In Praise of the Rabbi Who Married Chelsea Clinton
When selecting a rabbi to co-officiate at their wedding, Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky made a wise choice in selecting Rabbi James Ponet. Not many people can tell you this from personal experience, but I can: The guy does great intermarriages.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I married a Jewish man. But I would dare to say that my marriage involved just as much delicate juggling of traditions as that of the Methodist daughter of the former president and current secretary of state and her Jewish husband. And Rabbi Ponet did it with style and grace.
Like the Clinton-Mezvinsky clan, we thought that Jim was worth transporting from New Haven. My Israeli husband became friendly with him at Yale in the 1980s, when he arrived there as a foreign student, not knowing a soul. He was immediately welcomed into the warm circle of Ponet’s Hillel house. Ponet — known by students simply as “Jim” — spent a number of years in Israel and is fluent in Hebrew. Soon, he and my husband’s Hillel director-student relationship evolved into a real friendship.
After we met and decided to marry in Washington, DC, Jim was clearly the man who seemed up to the task of officiating at our wedding, and we were thankful he was able to make the trip. He was charged with the task of creating a ceremony that would satisfy my New England Reform parents and the Jerusalem Orthodox parents of my husband-to-be. And of course, we were also hoping that it could also be meaningful to us. But that was just a bonus.
And so he delivered as few other rabbis could — a fully bilingual Hebrew-English, “by the book” Orthodox ceremony delivered in a modern and relevant (and highly entertaining) manner. Both sets of parents — and my husband and I! — were completely satisfied. Jim made everyone feel comfortable, and I will always be grateful to him for that.
Back then, he was still a relatively young, though already a highly popular rabbi. Today he is a Yale institution, who presided over the physical transformation of the Yale Jewish community — from a series of makeshift basements and temporary spaces into the impressive Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale.
Ponet is officially a Reform rabbi, but is on traditional side when it comes to his own personal practice. It came as a surprise to us that he would agree to participate in an interfaith ceremony.
But one can imagine that it isn’t easy for the Yale Hillel director to say “no” to the Clintons, particularly when it seems that they were open to incorporating many Jewish traditions in the ceremony. And since this was the most high-profile interfaith ceremony in American history, I’m glad that it was in good hands.
So mazel tov, Chelsea. May the quality of your marriage and your relationship with Judaism — at whatever level you choose to embrace it — live up to the spirit of the man whose name graces your ketubah.