Bernard “BJ” Solomon and his husband Zev, better known as “Duncan” (ne William Hines, now Solomon also) called their huppa ceremony at Congregation Beth Israel on Saturday evening, Sept. 13, an “upgrade.” While it wasn’t exactly a first for them, it was the first same-sex wedding held at the Conservative synagogue in Scotch Plains.
The couple, who have been together for 12 years, had a Jewish marriage ceremony marking their civil union five years ago. But the celebration at CBI added the religious and secular recognition they wanted. “We feel more complete,” BJ said.
Held after the Havdala ceremony concluding Shabbat, it followed a bar mitzva celebration for Duncan, 35, during the Ma’ariv service that afternoon, and his conversion to Judaism last May. Their new license reflected New Jersey’s 2013 law granting gays full marriage rights.
Rabbi George Nudell, who supervised Duncan’s conversion studies, officiated at the ceremonies. “It’s the first time I’ve ever had a bar mitzva boy sign a marriage license that night,” he chuckled.
Nudell has been on board with the idea of gay unions since they were approved by the Conservative movement in 2006 and given full recognition by its Rabbinical Assembly Committee in 2012. “As long as both people are Jewish, and they are committed to having a Jewish home, it doesn’t make any difference to me what gender they are,” he said.
The couple lives in Scotch Plains, not far from CBI, where they are now members. “People there have made us feel so welcome,” BJ said. They were at a service at CBI last year, and began chatting with Nudell, whom BJ got to know and admire when, as a teenager, he attended Akiba Academy Hebrew High School there. The rabbi gladly agreed to supervise Duncan’s conversion, and things progressed from there.
BJ, 33, grew up in nearby Cranford, attending Temple Beth-El Mekor Chayim, the Conservative synagogue around the corner from his home. His parents, Sidney and Stephen, a past president of the congregation, still live there. Rabbi Ben Goldstein, who came to the congregation four years ago, has also expressed his willingness to officiate at gay weddings.
Duncan is from Cincinnati. The two met in Ohio while in college in Dayton, where BJ focused on theater arts, and Duncan in information technology. They nearly broke up after three months, because of their religious differences and their different home bases. “But we still had a year to go before graduating,” BJ recalled, “and things kind of evolved naturally.” Duncan got a job in IT in New York City, and BJ — in addition to working with various drama companies — became artistic director of the theater at Hillsborough High School, where this year he put on a student production of Fiddler on the Roof.
Duncan grew up in a Catholic family, but, he said, “Judaism resonates for me more than Catholicism ever did. The more I learned about it, the more I liked.” The two of them joke that he has even come to like Jewish food — “everything except pickles and gefilte fish,” Duncan said.
BJ joined him for many of the conversion classes, and they are continuing to study together. “He’s helped me a lot with all the whys and ins and outs,” Duncan said. BJ, on the other hand, appreciated how seriously Duncan has approached his bar mitzva lessons. “At 13, you have no choice — though if I had been asked I’d have said yes,” he stressed.
Sidney Solomon is delighted by the fact that they came back East, and by their marriage. “We liked Duncan from the moment we met him,” she said. “He’s just a wonderful person. When I saw the pride and love on BJ’s face as Duncan read from the Torah, I was in tears.”
Nudell was impressed with how wholeheartedly Duncan has assumed Jewish practice. That was evident when it came to the conversion interview in May. When he questioned him about the structure of a Passover seder, Duncan told them he had already conducted one — this past April. “That was another first for us,” the rabbi said.
Given BJ’s background, the wedding could have been a whole lot more theatrical. “I have friends in The Lion King, and I wanted to do it on stage,” he declared. But the real wedding plans took on a life of their own. As more and more cousins and friends insisted on attending, it grew from the small family affair they had envisaged to a full-blown party, with around 80 at a catered dinner in the synagogue hall.
As for the marriage ceremony, Nudell looked up examples of ceremonies cited in Conservative sources, and adopted the parts they all liked. And where usually the bride circles the groom seven times, BJ and Duncan circled three times each, and then did a figure of eight around each other, “like the symbol for infinity,” BJ pointed out.
Going forward, Nudell said his goal is simply “to bring in young people — and to make couples like this feel as welcome and valued as everyone else.”