When Monnique Faison and Leah Ross were united in marriage last month at The Emanuel Synagogue, history was made.
Rabbi David Small, spiritual leader of the Conservative synagogue, located at 160 Mohegan Drive in West Hartford, performed the first same-sex marriage in the history of the 93-year-old congregation. Emanuel’s cantor, Sanford Cohn, served as co-officiant at the Nov. 24 ceremony, held in the synagogue’s sanctuary.
“As a Conservative rabbi, I am very committed to bringing people closer to Judaism, to create inclusion in the synagogue community and to help people realize and experience meaning and holiness in their lives. It was so beautiful to serve in this role for this couple – just as we do for every couple,” said Rabbi Small.
There were minor adjustments to the Jewish marriage contract (ketubah) and the traditional Seven Blessings (Sheva Brachot), to reflect wording relevant to a same-sex couple. But otherwise, the couple’s wedding ceremony was traditionally Jewish.
The women were united under a chuppah, or wedding canopy, which is a symbol of the home to be shared by the couple. The ceremony – including two cups of wine, the exchange of rings and the couple encircling one another seven times to represent wholeness – concluded with the traditional breaking of a glass. Ross shattered the glass with her foot, reminding that even at a time of personal joy, tragedies in Jewish history are not forgotten. The glass also symbolizes the frailty of human relationships.
A few unique touches included a Ross family tradition in which the men in the family came dressed in kilts. Instead of a wedding cake, guests were served the couple’s favorite desserts of frozen yogurt and brownies.
Faison and Ross met several years ago at the Capitol Region Education Council (CREC), in Hartford, where Faison is a program coordinator and Ross is manager of disbursement accounting.
Previously married, Faison, 47, is the mother of four children, ranging in ages from 10-28. This was the first marriage for Ross, 43. Prior to the ceremony, Rabbi Small gathered Faison’s family into a “huddle.” In addition to reciting a blessing for the couple, he encouraged Faison to recite a blessing for her children. The rabbi indicated this is his standard practice at all unions in which one member has previously been married and has children.
“Rabbi Small added so many touches like that which were lovely,” said Faison.
“Rabbi Small is so warm and loving. It felt like I had known him for years,” continued Ross. “He welcomed me with open arms.”
Faison said her primary concern about marrying Ross was the reaction of her children.
“But they were okay about it. My kids just want me to be happy,” she said. “I’m very, very fortunate.”
Human Dignity Core Jewish Value
The couple, who reside in West Hartford, received their civil marriage license at Town Hall. Same-sex marriage has been legal in the state of Connecticut for several years.
But same-sex marriage ceremonies were not allowed in Conservative synagogues prior to 2006.
The Emanuel Synagogue is affiliated with the Conservative movement of Judaism. In 2006, the movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards narrowly decided to vote in favor of same-sex unions, but said the decision whether or not to permit the celebrations of these unions in their synagogues would be up to each Conservative congregation and its rabbi.
According to an official announcement from the Emanuel Board of Trustees, Rabbi Small introduced the issue to the synagogue’s Ritual Committee in 2005. He then waited for a request for such a ceremony before requesting a vote. Last July, he was approached by Faison, a longtime Emanuel congregant, and asked if he would officiate at her wedding and if it could be held at the synagogue.
“Leah and I are Jewish and we wanted a religious ceremony,” noted Faison.
“Being able to be married in a synagogue was like coming home for me because it brought such inner peace as well as the testament to our true commitment to our marriage and our family,” added Ross.
First, the Emanuel Ritual Committee approved allowing same-sex unions at its synagogue. In August, the Board of Trustees reviewed two responsa of the Rabbinical Assembly’s Law and Standards Committee, including liturgy for same-sex ceremonies. The Board in September then voted 27-4 to pass a resolution allowing “full and equal rights, privileges, standards and responsibilities to Jewish gay and lesbian individuals and to same-sex couples and their children in the congregation.”
An article in the December synagogue bulletin states: “The Board passed this resolution based upon the premise of k’vod habriot, or human dignity, a core halachic (Jewish law) value and a basic tenet of our congregation. In extending same-sex couples the opportunity to marry in our sanctuary and to affirm the opportunity of gay and lesbian members to participate fully in the religious life of the Emanuel family, our Board affirms the principle of k’vod habriot and helps insure that The Emanuel Synagogue is a welcoming and affirmative community for all our members.”
This new openness includes Jewish marriage ceremonies provided by the Emanuel clergy; use of the synagogue for marriage ceremonies, receptions and other life cycle events; status of the primary mourner when a spouse dies; burial rights and rites; and more.
Said Rabbi Small, “This development from my point of view is consistent with progress during the last 40-50 years in extending increased inclusion in greater synagogue life and to staying connected with the Jewish community and tradition. One of the main concepts in the letter published by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards is the principle of the dignity of human beings. That was a guiding principle for the synagogue leadership and for me.”