Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Week

Sarah and Michelle aren't getting married this summer; they're having a commitment ceremony. They are specifically not calling it a wedding and there will be no ketubah, marriage contract.

Instead, they will participate in a Talmudic ritual that establishes business partnerships and outline their mutual responsibilities and commitment in a shtar, a Jewish legal document.

But when Hope and Melanie Levav married a few years ago, they had a ceremony that looked pretty much like any other traditional Jewish wedding - except that it was between two women. So the blessings' language was amended to include two brides and omit any mention of a groom.

As the ceremonies of the two couples illustrate, there is no single Jewish same-sex wedding. Each couple essentially creates what they want for themselves, which has led to a diverse array of ceremonies.

They are part of a growing genre of lifecycle rituals and Jewish liturgies tailored to the needs of gay and lesbian Jews. And while many of them have been around for several years, with the first Jewish commitment ceremonies dating back about 15 years, experts say, they are becoming increasingly mainstream.

Gay and lesbian Jewish rituals have begun to proliferate because "there's been a huge leap over the last decade," said Rabbi Nancy Wiener, clinical director of pastoral counseling at the Reform seminary Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and a lesbian who had a commitment ceremony with her partner in 1991. "There's just much more awareness on people's parts that these things are an option.

"There's a big difference between people who grew up believing if they came out they'd never think they could celebrate long-term relationships and a generation which has been coming out at an earlier age and has not felt they had to sever ties with the Jewish community," she said.

The trend isn't unique to Jews, of course. Same-sex marriage is currently roiling Christian groups, like the Episcopal Church. In Judaism, the Reform movement in 2001 approved the right of its rabbis to officiate at same-sex unions, and the Reconstructionist movement has long permitted it. Conservative and Orthodox Judaism do not permit it, though based on anecdotal evidence, an increasing number of Conservative rabbis seem willing to officiate at such ceremonies.

Gay weddings are making waves in secular American culture as well. The new issue of Bride's magazine features a first-ever article on gay and lesbian weddings.

Popular opinion on the subject is shifting: A Pew Forum poll released last week found that the percentage of Americans who strongly oppose same-sex marriage has declined from 41 percent in 1996 to 30 percent today. A survey of New Jersey voters being released this week by the polling firm Zogby will show that a majority favor same-sex marriage, according to Evan Wolfson, executive director of the Right to Marry, an advocacy organization.

Legal currents are also shifting: Two Canadian provinces recently extended to same-sex couples the right to wed, and the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court is expected to rule shortly on whether homosexuals can wed in that state. The New York State Legislature has bills pending that would also permit it, Wolfson said. While he doesn't expect votes imminently, he does anticipate that an increasing number of individuals and groups will speak out in favor of a change to permit civil marriage as being between two adults rather than between a man and a woman.

Conservative members of the U.S. Congress are waiting in the wings with federal legislation to ban same-sex weddings, which would override states' laws.

New Ketubahs 'Blossoming'
Many parts of the Jewish community seem to be growing comfortable with the notion of gay and lesbian religious weddings.

Most of the wedding contracts available at J. Levine Judaica, in Midtown Manhattan, can be purchased with text appropriate for same-sex couples (and eight other versions), says the store's owner, Danny Levine. While some of the 75 ketubah artists whose work he sells will only pen traditional text, 80 percent will do them for gay and lesbian couples.

"We had the first request for it at least 15 years ago and maybe one or two ketubah artists did it, but in the last few years it's just blossomed," said Levine.

He carries other products for this niche market, too: a gay couple once ordered rainbow suede yarmulkes for their wedding.

Both the Reform and Reconstructionist movements are working on new rabbis' manuals that will include ceremonies addressing the needs of gay and lesbian Jews, said denominational officials.