N.J. man officiates as ‘celebrant’ at religion-free weddings

N.J. man officiates as ‘celebrant’ at religion-free weddings

Gerald Fierst has officiated as a ‘celebrant’ at about 80 marriages since graduating a few years ago from the Celebrant USA Foundation and Institute in Montclair, where he lives.

To do that, Fierst said in an interview, he needs to be licensed as clergy by the state so, as part of its process, Celebrants USA arranges for its graduates to be designated as interfaith ministers. That designation makes Fierst uneasy and rabbis interviewed by The Jewish Standard were dismissive of it.

Norlyn Feldman and Ed Poto stand under a chuppah and Gerald Fierst marries them.

"I know there are such people because I read about them in the Times," said Rabbi Neal Borovitz of Temple Sholom in River Edge. These are not ministers who come out of a seminary tradition and there is "something inauthentic" about it.

"Each of the faiths are different paths to the one faith, the one God," said Borovitz. But, he added, when it comes to lifecycle events, "you can’t mix them."

Rabbi Stephen Wylen of Temple Beth Tikvah in Wayne said he’s heard of a place in New York where one can pay $3,000 for a weekend of training and emerge as an interfaith minister. He’s even heard of couples taking the course together, with one coming out a rabbi, the other a minister.

In New Jersey, only judges, mayors, and licensed ministers can perform marriage ceremonies, said Fierst, but the only legal requirements of the ceremony are that the couple recognize it as a binding commitment, intended to be lifelong, that they assent to the commitment, and that it’s witnessed by two people and the officiant and filed with the clerk. "That’s like property law."

"I’m legal," said Fierst. "They can’t go back and say, ‘He’s a crackpot, it didn’t count’."

The celebrant organization was founded in Australia about ‘5 years ago, he said; in that country, celebrants now "do the majority of weddings." To ordain their graduates, who, like clergy, officiate at the gamut of lifecycle ceremonies, "they have a little ritual" which reminds the new celebrants of the commonality of people all over the world and "the dignity of the human spirit."

"It’s not a religious or a New Age concept," he said. "The idea is not to cannibalize religions."

Fierst, who is Jewish, grew up in New York but has lived in Montclair for 33 years, arriving there to work in a theater company and then moving on to become a storyteller, still his primary profession.

"I try to create a ritual that incorporates the whole story of the couple," said Fierst. For him, ritual "takes people from the personal to the universal. In the purest sense of the word, it’s sublime." In his wedding ceremonies, which last ‘0 to 30 minutes, he tries for "something that will have heart to it, [something] expressive, so that their guests don’t sit there thinking, ‘When will the party begin?’"

One couple asked him to develop a ceremony based on the works of Dr. Seuss, which he said he initially had reservations about because "I also have taste. But it became really charming."

People come to him from across cultures and from all economic levels, he said, from people who met as waiters at Pizzeria Uno to major corporate executives at Time-Warner. It’s "very rare" to get a request for a wedding from a couple in which both partners are Jewish.

Those who choose to have their wedding performed by a celebrant might be secular, so they would "feel hypocritical and uncomfortable having a religious ceremony" or they might be intermarrying "but want something more than just a judge." He’s worked with Chinese couples who are Buddhist but whose sense of the occasion is not to bring in a Buddhist priest but to have something "modern, Western, but also capture some of the ethnicity."

Often people have not enjoyed their experience at friends’ weddings, said Fierst. "They’re looking for something better."

He sees a connection between that desire and the popularity of reality TV shows which, though "really phony," show that "people are really looking for connection."

That connection is not there for those who have not been brought up with a background in their own traditions so solid that "it’s in your bones, so that the words have meaning."

When one is "davening and those words come out of your soul, it’s something that has a heightened reality," said Fierst. Ordinary people can seldom access such moments, but artists and actors like Fierst are trained for it. "I try to give them a sense of intimacy and immediacy."

Through his celebrant training and his background in storytelling, Fierst has learned to draw on the folkloric similarities among cultures and religions, he said, like lighting fires, whether candles or incense, and drinking wine. Ukrainian weddings, for example, include bread and salt, which Jews bring when visiting a new home.

When one of the wedding partners is Jewish, Fierst said he usually incorporates into the ceremony the "most recognized symbolism": a chuppah and the breaking of a wine glass. He interprets the latter as a reminder of the quintessential Jewish theme that "in life, things are fragile." He sometimes includes some echo of the seven blessings traditionally sung under the chuppah, "without making it into a religious ceremony, because I don’t do religious ceremonies."

His ceremonies are almost stagings, he said, choreographed differently from religious weddings. For example, the bride and groom stand facing their guests, to better include them, and he stands beside the couple, not in front of and between them.

Fierst said his own opinion of interfaith ministers is that "the term is a really loose term and I feel very uncomfortable with it." Some such ministers "are quite off the wall," some are doing it as a business, some feel called to "a marriage ministry."

"Eventually, in America, everything is influenced by economics," he said.

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