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imagesHow much can you expect to pay for a person to come to your location and officiate your wedding? What is a fair price ― a price that doesn’t seem like gross profiteering to you, and is a respectable wage to them?

In the past few months, I’ve had a variety of exchanges with people ― both email and phone ― about the economics of lifecycle officiation. Most of these were about weddings in particular, but they have also happened around vow-renewal ceremonies, tombstone unveilings (a Jewish funeral tradition) and baby namings as well.

Some, but not all, of these people made it clear that they were taken aback to discover the “going rate” for wedding officiation. One person put it more bluntly, in a comment she posted on the wedding site The Knot. Her vent to fellow brides was along the lines of this: “How can a person charge $500 for a 20-minute service!? It’s outrageous!”

Hmmm. Well, actually, it isn’t. And I’ll explain why.

In this post, here is what I hope to share:
• How much does it cost to hire a wedding officiant in metro Philly (or the East Cost in general)?
• How much should it cost?
• How can you save costs on a wedding in order to be able to hire the talents of a good wedding officiant ― as opposed to someone just “dialing it in?”
• Lastly, for the truly budget-bound, I’ll offer some even more frugal ideas.

As you continue reading, I’d like to challenge you to think of these questions: What kind of a price do you expect to hear when asking for a price quote? Is your expectation reasonable? Do you believe a person engaged in a “religious” occupation should be taking a vow of poverty? If you extrapolate out your price expectation, would the person be living in poverty?

How you answer those questions might influence how you have, up until now, thought about the economics of the different people you are hiring to conduct your wedding.

So How Much DOES It Cost, Anyway? (Your cheapest option)images 2

In the state of Pennsylvania, you can get married for $90. Literally. Go to City Hall downtown, get a “self-marrying license” for $90, wait three days (that’s a legal requirement), and then sign the license in the company of two legal adults. They will sign it too, and provide their addresses. Mail it back to the court. You are married.

People often express disbelief when I tell them this, but it is the honest to God’s truth. This is how I legally married. You can thank the Quakers for this; the state has very easy marriage laws because it was founded by a religious community that believed ardently against hierarchies.

If I take one issue with the “wedding chapel” type businesses propped up around the state, it’s the fact that not one them ever admits this fact. As someone who worked in journalism for two decades, I’m a big believer in “full disclosure.” You can get married in Pennsylvania for under $100, and you don’t need anyone else to do it.

So, if you really can’t afford a wedding, don’t have one. Do this, and go on a honeymoon instead!

Your Next Budget Option

23987225_007_aYour next-lowest price alternative is to go to a place like the Wedding Chapel, open for business 365 days a year. Their cheapest “drop-in rate” – which still requires a reservation – is $95. This is still in addition to the marriage license fee (which you must get at a court house.) Then for their $95 fee, they will let you pose for traditional pictures in their chapel and on their grounds, and they conduct a “ceremony” for you using a stripped down and pre-scripted script. This cheapest price does not allow you to bring guests: It’s just for you and the groom.

In other words, your total price for this option is: $95 + $90 = $185.

The Wedding Chapel does have other packages, going up in price, to which you can bring a couple of guests. Another place I’ve found online, called HumbleManWeddings, charges $150 (plus the price of the license) to go to his house, and be married by him in his backyard garden. (So, $150 + $90 = $210 total.) The pictures on his website look lovely, and he seems like a nice enough guy. I haven’t met him personally.

So, if you want at least the bones of a ritual, but otherwise can’t afford a wedding, something along these lines would work best for you.

Having an Officiant Come to You

61After these options, you have entered the realm of standard wedding officiation – where you are hiring someone to come to your event, wherever that might be, and deliver a heartfelt, meaningful ceremony before you and your guests. You plan in advance (in person or by phone), and you secure the officiant’s commitment at the time and place you have chosen.

The low-end range for this kind of ceremony is around $350. For that price, an officiant will not hold any pre-meetings in person, will not spend a lot of time getting to know you and writing a personalized “speech” or blessing for your ceremony, and is probably not traveling too great a distance to the venue site.

However, one would hope they are still taking the time to customize a ceremony with readings, sentiments and God-language (or lack of God language) that matches who you are as people.

A more typical price range for what I will call a truly customized service is $500 to $1,000. Factors affecting the price are: who is offering the service, where the event is being held (travel time), and perhaps even what season it is. This is the price range you can expect for a full-on, traditional half-day wedding. You’ll meet in person with the officiant beforehand, and communicate a good half-dozen times shoring up details of your ceremony. The officiant will spend several hours on-site on the day of your wedding, plus however many hours traveling.

If the distance is more than a few hours, it would be nice if you offered one night’s stay at your hotel to the officiant as an option. I’m always grateful and appreciative when people hiring me extend this option.

Here are three factors that influence price:

print 61• The education or training of the officiant. As in all professions, people who have invested tens of thousands of dollars into their learning tend to charge more than someone who, for example, was ordained on the Internet. (And all the shades in between).

You may find that rabbis tend to charge more than pastors; that’s because the length of our education is often five or six years of full-time post-graduate coursework. Most Protestant programs take about two years. Hiring a rabbi is akin to hiring someone with a doctorate.

• The season. Why is this? Well, there are a LOT of weddings in the spring. If you are struggling with a budget, you can negotiate better prices among all your vendors if you schedule in the off-season. I’ve never gotten a call to do a wedding in February! I’ll give you a great price in February!

This spring, I got a call from someone pressing the price-panic button. I was very sympathetic until I learned their wedding was on a Saturday night in mid-May. I’m happy to give discounts to people in financial distress, but my Saturdays in May are going to be booked solid; can I really afford to take a huge cut in my usual fee when this means I will probably turn away another event that would have paid me full price? Especially when the wedding business (and hence my income stream,) is so erratic?

