized swimming version of the horah. We were like a summer fling that just kept flinging until finally we landed 9 years later at a place called "engaged."

So at camp is where I met, what my family lovingly called, my "goyfriend." While I knew this boy wasn't my kind (do you hear West Side Story, just a little bit?) I also was reared with the belief that it isn't okay to ask anyone to convert to Judaism nor expect conversion for the convenience of marriage. I had pretty much accepted the fact I was marrying outside of my faith, and this would require an interfaith ceremony. What I didn't count on is my rabbi of almost a decade telling me he would not, could not co-officiate, even if his co-officiant was the Dean of Students at Yale's Divinity School. Which she was.

Fast forward 20 years, and there I sat in stunned disbelief in front of my computer. Yes, people change in 20 years, but even so, this still stung. And right before Yom Kippur too. How many sermons about transgression and forgiveness had I heard Rabbi Ponet deliver? Plenty. I came to a decision. I had a need to express to him how his change of policy impacted me -- not just impacted: hurt. I knew full well my pain was unintentional on his part. I am fully aware he did not think about me when he was marrying them. I still felt as though I needed to forgive him for hurting me. Or maybe I just needed to not hold a grudge against him, which would in turn hurt him. Even if he were unaware of it, I would be aware of my hurtful act (the grudge) and it would bother me.

I probably should have sent the letter in hard copy form and not by way of email, I'm going to admit that right now in hindsight, but at the time, I just did what I did. A letter would have been more personal, and in the future, I won't take to the keyboard so quickly. Frankly I didn't worry about how he would "take" my email. I knew he would respond. It wasn't an easy email to write, particularly since so many years had gone by. I included much of what I wrote in the beginning of this post, so no need to post the letter to him in its entirety. Besides, I'm just not comfortable doing so. Despite the fact that I am the one who wrote it, I still feel it's overall a private communication. I'm okay with an excerpt though as they are my thoughts:

...this weekend when I learned you had officiated an interfaith wedding, and done so even before the sun had set on Shabbat, I felt personally betrayed. After all, I had known you since 1981, almost a decade before I got engaged, and I'm fairly certain you did not have the same history with the couple you married over the weekend. (And if I am wrong about that, let me apologize now so I don't have to hunt you down during pre-YK.) While I appreciate and understand a person's perspective may change in 20 years, this one of yours is a doozy to say the least. Certainly over the years during low points in my own marriage,* I have thought over what we discussed at that table at Atticus and wondered if maybe you weren't right, and marrying outside of my faith was a big mistake. So if you didn't think your opinion mattered or was considered by me in the past 20 years ... there you go. Now you know it was. And is.

To paraphrase something I heard from you during my time at Hillel, I understand you aren't perfect ... Rabbis, just like anyone else are human, no better, no worse. However, I want to let you know how it feels, even 20 years later, to find out my rabbi said "yes" to another when I was told "no."

You know how it feels? It hurts like hell.


I bet you're curious about whether he wrote back to me. He did. And he apologized, letting me know he had evolved and grown over the years to believe he had made a distinction for many years between giving support and officiating at a wedding, and now, he no longer makes that distinction and instead supports the Jew as well as officiates at the wedding of a Jew. In fairness, Bubbelah, you've come a long way!

For my part, I accepted his apology, even though he technically did not owe one to me. But you see, in Judaism, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, you are encouraged to do a "check in" of sorts with other people, asking for forgiveness, and giving it as well. It's part of the antonement process as Jews get ready to enter a new year and be inscribed in the Book of Life. Who doesn't want to start the year with a clean slate? We're expected to do it, anywhere and everywhere as we Jews believe G-d can't absolve sins between people, we've got to do it for ourselves with one another.

So where was the Rabbi's sin? He didn't have one. The sin was really more mine than his. I was the one who needed to rock my Teshuva. I had to consider what would happen in the future if I kept my hurt to myself -- a grudge. And grudging is not kosher in my belief system. It's a little on the sinny side. Before Yom Kippur was upon me, I needed to take stock and consider the future sin I figured I would be committing had I never even brought up the hurt to him in the first place. If you followed that logic easily? Mazel Tov! Attonement, Repentance and Forgiveness can be a confusing trifecta especially for Jews and even for those who are not Jews.

Rabbi Ponet's apology was personal and from the heart. I'm not going to excerpt it because I'm just not comfortable doing so without his blessing. Though, I will share that in my response to it, along with my acceptance of his apology, I expressed my belief if given a choice, a Jewish bride or groom will prefer the rabbi they grew up with and not the rabbi they rent. I will probably always wish deep down that my rabbi had evolved and grown earlier. However, I also believe deep down that even a late bloomer still blossoms.

While my Al Chet may be a little out of season, I'm confident it matters where it should regardless of the timing.

*Crossed out to make my mother happy. She worried about me telling anyone I have had low points in my marriage. However I maintain everyone does. Hell, I still do. No relationship is perfect. After all, ups and downs are recognized in the wording of a Ketubah which outlines what should happen if the marriage winds up in divorce and in marriage vows which point out sickness, poverty and bad times are foreseeable.

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