Louise Walpin and Marsha Shapiro still remember how the pain of losing their son Aaron in 2008 was compounded by an insensitive funeral director who couldn’t wrap his head around their civil union.
“Aaron was Marsha’s biological son, but I helped raise him,” said Walpin of the 20-year-old, who suffered from cerebral palsy and seizure disorders. “The funeral director asked all kinds of questions we never should have had to answer. It was a travesty. While we knew we would never make sense out of losing a child, we knew something good had to come out of this. We never would have been questioned like this if we were married.”
That incident galvanized the Monmouth Junction couple’s resolve to fight for same-sex marriage. They were among the seven lead plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed by the gay rights advocacy group Garden State Equality on June 29, 2011, demanding marriage for same-sex couples in New Jersey.
More than two years later, a unanimous decision by the NJ Supreme Court cleared the way for same-sex marriage as of Oct. 21.
At 12:01 a.m. on that day, the couple stomped on a glass after their wedding, both for its significance as part of a traditional Jewish ceremony and as a symbol of the long fight for equality.
“We felt this strong connection to our past, our ancestors, to their oppression,” said Walpin. “We felt like they did when they left Egypt for freedom, crossing over the desert to the Promised Land. We broke that glass because we smashed that inequality knowing we now have a future where all people can grow up and marry.”
The Exodus story always seemed to mirror their own, said Shapiro, who likened Gov. Chris Christie, an opponent of gay marriage, to Pharaoh. Christie later dropped plans to appeal the Supreme Court ruling.
In their 25 years together, marking their union has become — thanks to various state laws — a habit. They were joined under a huppa in a Jewish ceremony in 1992 by Rabbi Alfred Landsberg, rabbi emeritus at Temple Emanu-El in Edison. He told them at the time they were “married under a higher authority than the state of New Jersey.”
On the wall of their home is a framed ketuba, or Jewish wedding contract, that they wrote to commemorate their “Jewish wedding.”
They have also been domestic partners, joined in civil unions in Vermont and later in New Jersey. Just over a year ago they were married in New York. They have three other children, ages, 36, 30, and 28; their second grandchild is expected in February.
The Oct. 21 wedding took place at the Elizabeth home of State Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Dist. 20), a longtime proponent of marriage equality, and was performed by another supporter, Roselle Mayor Jamal Holley. They were given away by State Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Dist. 37), who sponsored a bill that, barring Christie’s veto in 2012, would have legalized same-sex marriage in the state.
Also in attendance was Steve Goldstein, founder and former director of Garden State Equality. Goldstein — a onetime student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College who said he hopes to return to rabbinical school — wrapped the couple in his tallit and read a prayer from the Book of Ruth during the ceremony, which took place under a hand-held huppa.
“It’s absolutely exhilarating to be able to refer to Louise as my legally wedded wife after all these years,” said Shapiro.
Added Walpin: “We have a lot of nachas to celebrate.”
The couple, who are members of New Jersey’s Lesbian and Gay Havurah, also said their journey has brought them closer to Judaism as they watched the Reform, Reconstructionist, and now Conservative movements embrace gay clergy and marriage. The National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia has requested artifacts from their wedding for an exhibit.
The couple has been invited to speak at a number of synagogues and will be Shabbat guests at Temple Emanu-El in Westfield Nov. 15. At Temple Shaari Emeth in Manalapan on the Shabbat after their nuptials, they received a wedding blessing from the rabbi while the cantor recited the Sheheheyanu blessing. During the oneg Shabbat, the congregation had a wedding cake in their honor.
The Aug. 15, 2011, date for oral arguments in their case against the state was especially meaningful to the couple because it also would have been their late son Aaron’s 26th birthday.
“We knew our little angel was watching from above and blessing our union,“ said Shapiro. “We knew then it was bashert.”