If you’re hoping to negotiate with your vendors, think about your timing. November weddings are much easier to negotiate than June weddings.

• Lastly, distance. If an officiant is traveling 4 hours to and from your wedding, versus 30 minutes, that’s a big difference. Not just in miles on a car and time in a day, but in my case at least, in the cost of child care! In my early years of officiating weddings, I actually lost money a couple of times because I failed to take travel time into consideration.

More About Those Pesky Wedding Licenses

Keep in mind, by hiring a traveling wedding officiant, you still must go to the court house and pay for the license itself. A “standard” license at City Hall (good for anywhere in the state) is $80. A self-marrying license is $90.

If you are getting married in a county other than Philadelphia, you also have the choice of getting a license in the courthouse of the county where you are marrying. Sometimes, those licenses must be used in the county in which it was issued (it varies; be sure to check). Other counties charge slightly less money than Philadelphia ― $50 or $60 for example. But the difference is negligible. I suggest going to whichever location is easiest to get to. Your time is valuable too!

Hiring a Wedding (or Ritual) Officiant: What You Are Paying For

So if you aren’t hiring a ritual officiant for the legal aspects of getting married, why hire one at all? And how can you weigh a “good” one from a “bad” one?

What you are paying for when you hire an officiant, is the skill, knowledge and heart of the person who is creating the ritual for you. Even if what you want is “very simple,” no officiant worth their own dignity is going to show up with some canned, pre-scripted script with just your names inserted.

But alas, some people actually will. When I see people advertising a “customized” wedding ceremony for only $250, all I can think is: “Well, it must not be very customized.” It’s just not possible to write a customized wedding, spend 3-6 hours on the day of the wedding getting there, doing your job and getting back — and then charging $250! When you compare ads and officiants for weddings, we all use words like “customized,” but we don’t necessarily mean the same thing.

Ask questions.

Get details.

Most people getting married think: “Oh, I don’t want anything fancy. It’s simple.” Well, it may be simple in how it looks on the outside, but in the details, there are a million different ways that I can stand up and marry two people.

• Do you want someone standing up in front of your guests, quoting passages from the Old Testament and talking about the role of wife as a “helpmate”? If you do … that’s fine! But you don’t want to hire me.

• How do you feel about the audience saying “amen”?

• How “spiritual” do you like to get? Is it okay if your officiant wears a big bright hat and flowing robes? Or do you prefer a more demure or formal presentation? (I’m not in the big hat camp, by the way. Just fyi …)

• Would you like your officiant to crack a few jokes, or do you think a wedding ritual should be more serious?

• Does 10 minutes sound about right? Or more like about 20? Or even 30? Does your officiant ask you what you want!?

• Would you like a guest or two to come up and do a reading?

• Do you know what readings you like? How many hours do you have to find some? (I have a PDF file 25 pages long of readings I’ve assembled over the years; some officiants really strive to give you all the options; others leave you to figure it out on your own. That’s why they are only charging you $250!)

•  Do you want to write you own vows? Do you need guidance on writing them? Will the officiant offer it?

Even though we wedding officiants DO recycle parts of ceremonies and readings here and there, there is no such thing as a “canned script.” At least not one that is going to do you or your guests any justice.

Without spending at least some time talking to the officiant, explaining who you are as people and what your preferences are, we have no way of knowing what is the “right” thing to say.

alanah and scott, ketubahIt Just Takes Time

Beyond this ephemeral thing called “skill” you are paying for in an officiant, the other thing you are paying for is his or her time.

It takes time for an officiant to field calls and return calls (some of which won’t yield work). It takes time to:

* think about the couple and all the ways something can be said;

* get to know both partners, outline the many ritual choices, sometimes even meet with their parents;

* plan ahead for their date and not schedule vacations or personal events on the day of their wedding;

* give up time with our own family, usually on a weekend and often in an evening;

* possibly hiring a babysitter;

* travel each way to the venue site, which often takes more time than the wedding ritual  itself.

In short, we are investing way more than the “20 minutes” presumed by that blogger on The Knot ― even for a “simpler” lower-budget wedding. We are investing many hours for that magical 20 minutes that looks easy and came off seamlessly. And hey, don’t knock the importance of “magic”. A wedding ritual should be magical, and it is worth way more (in my opinion) than having high-end napkins on the table, or having 2 buckets of flowers instead of one.

One other thing to keep in mind: How many people you have in attendance at your wedding or vow renewal has virtually no impact on how much time we spend working for your wedding. Caterers price based on head count, but for officiants, we factor based on time. The prices people quote you will be an indication of how much time, thought and energy they are planning to spend creating the ritual of your wedding.

Is it okay with you if your officiant shows up five minutes before the ceremony, reads a canned script that takes under 10 minutes to declare you married, and then dodges out the door the minute it is over? If you are okay with that, then go for the $250 offer.

But, if the ritual part of your wedding is more important to you than that; if you want to be more involved, have a choice of readings, maybe even meet in person first; if you want your officiant to show up early and stick around a little bit afterward – you’ll need to anticipate a higher price.

So just what kind of price quotes will you get in the officiant bidding process? Assuming your venue is within one hour of the officiant’s home, you can get $250 for a stripped down, no personalization process, uber fast (under 10 minutes) I described above. A typical price for a full-on wedding, with meetings, ketubahs and interfaith discussions (which take longer), $800 is the standard Philly free. Some rabbis are willing to bend on their price (I am, depending on hardship, and depending on location). Prices can go up to the $950-$1300 range when travel time is several hours in each direction.

Lastly for very small home weddings, esp. second marriages, with 10-15 guests, often done in someone’s home, but with ritual planning beforehand and a reasonable location, $500 is the fairly universal fee.

I hope this helps!

Kim&Ryan3581
***
For more on weddings, please see some of my other posts:

“How can I make my Jewish or interfaith wedding unique, funny or even funky?”

