Birth of a new tradition: Masorti ceremonies for same-sex couples


To any observer, it will look like a Jewish marriage service: the chupah, the sheva berachot, the breaking of the glass. But when Micki Pearlman and Kierra Colker consecrate their relationship at a botanical garden on the Isle of Wight on Sunday, they will be enjoying one of the first shutafut ceremonies for same-sex couples since the Masorti movement introduced them in the UK nearly two years ago.

Shutafut, which means partnership, differs from a traditional Jewish marriage contract mainly in the omission of the act of kinyan - the acquisition of a man by a woman, symbolised by the placing of the ring over her finger.

At first, Ms Pearlman admitted, the couple were "uncomfortable" at the thought of having a different form of ceremony. But when the technicalities of the Jewish marriage service were explained to them, in particular the centrality of kinyan, their reaction changed to wondering why other young people still go along with that now.

"It just wasn't progressive," she says. The shutafut "instead is a partnership, a union, people on an equal level coming together."

(Theirs will be preceded with a civil registration as the shutafut service is currently not recognised for marriage in terms of English law.)

It is important to stand up and be counted

In enabling gay or lesbian couples to celebrate their union, Masorti has followed the lead of the Conservative movement in the United States. Rabbis set aside the traditional prohibition against same-sex relationships by arguing that there was a higher principle of kavod habriot, human dignity, which took precedence. After all, in the Creation story, God exclaims, "It is not good for man to be alone."

While at least one shutafut ceremony has been conducted quietly by a Masorti rabbi, Ms Pearlman and Ms Colker were willing openly to talk about theirs.

"It is important to stand up and be counted," Ms Pearlman says, "and say I am a Jewish gay person, I am very proud of my partner and very proud to be part of a community that also accepts me. I don't want to shy away from this. I don't want to feel isolated from the Jewish community."

A freelance producer who works in commercials, she is a daughter of Masorti. Her family belongs to the New North London Synagogue and she became a leader in the Masorti youth movement Noam. She recalls the pre-camp training sessions for leaders as her biggest Jewish influence "when young educators talked about Judaism in a way that wasn't stuffy".

Ms Colker grew up in a Conservative community in Los Angeles, the child of an American father and English mother, originally from the Isle of Wight, who met while they were performing on Broadway. After winning a soccer scholarship to George Washington University, she spent a semester of study in London and liked it so much that she returned after graduation and now works for a leading high-tech company.

A mutual friend introduced the couple three years ago. "I had only dated men," says Ms Colker. "I was always a firm believer that you fall in love with people and we had this connection pretty much instantly."

Both are happy that they now can celebrate within the branch of Judaism they regard as their families' religious home. They attended one of the communal discussions at NNLS about the idea of introducing same-sex ceremonies which preceded the rabbinical decision to approve them.

The meeting was "a mixed bag", Ms Colker recalls. While some people thought the innovation so unexceptionable that they did not even think it a question, others were "not quite as comfortable so they wanted to understand the process and talk about it. Maybe it's generational. But I didn't have any concerns that we were not going to be accepted into the Jewish community. A few years ago maybe that would have been a concern."

Sunday's formalities have been entrusted to a rabbi of their own generation, Oliver Joseph, a friend of Ms Pearlman from Noam days, who returned to take up a position with Masorti last year after his ordination in America.

As if by providence, the couple even bumped him into Los Angeles one night on their way to Shabbat dinner at Ms Colker's grandmother.

"Olli always represented Noam, the part of my life where I found Judaism most engaging," Ms Pearlman says, "The quality that interested me then is the same quality he brings to the table now."

Rabbi Joseph helped them plan the elements of the ceremony including the wording of the shtar shutafut, the agreement that is the equivalent of the ketubah. Their discussions included looking at the Creation story and where marriage fits into the divine scheme of things.

"We've been able to customise it and choose what's right for us," Ms Colker explains. "Even though we are liberal and progressive, we are still Conservative, Masorti, and there is an element of tradition that is very important to us."

Ms Pearlman's mother has been collecting the branches and flowers for the chupah which will be capped with the tallit of Ms Colker's father.

But the couple had to decide which of them will be breaking the glass - the honour will be Ms Pearlman's. "I thought it would be a smart thing if we begin our married life with me making a concession," smiles her partner.

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