Former Political Hand Embraces Kid’s Conversion

By Ross Schneiderman

Published June 06, 2003, issue of June 06, 2003.

The Jewish community has gained a new member — and a prominent new in-law.

Katherine Gergen, a recent convert to Judaism and the daughter of former presidential adviser David Gergen, married Mark Barnett last Sunday in a Jewish ceremony held at Music Mountain in Falls Village, Conn. Rabbi James Ponet, a Conservative clergyman and the Jewish chaplain at Yale, officiated at the ceremony.

Before undergoing an Orthodox conversion in February, the bride studied for 18 months with rabbis in New York, New Haven and Jerusalem.

The senior Gergens admit they were initially skeptical before eventually embracing their daughter’s conversion. “We had some apprehensions,” David Gergen, a former adviser to the Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Clinton administrations, told the Forward in an interview. “We come from a Protestant tradition, and I was worried that [Katherine and Mark] would draw a curtain over their lives, which would hide them from us and our potential grandchildren.”

But when Katherine, 29, a fourth-year medical student at Yale University, told her father that she planned to convert regardless of whether she married Mark, she mollified her parents’ concerns. “That was very striking,” said her father, who is now an editor at U.S. News & World Report and a professor of public service at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. “That was a powerful and positive incentive for me to embrace her decision.”

The groom’s father, Steve Barnett, an entrepreneur and a board member of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, also hailed the couple’s decision to marry. “[Katherine and Mark] are spiritually connected,” said Barnett. He stressed that Katherine chose to convert on her own. “This wasn’t a mandatory thing,” Barnett said.

The groom’s mother, Teri Barnett, a board member of the National Women’s Philanthropy of United Jewish Communities, echoed her husband’s sentiments. “[Katherine] did it in an amazing manner, and she’s an amazing person,” Teri Barnett said. “She has an immense amount of knowledge of the subject, and she is imbued with the spirit of Judaism.”

Both bride and groom earned undergraduate degrees from Yale, where they met and are currently attending graduate school. They studied together in Israel two years ago and maintain a strictly kosher home. Although they are not Orthodox in all of their daily practices, they are “very observant and deeply spiritual,” according to David Gergen.

The ceremony itself reflected this religious model. Although very traditional, it incorporated readings from other faiths and traditions. “This community they are a part of celebrates community and respects wisdom,” David Gergen said. “That inclusiveness was an even greater invitation for us to celebrate.”

“It has been a wonderful experience for everyone, which isn’t always the case,” said Steve Barnett.

Apparently the wedding may inspire others to follow Katherine’s lead. Amid the circles of dancing, singing people, one Protestant family friend turned to the former presidential adviser and said: “If this is what it means to convert, where do I sign up?”



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