Mainline Philly’s best-kept outdoors wedding venue secret (and it’s free!)

“We are an interfaith couple. Should a rabbi or minister marry us?”

Is it possible to be a religious atheist? Can a Jewish ‘atheist’ have a Jewish wedding? Short answer : Yes.

Interfaith rabbi for secular, interfaith or Jewish weddings, baby namings and funerals

Secrets to finding a wedding officiant you’ll love

Best place to get married in Philly — and the world’s best wedding dress website!


To write your own wedding vows, or not to write your own vows: That is the question. About half of the couples whose weddings I have officiated have wrestled with that question. Most of them, in the end, decide not to.

What are the pros and cons of writing your own vows? What are the different ways it can be done?  This blog post strives to answer those questions, by offering some examples of successful vow exchanges I have seen.


Pros to writing your own vows:

● You get to say exactly what you want to say.

● It’s a chance to show off your fine verbal skills – and your sense of humor.

● It is sure to make half the women in the audience cry.

● It is sure to make half the men in the audience struggle really hard NOT to cry.


Cons to writing your own vows:

● It’s hard. Really hard. How do you boil down such sweeping concepts as “love” and “eternity” into the English language? That’s why we have poets. Not everyone is cut out for this work.

● It takes time. And time is one of the few things couples have before weddings. Don’t you have some centerpieces that need stuffed? And where in the world is grandma’s old blue garter belt anyway? Has that been found?

● You don’t just have to write it. You have to read it. Out loud. In public. Without making a snot-filled fool of yourself. Hey, if you can get through it, you have my endless admiration. I can never get through a wedding without losing a tear or two myself, and I’m the officiant. I’m the one person who is supposed to have it pulled together! So if you can write and deliver your vows and keep your composure while doing it, my kippah is off to ya!


Here are three different ways of writing your vows:

1)      The groom reads his words. Then the bride reads her words (or vice versa). Below is a draft of one groom’s vows to his wife, which I found particularly lovely. With his permission, I am pasting them below. The vows were kept as a surprise to the other party; I looked over them to make sure they were similar in length and tone, and made slight editing suggestions to make them “match up.”

2)      The groom and bride alternate sentences. This came off really well; the crowd was touched, and everyone laughed a lot too.

3)      The groom reads; then the bride reads. The couple planned their vows together, to play off the same words and phrases. The guests loved these vows too.


OPTION No. 1: Surprise Vows

Groom reads. Then bride reads. (Or vice versa). Only the officiant has checked their vows before the big day. Here is just what the groom wrote.

 

Example from their Jewish wedding, replete with military honor guards, at World Cafe Live:

Alanah: Two-and-a-half years ago, I asked you out for coffee, out on our first date and thankfully, you said yes. After that date, we so effortlessly became entwined in each other’s lives, it was easy to picture this day ahead.

Eighteen months ago, while on a very long distance phone call, I asked you to move with me from California all the way here to the East Coast, and thankfully, you said yes. It was a leap of faith for both of us; a fantastic storyline still unfolding.

One year ago, while on vacation in paradise, I asked you to join me up here, witnessed by our family and friends, under this chuppah we’ve since created together, to take my hand and be my wife, and thankfully, you said yes.

So now, in front of our family and friends, I have another question to ask, one that you spend the rest of our lives answering:

Will you forever be my partner in this adventure of life and lend your endless patience to help me create a loving household where mutual respect, communication and unconditional love reign over all. Will you continue to be an everlasting source of deep personal strength, the rock by my side through trying times and stay the reassuring voice of better times ahead. Will you forever be the smiling face by my side every morning, to lighten my days with the sweetness of your personality and continue to be the most genuinely kind person I’ve ever met.

Though we walked up here separately, in a few minutes you and I will take hands and walk down off this stage, and down the aisle past our family and friends, and into our future as partners, as husband and wife. I can’t wait.

 

OPTION No. 2: The Planned Back-And-Forth

(The couples exchanges one-line vows, which they clearly wrote together. Groom in bold. Bride in plain script.)

 

Example from their secular wedding at a funky nightclub in Manyunk:

Groom: With this ring, I promise to be your best friend

Bride: With this ring, I promise to be your best friend

I promise to cook for you

I promise to try your cooking and bake you treats

To have family dinners every night

To ask you about your day and tell you about mine

To listen and hear your point of view

To respect you

To always be honest

To tell you how I feel

To play with your hair

To fold your socks and do the dishes

To support you in achieving your goals

To be your biggest fan

To compromise

To share my bowl of ice cream, and other things in life

To control my temper

To always say ‘I’m Sorry’

To hold you in good times and bad

To make you laugh

To let you have the window seat on the plane rides home

To take lots of pictures so we can always remember the good times

To tell you that you’re beautiful

To love you even in the moments when I don’t like you

To take care of you

To try new things

To never stop traveling the world

To be open minded

To be the best father I can be

To be the best mother I can be

To always put family first

To kiss you every morning

And tuck you in every night

I love you

I love you too

 

OPTION No. 3: The Planned Paragraph Vow

(The couples takes turns reading their half of a script, which the pair clearly wrote together. The upside is it creates and plays off of the parallel structure and promises. The downside is, neither bride nor groom is surprised in the moment.)   

 

Example from their secular Jewish wedding at Morris Arboretum:

Lauren:

Standing with you here today, among our family and friends, I cannot wait to begin this journey into the rest of our lives, with you by my side and my hand in yours.

I promise to listen. I will listen to your thoughts, your worries, your dreams and your concerns.

I promise to look after you. When you have a knot in your back, I will kneed it. When your head has a fever, I will cool it. And when you need ice cream, I will help you eat it.

I promise to treasure what you treasure. From furry and mischievous kittens to your interests and hobbies, I will help you enjoy life and experience it fully.

