Caught in a whirlwind of same-sex weddings

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Times Staff Writer

Just minutes before donning her prayer shawl, Rabbi Lisa Edwards beckoned the couple she was about to marry and sat them down to run through her checklist. As usual, Edwards had meticulously compiled notes about the ceremony in the pages of a giant black binder.

She reviewed the lineup of guests who would read during the ceremony of the two men.

“Lee and Marvin,” she said, naming Josh Wayser’s mother and her husband.

“It’s ‘Martin,’ ” Wayser corrected her.

She grimaced. “I hate when I get the names wrong,” she said, scribbling changes in her notes. “I don’t usually get the names wrong.”

But then, she usually doesn’t have so many names to remember.

At the beginning of May, Edwards, the rabbi of the Beth Chayim Chadashim synagogue in Los Angeles’ Fairfax district, had a single wedding on her calendar. Then the California Supreme Court struck down the state’s ban on same-sex marriage in mid-May.


Between mid-June, when gay couples could legally begin marrying, and the first weekend of November, she will have performed more than 40 weddings. All but one are same-sex unions. And that’s not counting her own wedding in July to her longtime partner, Tracy Moore, a fundraiser for public radio, which was presided over by a rabbi and State Assembly Speaker Karen Bass.

Edwards has bounced from small weddings to large ones, from her modest temple on Pico Boulevard to a rambling mansion in Santa Monica called the Victorian. She’s officiated in a Runyon Canyon home and on a Malibu deck. She’s been to Palm Springs, Running Springs and Visalia, where she married two women -- who’d been together 37 years -- the afternoon before the grandson of one of them celebrated his bar mitzvah. (“They tacked it on because everyone was already there,” Edwards said.)

It’s not uncommon for her to double up on Sundays with afternoon and evening weddings. (A Jewish wedding cannot take place during the Sabbath, which starts at sundown Friday and ends at sundown Saturday.) Labor Day weekend was her Super Bowl of weddings -- she did four in three days. Each weekend this month she will officiate at three ceremonies.

The whirlwind wedding tour has left her exhausted but exhilarated.

“Even though I’ve just been crazy busy, it feels like such an extraordinary moment in time and it feels like such a blessing to be with these couples,” said Edwards, 56, whose temple -- better known as BCC -- bills itself as the first synagogue for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews. (The congregation has straight members as well.)

The rush to the altar is triggered by the possibility that voters might approve Proposition 8, the California ballot measure that would override the court ruling and ban legal gay marriage. But couples marrying now hope that will still leave their marriages legal.

The California Supreme Court ruling that the state cannot prohibit same-sex marriages doesn’t require religious organizations to recognize them. But clergy whose faiths sanction gay marriage -- particularly those with large gay congregations -- have found their schedules similarly affected.


“I have been swamped,” said Rabbi Denise Eger at Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood. Eger, who in June presided over the ceremony of Diane Olson and Robin Tyler, the first official gay wedding in Los Angeles, estimates she will have done more than 50 weddings by next month.

Edwards and Eger are rabbis in the Reform movement of Judaism, which recognizes same-sex marriages, as does the Reconstructionist movement.

Conservative and Orthodox branches of Judaism do not officially sanction gay marriage, but Conservative rabbis are allowed to marry same-sex couples if they wish.

The Rev. Dr. Neil Thomas, senior pastor of Metropolitan Community Church in Los Feliz, has also been busy performing same-sex weddings. “I’ve probably done about 85,” said Thomas, whose church is part of an international Christian denomination founded to serve the gay community. And as polls indicate that support of Proposition 8 is leading, more people are calling, “asking if we can squeeze them in.”

Edwards and her spouse had a religious marriage ceremony 13 years ago and considered themselves as committed as a traditional married couple if not as legally accepted. Many gay couples have already had religious ceremonies over the years.

But the court ruling provides a unique opportunity, Edwards said, to reevaluate relationships. “You can’t be in a same-sex couple in California without at least exploring the question,” she said. “There are those of us who are looking at each other and saying, ‘Yeah, I would marry you again.’ ” For others, she said, “it’s been a wake-up call. They get therapy or they come to me.”


In general, Edwards won’t legally marry same-sex couples just because she can. She has counseled some couples to wait and “not get caught up in the thrill of it.” Generally, she puts engaged couples, straight or gay, through four or five meetings of counseling and planning. Now, with the time crunch, “three meetings is a lot,” she said.

But one Wednesday in late August, she found herself marrying a couple she had not met in person until the ceremony. Cynthia Kern and Jane Boisseau, who live in New York, have been together 25 years, and Boisseau is a friend and law partner of Dean Hansell, a longtime member of the BCC congregation. Edwards and the couple planned the wedding by phone and e-mail.

“One of the things I appreciated was that she asked so many questions about our history, our relationship, our son,” said Boisseau, who has a 7-year-old, Jeremy Kern, with Cynthia, a New York state judge.

On the morning of their wedding, a dozen boisterous family members and friends sat in a semicircle of chairs at the temple as the two brides stood under a chuppah, the traditional Jewish wedding canopy.

Edwards, in a teal silk pantsuit and dark round-framed glasses, blended the personal with the political. “This ceremony takes place because of this,” she said, holding up a document. “A California marriage license.” The guests applauded.

The marriage license itself, a prosaic piece of paper, has taken on a poetic meaning at same-sex weddings, Edwards said earlier.


“The license has always been something you sign over in the other room with very little fanfare,” she said describing what happens when a man and woman wed. “Especially for, I think, gay and lesbian clergy, the irony of signing other people’s licenses when we ourselves couldn’t get married was painful -- and why we didn’t make a big deal out of it. Now, I mention the license during the ceremony and more often than not, people burst into applause.”

Four days later, Edwards was spending a Sunday afternoon in Malibu marrying Josh Wayser and Richard Schulte, a couple she has known throughout their seven-year relationship and multiple baby namings. The couple have five adopted children, ranging in age from 4 months to 8 years.

Edwards’ only qualm just before their nuptials was whether they could focus on it. Alternately distracted and giddy, the two men were tending to their children and about 60 guests wandering through a beach house offered by friends for the ceremony.

“What I want you to do is everything you can to take it in today,” said Edwards, whose calm mien is less preacher, more therapist.

“She knows that’s hard,” said Schulte, a project manager at Paramount, laughing.

“There are so many moving pieces,” Wayser said.

“I might stop a few times and remind you to be present,” Edwards said.

But she didn’t. Few people at her weddings -- the couple or their guests -- need to be reminded to drink in the moment.

Under an improvised chuppah of beach umbrellas, the couple stood, their children never far from them, their guests wedged onto the deck, serenaded by the muted thud of the ocean waves breaking on the shore.


“Five children later, Richard and Josh are the exemplars of souls who delight in abundance,” she told the assembled group. She paused, looking down and fingering her notes as her eyes welled with tears.

After the ceremony, Edwards’ own spouse gave her a hug and the two mingled with wedding guests.

“I often cry,” the rabbi said of the weddings she performs. But at the Boisseau-Kern nuptials, she said, “That was the first time I didn’t cry when I said, ‘By the power vested in me.’ ”

It took only 19 weddings for her to get there.