I promise to accept and embrace your idiosyncrasies. I will remember that our quirks make us who we are. When you wake up with only breakfast on your mind, I will steer you to Kashi. When we are out of Kashi, I will make you eggs.

I promise to support you emotionally. I will give support as you seek out your goals, when you are successful and when you fall short. When you achieve your goals, I will be there to celebrate. When you do not, I will be there to comfort.

I promise to not take our relationship for granted. I will actively nurture ‘us’. I will continue to communicate and check-in, to keep us stronger together than we are apart.

Stephen:

Standing with you here today, among our family and friends, I cannot wait to begin this journey into the rest of our lives, with you by my side and your hand in mine.

I promise to listen. I will listen to your zany, impossible ideas, your worries, and your dreams.

I promise to look after you. When you can’t figure out how to use our kitchen appliances, I will help you.  When you have a bad dream, I will comfort you.  And when you crave the mushroomy thing I make that you love, I will make it for you.

I promise to treasure what you treasure. From kittens, to data analysis, to moments of peace and quiet, I will help you enjoy life and experience it fully.

I promise to accept and embrace your idiosyncrasies. I will remember that our quirks make us who we are.  When you get so hungry that you forget to eat, I will bring you a snack.  When you need to double check something one more time – just to be sure – I will smile and remember that your careful nature is a wonderful part of who you are.

I promise to support you emotionally. I will be there with you as you pursue your dreams.  I will celebrate with you when you are successful, and I will comfort you when you fall short.  I will never let you forget how exceptional you are.

I promise to not take our relationship for granted. I will actively nurture ‘us’. I will continue to communicate and check-in, to keep us stronger together than we are apart.


Are you looking for a ritual officiant for the burial or memorial service of a Jewish loved one?

I am a freelance officiant of Jewish funerals and weddings. I have completed four years of rabbinical school and live in Havertown in the Mainline.

In this blog post, I will let you know what the preparation process is like. While I officiate standard traditional Jewish funerals, my largest clientele is families who are unaffiliated, have interfaith family dynamics or who want a theistically secular funeral service. In this post, I will also give you some examples of specific prayers or readings we can use in the service.

Every funeral ritual is different: As an officiant, I try to match the liturgy and content with the beliefs and wishes of the deceased as well as the sentiments of his/her loved ones. Trying to do both is possible — it just takes some time, and some conversations, to figure it out.

Many Jewish funerals include two classic pieces of Jewish liturgy: the Mourner’s Kaddish and El Male Rachamim. But today, many people favor more contemporary readings on the issues of death and grief.  For an interfaith audience, a traditional reading from the Torah (such as Psalm 23 “The Lord is My Shephard I Shall Not Want …”) works well, and is recognizable to both Jews and Christians. OR, we can substitute biblical readings with selections that are less theistic in nature, such as an excerpt from the beautiful poem by Marge Piercy called The Seven of Pentacles.

We figure out what readings or liturgy are best to include, based on the conversations I have with immediate family members and friends.

During the memorial service, I love to include one to three guests, who come up during the service and offer a few thoughts or memories about the loved one. We can also include and “open mic” situation, where we open up the floor to any of the guests present for some impromptu memory-sharing.

I also love to include a short eulogy where I share highlights of the person’s life, her loves and interests, and what she will be most remembered for. Prior to my rabbinic life, I worked as a professional journalist for 15 years; this autobiographical information I glean from family members during interviews, and write into a eulogy that I hope captures the spirit and life of the person who died.

So how, exactly, does all of this happen? The process for funeral service planning is the following:

1) An initial phone call to get acquainted and confirm the schedule.

2) If you live in the Mainline, an in-person meeting with one or two family members who knew the deceased really well. We will meet for about 1 hour in your home, and discuss what kind of service you would like, as well as share details about who the deceased was as a person.

3) If you live outside the Mainline, this planning meeting can be done via conference call.

4) Ask you to find out the deceased person’s Hebrew name. You might need to make calls to your extended family to find this out. It might also be recorded on a ketubah. A person’s Hebrew name is usually used during the memorial service.

5) Meet ½ an hour before the service begins to go over any final details or questions.

6) The service itself is usually held at the funeral home. If internment is going to take place, the service is usually followed by a much shorter graveside service, with just immediate family members attending.

If you are on a tight schedule planning your funeral, and wish to contact me, please send me an email, as well as phone call. (I have several small children at home, so I’m not always deeply attuned to all of my technological gadgets!)

They are: joysa@aol.com,  (c) 267-902-7752.

May strength, comfort and peace be with you and your family in this difficult time.

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Another article I wrote on this topic can be found here: http://wanderinghebrew.com/2012/08/15/planning-a-jewish-funeral-in-philly-101-what-you-need-to-know/


Honoring the death of a person who was difficult to love

- A combo memorial service / shiva minyan can help you do so

 A few weeks ago, I had the complicated privilege of helping a family plan a memorial/shiva service for their father, who had died after a long illness, and after an even longer period of pain of estrangement from his four adult children, their spouses, and his grandchildren.

“Andy,” as I will call him, was a complicated persotombstonen, which is why I described my job, as the rabbi, to be “complicated.”

Andy was in his 80s and was hard to get along with, perhaps even abusive at times to his children. He played favorites in a way that the adult children had learned to cope with, but which had surely created much pain and heartache when they were younger and less mature. Andy had divorced his kids’ mother and she had no interest in attending any kind of memorial. None of the women he had dated since  the divorce cared to attend any kind of service either. It appears he had no friends.

Jewish burial practices were clearly made with a different kind of person in mind. Jews and non-Jews alike, including the world of psychiatric research, has a great deal of admiration for the way Jewish tradition handles end-of-life mourning practices. People have written many books about the wisdom of Jewish mourning traditions, and how they seem designed to gradually lead the survivors through the stages of mourning, and eventually back into the world of the living.

I agree. They are brilliant. And I encourage Jews who never do more Jewishly in their lives than appear at Kol Nidre services to take the time to familiarize themselves with the Jewish ways of mourning when a loved one dies. Together, they betray a keen awareness of how we humans process loss, and how marking intervals of time over this mourning process with specific rituals and prayers can help us move through our grief.

I won’t go into the various elements now – you can read them many places. Rather, what I would like to talk about here are those deaths that we feel a need or desire to ritually acknowledge in some way, but for a variety of reasons, the Jewish script on how to do so doesn’t fit quite right.

• The death of someone who is very old, and thus leaves few survivors, is one whole category of cases where classical Jewish mourning practices don’t entirely make sense.

• The death of someone who was, essentially, a hard person to love, is another important category. This is the situation “Andy’s” family found themselves in.

In a “typical” death of a beloved, Jewish tradition kicks in with a set of clearly prescribed actions:

1.         Call the funeral home.
2.         Plan for either a burial or cremation.
(40% of Jews today are being cremated; it’s the hush-hush secret no on talks about.)
3.         Schedule a date and plan on 100+ people coming to the funeral home for a service inside the funeral home.
4.         A portion of those mourners will then drive to the graveside, where thtexte rabbi will read a few more psalms or poems, and conclude with the mourner’s kaddish. The final act is the throwing of dirt on the casket or the urn that is being buried. You can assume steps 1-4 will take about 5 hours out of your day, much of it in travel time, since the funeral homes and the burial grounds are often located very far apart. In Philly, most of them are located in the far outskirts of the city.
5.         Then comes shiva. Traditionally, it is 7 nights, but most families outside Orthodoxy observe only 1 or 2 nights. The rabbi who led the funeral usually leads the shiva as well, unless you have an educated friend or family member who can lead the service. (This is one way of saving some money, if that is an issue.)
6.         Then, about 6 months after the death, immediate family members gather graveside for the unveiling of the tombstone. This is a brief ceremony, 15 minutes tops, but people often have lunch together afterward. Due to travel time, this often takes another 3-4 hours.

The average cost for all this (assuming a burial and not a cremation) is $35,000, according to national statistics. The rabbi makes a miniscule fraction of this sum, by the way. In Philadelphia, the fixed rate for a funeral is $545 for the rabbi; shiva minyans and tombstone unveilings are negotiated separately, and vary depending on travel time.

At the end of the day, this “whole big megilla” of a traditional Jewish burial is a whole lot of money. It’s especially a lot of money if you suspect few people will even attend the funeral, the graveside, or a shiva, either because the deceased had outlived his social circle, or because the deceased was that sort of person who was simply hard to love.

But put aside all financial considerations for a moment and just think about the emotional ones. Do you want to invest 10 or 15 hours of your life memorializing someone who, despite their kinship, caused you deep grief or heartache? How much time do you want to spend formally mourning a person who caused you to spend years of your life on a therapist’s couch?

I’m going to take a wild guess here and say: Probably not much.

But that also doesn’t mean you don’t want to do nothing at all, either.

A memorial service, however it is done, is for the living, not for the dead. So first and foremost, it needs to meet the needs of the immediate mourners. The many layered, time-consuming, expensive rituals usually done upon the death of a beloved was not what Andy’s family needed.

Although the death of a difficult family member, like Andy, is a different kind of loss than the death of someone close, but it is still very much a loss. Sometimes, quixotically, it can be an even harder loss because it can bring up all sorts of feels of regret, thoughts of “if only…” and “what if…”

The death of a person with whom you had a broken relationship means this relationship can NEVER be repaired. It likely couldn’t have been repaired by any means, because the man who died was himself too broken of a person, but the survivor is left with the shards of this broken vessel for the remainder of their days, and they need to make peace with it.

Having a brief, perhaps in-home memorial service with just immediate family members can be one way of helping them do that.

Andy’s surviving children and spouses were an incredibly wise bunch. They had already figured out, long before calling me, that doing the traditional Jewish funeral rites was not what they needed. It would have been, to put it bluntly, overkill. But they did instintively know that they needed to come together as a family, and in some way mark the passing of this person who had, for better and for worse, made such an enormous impact on their lives.

They were so right. So, working together, here is what we did. I think of it as a Jewish funeral/shiva combo. It was inexpensive; it was respectful; and it served its purpose of helping the mourners mark the loss of their father, that they might now move forward to this new phase in their lives.

 A Combined Home Memorial  / Shiva Minyan Service

(in lieu of the traditional memorial service at funeral home/graveside service/
and then shiva minyans)

Timing: Andy had died and been cremated about one month earlier. An in-home memorial was planned for a few weeks after his death to give relativmosaices from out of town time to buy plane tickets at a reasonable price and prepare time off from work and school (in the case of the grandchildren).

Location: At the home of one of Andy’s daughters in the Mainline PA.

Time: Late morning or early afternoon on a Saturday or Sunday seemed to make the most sense. This minimized impact on their own work/school lives, while also making it possible to follow the home memorial with a meal together, which they had at a restaurant. (I led the service, but did not join them at the meal).

In Attendance:  Four surviving daughters, their four spouses, and all but one of the grandchildren (the missing grandchild was in college and had only met his grandfather once, so in his case, it didn’t seem to make sense that he would incur the cost and headache of missed collegiate work.)

 A Sample Service:

We sat in chairs in a circle in the living room, where we could all face each other.

Rabbi: I began with a favorite reading from Albert Einstein, where he reflects on the meaning of life. I concluded by saying:

“Thank you to all of you who have come here today, to stand in comfort and support of the Smith family, as they mourn the passage of their father, father-in-law and grandfather, Andy Smith. Please turn to page 4a.

 Rise for the Shema

Rabbi: Read a brief writing from Chaim Stern

Volunteer Reader: Reads an English rendition of Ma’ariv Aravim

Everyone: Recite the Shema together

Volunteer Reader: Read an English rendition of V’ahavta

Rabbi: “There are times when each of us feels lost or alone, adrift and forsaken, unable to reach those next to us, or to be reached by them. And there are days and nights when existence seems to lack all purpose, and our lives seem brief sparks in an indifferent cosmos. Fear and loneliness enter into the soul. None of us is immune from doubt and fear; none escapes times when all seems dark and senseless. Then, the ebb-tide of the spirit, the soul cries out and reaches for companionship.”

Please turn to 13a as we rise and recite together the first three blessings of the psalmnatureAmidah. For the 15 remaining blessings, I invite you to recite them silently, or simply take this time for quiet personal reflection.

 Group: Recites the Amidah (Also called “The Tefillah”)

 Conclude the Amidah by singing together “Oseh Shalom”

Rabbi: Shares a reading from Marge Piercy

Rabbi: Shares some highlights from Andy Smith’s life: where he was born, raised, what kind of work he did. Mention his strengths and those things he did well in life.

Then open the circle to anyone else who would like to share some memories
Three members of the family shared some brief positive memories they had of Andy.

Volunteer Reader: The circle closed with a recitation of the poem by Albert Fine: “Death is a Beginning, Death is a Destination.” (The poem had been suggested by one of the daughters; she had heard it at other funerals and liked it.)

Rabbi: Sings/Chants El Malei Rachamim – a mournful prayer in which we ask that the soul of the departed carry on into the next world on the wings of angels.

Rabbi: Leads the concluding Mourner’s Kaddish.

 *   *   *

Shavuot: Let's keep it the harvest holiday it was originally meant to be!

This is just one of many ways a combined at-home memorial / shiva service can be conducted. The readings and content was selected after speaking with the family members. All in all, the service lasted about 40 minutes.

Every death is different. The needs of the mourners will be different for any family. To discuss what kind of service might meet the needs of your family, please give me a call. There is never any charge for a consultation, and if I feel I am not able to meet the needs of your family – for whatever reason – I am happy to help you find someone who will.

Every death, even the most difficult one, deserves to be honored and recognized in some way. Working together, we can make this happen for you. I have formal training across the non-Orthodox spectrum: Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal and Secular-Humanist. We can craft a ceremony that honors your theistic beliefs, and those of the deceased.

Please call both my numbers, and my email, if you are trying to schedule a memorial/shiva. I’m not always checking my electronic devices, so try all three. My name is Joysa and my numbers are 610-642-2420. Cell 267-902-7752. Email: joysa@aol.com


As dawn broke, the angels urged Lot on, saying, ‘Up, take your wife and your two remaining daughters, lest you be swept away because of the iniquity of the city.’

Still he delayed. So the angels seized his hand, and the hands of his wife and his two daughters – in God’s mercy – and brought him out and left him outside the city.

When they had brought them outside, one said to Lot, ‘Flee for your life! Do not look behind you, nor stop anywhere in the Plain; flee to the hills, lest you be swept away!’

But Lot argued with the angel, ‘Evil may take hold of me if I flee to the hills,’ he said. ‘Look — there is a small town nearby. Let me go there and save my life!’ The angel relented. ‘Go quickly,’ the angel said, ‘for I can do nothing until you get there.’

As the brimstone and fire then rained out of the heavens onto Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot’s wife looked behind him and became a pillar of salt.
(Genesis 19:15-26)

I confess, I have always had a certain affection for the woman in the Bible we know only as “Lot’s wife.” Any way you look at it, she got the raw end of a really raw deal.

For starters, she was married to a dolt — and even that descriptor is too generous when you look at just how incompetent Lot really was.

First, in Genesis 19:8, he offers his two virgin daughters to the men of the town to “do with as you please.” It is only thanks to the intervention of the angels that the young women are saved. Then, in verse 20, when the angels urge Lot to take his family and flee the city before it’s too late, he dilly dallies so long, the angels have to physically take his hand and lead them out of town.

Once outside, the angels urge him again to flee, and what does Lot do? He stands his ground and argues with them! “It’s too far!” he complains. “Can’t I just go to that town over there instead!?!” The angels acquiesce again, holding back the brimstone and fire until the family has reached safety.

Then, in a final act of irresponsibility, Lot fails to tell his wife and daughters the warning one of the angels had given him in verse 17 — that crucial piece of information about how, if they look back at the destruction, they too will be swept away. The text states clearly that the angels warned him — “al tavit achareycha” — in the masculine singular. These crucial words of warning were only spoken to Lot, not to the rest of his family. And Lot, being the kind of guy Lot was, never relayed them. We all know how this tragic series of events ends. Lot’s wife looks behind them and turns into a pillar of salt.

The question that has been occupying rabbinic commentators ever since is: Why did she look? Some have answered generously.

Writing in 12th century Egypt, Maimonides said Lot’s wife was looking behind her husband to see who might be following him, acting as a rear guard for all his household, who were hurrying to be saved.

The  late 14th century agaddic collection Midrash ha-Gadol says she felt concern for her married daughters, whom they had left behind, and she was turning to see if they were following.

Other commentators, overlooking the crucial fact that she had never heard the angels’ warning, concoct far more damning explanations. The 3rd century midrashic collection B’reishit Rabba said she had once refused to give salt to a poor person, so being turned into salt was a punishment ‘measure for measure.’

Jacob Chinitz, rabbi emeritus of Beth Ami Congregation in Philadelphia, now living in Israel, imagines that she looked back only to delight in the destruction of her townspeople. “She could not resist enjoying their failure and her success even though it was only her good fortune to be married to Abraham’s nephew,” the USCJ explains.

Good fortune!?!? Being married to this schlemiel was good fortune!?!

To my thinking, the question isn’t why did Lot’s wife look back — it’s why wouldn’t she!?

Here she is, the world literally raining down on her in flames, and her future, her fate is entirely dependent on this man who has proven himself paralyzed by indecision. And when he finally does make decisions, they are disastrously bad ones!

Lot’s wife may very well have been looking back out of concern for her other daughters, or out of sorrow at the destruction of the people she knew. We can never know because the text doesn’t give a clue about her inner life.

But what I do know is that I would have looked back — if for no other reason that to make sure we were on a safe path, that we weren’t being pursued, that flame and fire were not lapping at our heels. I would have not only looked back, I would have looked forwards and sideways too, to check, and recheck, that this course of action was the right one. To make sure my inept husband was not leading us into disaster.

When you are tethered, without recourse, to an unfortunate man, you can never be too careful.

I respect Lot’s wife for not following her husband blindly. I admire her for being cautious in a perilous situation in which she had no power. I love the woman depicted by 20th century American poet Shirley Kaufman, who offered this to say about a person so brave and so resolute, whom our history-writers never saw fit to even name:

But it was right that she
looked back. Not to be
curious, some lumpy
reaching of the mind
that turns all shapes to pillars.
But to be only who she was
apart from them, the place
exploding, and herself
defined. Seeing them melt
to slag heaps and the flames
slide into their mouths.
Testing her own lips then,
the coolness, till
she could taste the salt.

Original artwork by Charles Dickinson.


What has risen is the total number of Jews. Pew counted 6.3 million Jews this year. It also offers a second possible figure, 6.7 million, which includes children who are being raised Jewish “and something else.” This causes some confusion. Adults of Jewish parentage who practice Judaism “and something else” — usually Christianity, occasionally Buddhism — aren’t included in the Jewish population.

But kids — hey, you never know how they’ll turn out, right? So you can’t just write them off statistically. Experience shows that some will grow up to be Jewish.

It makes sense to use a working total somewhere in the middle, around 6.5 million. Up from 5.5 million. That’s an 18% increase in a quarter-century when America’s population grew 26%. We were supposed to be declining.

Here is an article that just came out in the Jewish Daily Forward (October 2013). Think it’s worth sharing!

Published Sunday, October 13, 2013

Pew Survey About Jewish America Got It All Wrong

With Flawed Comparisons, Study Reached Faulty Conclusions

By J.J. Goldberg

If you’ve been following the news about that new survey of American Jews from the folks at the Pew Research Center, you’ve probably heard the basics. The New York Times summed it up nicely: “a significant rise in those who are not religious, marry outside the faith and are not raising their children Jewish.”

There’s one more thing you need to know: It’s not true. None of it.

A “rise in those who are not religious”? Wrong. More Jews marrying “outside the faith”? Wrong. More Jews “not raising their children Jewish”? Wrong.

No, not wrong as in “I think there’s a better way to interpret those numbers.” Wrong as in “incorrect.” Erroneous. Whoops.

Mind you, most of what’s in the study seems solid, from what this reasonably informed layman can tell. It just so happens that Pew made an honest mistake in one highly visible spot, and that  is what grabbed the headlines. Then the reporters made a few mistakes reading the material. The result was what you saw: a dark portent of doom.

Take away the errors, and you get a very different narrative. It would go something like this: Despite decades of warnings that American Jewry is dissolving in the face of assimilation and intermarriage, a major new survey by one of America’s most respected social research organizations depicts a Jewish community that is growing more robustly than even the optimists expected.

Over the past quarter-century (it continues), the data show a community that has grown in number. Intermarriage leveled off in the late 1990s after rising steadily through much of the 20th century, and has remained stable for the past 15 years.

By some measures, Jews appear to be increasing overall levels of Jewish practice and engagement. Most surprising, significant numbers of children of intermarriage have grown up to become Jewish adults, far exceeding even their own parents’ intentions.

If things are so good, why do they look so bad? Simple. After calculating its data, Pew compared its findings with an earlier survey to see where things were headed.

Unfortunately, they picked the so-called National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01, best remembered as a multimillion-dollar botch job. Its release had been delayed two years to allow two separate reviews by outside experts. The confidential reviews were devastating. This was not a useful data point.

A critical misstep in 2000 was a decision to set aside interviewees with “weak Jewish connections” and not bother asking them detailed questions about Jewish identity. One result was a falsely upbeat picture of Jewish commitment and practice. Another was the disappearance of most Jews who claimed “no religion.” You can guess the rest.

When Pew compared its findings with NJPS 2000-01, researchers were shocked to discover a huge increase in Jews answering “none” for religion. Pew’s total in 2013 was 22%. The records from 2000 turned up 7%. Conclusion: Jews were abandoning religion.

That should have rung an alarm. Fifteen percent of a highly visible and vocal religious community, three-quarters of a million people, quietly losing their religious faith inside a decade? How could that happen?

The answer is, it didn’t. For a reality check, go back to an earlier survey, NJPS 1990, which was highly regarded in most respects. Of 5.5 million Jews it found, 20% chose “none” for religion. Given a 3% margin of error, that’s the same as 22%. There’s been no rise. None.

What has risen is the total number of Jews. Pew counted 6.3 million Jews this year. It also offers a second possible figure, 6.7 million, which includes children who are being raised Jewish “and something else.” This causes some confusion. Adults of Jewish parentage who practice Judaism “and something else” — usually Christianity, occasionally Buddhism — aren’t included in the Jewish population.

But kids — hey, you never know how they’ll turn out, right? So you can’t just write them off statistically. Experience shows that some will grow up to be Jewish.

It makes sense to use a working total somewhere in the middle, around 6.5 million. Up from 5.5 million. That’s an 18% increase in a quarter-century when America’s population grew 26%. We were supposed to be declining.

Also increased, surprisingly, are rates of Passover Seder attendance, fasting on Yom Kippur, Sabbath candle-lighting and kosher food observance. Some of the increase can be explained by the growth of the Orthodox population, from 7% to 10%. But that covers less than half the rise.

One of the biggest surprises in the Pew survey is how many children of intermarriage actually grew up to be Jewish. In the 1990 survey, 28% of intermarried couples said they were raising their children as Jews.

In 2013, a generation later, at least 43% of those children grew up to be Jewish anyway. And why not? In a world where half-Jews like Gwyneth Paltrow, Ryan Braun, Scarlett Johannson and Drake proudly identify as Jews, Jewish is cool.

It would be a mistake to see the picture as entirely rosy. Adult children of intermarriage who identify as Jews are split roughly evenly between Jews by religion and Jews of no religion. By contrast, adults with two Jewish parents identify with religion by a 7-to-1 margin.

This is significant for several reasons. Non-religious Jews tend to have a far more ambivalent tie to Jewish identity. They’re only half as likely to say that being Jewish is important in their lives, that they feel themselves to be part of a Jewish community or that they feel a special obligation to other Jews in need. Only one-third of those with children say they’re raising them as Jews.

On the other hand, if we know anything about the future, it’s that we can’t know the future. Back in 1990, only 28% of half-Jewish children were supposed to end up Jewish, yet nearly half did. Will the children of today’s non-religious Jews turn out the same way? Who knows?

Besides, we know a great deal about what non-religious Jews don’t do or believe, but very little about what they do. Nearly all the survey tools for measuring Jewish behavior describe religious rituals. Non-religious Jews obviously score low.

But we get hints, and they’re intriguing. For example: We know that as interfaith marriages grow in raw numbers, their children increase as a proportion of both religious and especially non-religious Jewry. That should increase the downward pull of non-religious Jews’ ties. And yet the proportion of non-religious Jews who fast on Yom Kippur has more than doubled since 1990, from 10% to 22%.

The lead technical advisor on the 1990 survey, the distinguished Brown University sociologist Sidney Goldstein, wrote in the 1992 American Jewish Year Book that with low birthrate, aging, high intermarriage and few intermarried couples raising Jewish children, “there seems little prospect that the total core Jewish population of the United States will rise above 5.5 million.”

In fact, he wrote, it’s “more likely that the core population will decline toward 5.0 million and possibly even below it in the early decades of the 21st century.”

Like I said: Whoops.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at goldberg@forward.com


The Jewish New Year is upon us, making the time ripe for a wistful reflection on all those beautiful, stunning, heart-felt vow exchanges I had the pleasure of officiating and witnessing this past year in metropolitan Philly.

Do you have wedding coming ahead in the 2014 calendar year? If so, here are a few of my Favorites, for all things related to weddings. By the way, none of these places or businesses are giving me any “kickbacks” for endorsing them — they are, quite simply, my favorite sites and sounds for weddings in Philadelphia!

Drop me a line at Joysa@aol.com if you’d like information on hiring me to be your officiant. I specialize in Jewish and interfaith weddings, as well as secular/nontheistic weddings for couples coming out of any religious tradition.

#1: Best Philly Wedding Venue: Sweet Water Farms in Glen Mills takes the cake as most elegant. sophisticated, and yet tuned-into-nature venue of anywhere in metro Philly.

The former summer home of the infamous Grace Kelly, Sweet Water farm today acts as a winery, a small-scale B&B, and a rustic venue replete with an old-time wooden water well, a two-story farm house decked out in twinkly white lights, and rolling views overlooking horses, wild flowers, and a heated pool and jacuzzi.

The 50–acre historic estate features 14 guest rooms: three in the original 1734 Quaker farmhouse wing and four in the 1815 Georgian wing.  The original carriage house, greenhouse and caretaker’s cottage have all been transformed into seven guest cottages, five of which are pet– and child–friendly.

Other amenities for a perfect getaway are a swimming pool, outdoor hot tub, golf chipping range, nine-hole disc golf course, private massage room, fitness room, walking trail and a friendly family of horses, sheep and goats.

Check out their online photo gallery here, to get a complete picture of this beautiful property!: http://sweetwaterfarmbb.gracewinery.com/property/property.php

#2 Best Wedding Dress Shopping Online: BHLDN.

When it comes to shopping for that perfect wedding dress, you can’t do better than BHLDN. Their beautiful, flowing — and most important of all — UNIQUE gowns flatter every body size and can work with nearly every budget.

When it comes to wedding dresses, BHLDN has captured my soul. This Kauai wedding dress costs only $800 and is probably one of the most unique, imaginative dresses I’ve ever imagined walking down the aisle in!

While the form flows free, elegant details like intricate embroidery, an asymmetrical hem, and a slender braided neck ribbon with crystal button closure ensure this dress is anything but ordinary. Can’t you just picture it on a seashore wedding, walking barefoot in the sand?

This Lita Gown (below right) sells for a bit pricier at $2,400. But it is made of pearly beads that trim the edges of a gauzy, attached coverlet above a sleek dress of luminous silk charmeuse. Though not pictured here, a thin, self-tie string of silk at the nape of the neck ensures sleeves won’t slip off your shoulders.

The gown has underwire and bust cups, silk tulle and silk charmeuse shell, as well as a silk charmeuse lining.

*****

The company sells all sorts of other keepsakes useful for a wedding. For example, check out these beautiful, antique-looking gifts for the bridal party, as well as picture holders that could be used to decorate tables in a reception room.

This beautifully articulated  shining scallop opens to reveal a single pearl to hold the wedding bands. Handmade from silver, nickel-plated brass and pearl, they measure 1.5”H, 2.75”W, 2.75”L.

More decors can be viewed here: www.bhldn.com/the-shop-decor-keepsakes/.

For more on Jewish weddings, please see some of my other posts: