A match made in heaven: Married rabbi and minister take interfaith up a notch

On the first Sunday of the month, the Rev. Elizabeth Griswold presides over Communion at Sacramento’s Parkside Community Church. As is her custom, she adds a special prayer when congregants take the Eucharist and the wine: She recites the hamotzi and Kiddush. In Hebrew.

“I tell [congregants] Jesus was an observant Jew, that these are the prayers he would have said,” says Griswold, 38, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. “A lot of people have noted how meaningful it is to them, how it becomes less of a magical mystical thing. It’s a step toward good interfaith relations.”

Married rabbi and minister are two of a kind in Sacramento photo/joan cusick

She knows plenty about interfaith relations. When you’re a minister married to a rabbi, interfaithy things happen.

Griswold’s husband is Rabbi Seth Castleman, 43, a hospice and prison chaplain, wedding officiant, Jewish meditation teacher and, until recently, spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Harim in Grass Valley. The couple lives in Davis.

Interfaith couples are common in today’s Jewish community. A 2013 Pew study shows the intermarriage rate at 59 percent, up from 17 percent in 1970.

But red lines still exist. Until a year ago, no major Jewish denomination permitted rabbinical students to enter into committed relationships with non-Jewish partners, let alone marry a minister.

Last September the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College lifted its ban. The smaller Association of Humanistic Rabbis affirmed the right of rabbis to marry “whomever they wish” in 1974, and the Jewish Renewal movement has never had marital restrictions. Otherwise, interfaith bans for rabbis remain on the books in the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements.

Because they are rare birds, Castleman and Griswold have become objects of fascination to friends, congregants and colleagues. It makes them especially conscious of those areas where their faiths overlap, and where they do not.

“It’s an important question for modern Jews to ask, whether their survival rests on a ‘circle the wagons’ mentality,” Castleman says. “Interfaith families have a unique gift to offer Judaism: wisdom and perspective.”

Interfaith marriage can present challenges to any couple. When husband and wife both serve as exemplars of their respective faiths, those challenges deepen. Castleman and Griswold have labored hard to find solutions that work for them.

For one, they keep a kosher home. For another, the couple chose to bring up their 3-year-old daughter Jewish. The family avoids the December dilemma by sticking with Hanukkah at home. No tree, no stockings, no ho-ho-ho.

That hasn’t proved heartwrenching for Griswold, who says her family never went for the tinsel-and-ornaments version of Christmas when she was growing up in Carlsbad, near San Diego.

“I never had that need,” she says. “I’m more into the religious aspect. We all go to church together on Christmas Eve, where I lead services. Then we go to San Diego to see my parents.”

Rabbi Seth Castleman and the Rev. Elizabeth Griswold with their daughter, Lilah photos/joan cusick

Both Castleman and Griswold took circuitous spiritual journeys to reach this point. He spent years practicing Buddhist meditation; she became an adherent of the Catholic Worker Movement, made famous by the late Dorothy Day, and later graduated from Harvard Divinity School. Both espouse liberal ecumenical values and a devotion to social justice. That history primed them to embrace strong interfaith connections, all the way up to and including their own marriage.

“I had a real heart for Judaism,” Griswold explains. “In the historical aspect of Christianity coming out of Judaism, I had a desire to learn more about it. I studied Jewish history, practice and Hebrew.”

Adds Castleman with the timing of a stand-up comedian: “I wondered how much she was dating me for my Hebrew.”

Though Castleman grew up in Lexington, outside Boston, he and his family regularly schlepped a half-hour west to Sudbury to attend Congregation Beth El, a Reform synagogue led by the noted author Rabbi Lawrence Kushner.

Kushner today lives in San Francisco, where he is scholar-in-residence at Congregation Emanu-El. Back in Boston he and his wife, Karen, became close with the Castleman family, often gathering together for Passover and Shabbat dinners. Castleman remembers those nights, when Kushner would regale him with Jewish tales and the occasional Zen koan.

“I had a strong connection to my Judaism,” Castleman recalls of his childhood. “I had long conversations with God, and decided at 7 to become a vegetarian. When I had my bar mitzvah, [Rabbi Kushner] made the mistake of giving me the Five Books of Moses, and I made the mistake of reading it. I saw the misogyny, slavery, animal sacrifices, the war. I threw it all out.”

That began a period of estrangement from Judaism, followed by an attraction to Buddhism, storytelling and meditation.

“I told people I was Jewish on my parents’ side,” he jokes. “It was through Buddhism and through storytelling that I found my way to the Bay Area in the ’90s.”

Castleman attended Spirit Rock, a Buddhist meditation center in Woodacre. There he connected with the center’s Jewish founder, Jack Kornfield, mentioning he had been thinking for a while about becoming a rabbi.

He took up Kornfield’s suggestion to go to Asia and meditate for a year or two. After spending time meditating in India, Nepal, Burma and back in his native Massachusetts, Castleman devoted his energies to becoming a rabbi.

“I was looking for the insight and experiences of connection I had found in the dharma,” Castleman recalls, referring to the teachings of the Buddha, “and was now looking for it in Judaism, and was finding it. I was delving into Jewish meditation, study and prayer.”

Eventually he moved to Israel to pursue the rabbinate. He attended Shalom Rav, a Hasidic yeshiva in Tsfat, and studied privately with rabbis in Jerusalem before moving back to Boston to enroll in Hebrew College. He was ordained independently in 2011.

Rabbi Seth Castleman leading the children’s lesson at Parkside Community Church

Meanwhile, Griswold grew up on the other side of the country under different religious circumstances. She hailed from a family that attended a UCC church sporadically, though she took the Christian message to heart.

“I grew up in a very progressive church, theologically and politically,” she recalls. “As a young adult I was surprised other churches didn’t march in the gay pride parade or feed migrant workers. That was very appealing, this very intellectual, open-minded, social justice and activist UCC church.”

It was while attending UCLA that her religious devotion soared to a higher level.

“I don’t know if it was happenstance, but all the friends I made were very religious and all of other religions,” she recalls. “My best friends were Jewish, Catholic and Muslim. We would go to services with each other and go to each other’s homes for holidays. I went to Shabbat at Hillel every Friday and thought about converting.”

Instead, after graduating she was baptized at her Carlsbad church. From there she went to live in a community house in East L.A. run by the Catholic Worker Movement, with whom she had volunteered while in college. She helped out in the soup kitchen and free clinic and protested against war and the death penalty. “They were the most inspiring group of Christians I ever met,” Griswold says.

She decided to go for the ministry in 2004. After spending time volunteering in Guatemala, she enrolled in Berkeley’s Pacific School of Religion before transferring to Harvard Divinity in 2007.

One day in 2008, while both were living and studying in Boston, Griswold and Castleman found themselves face to face at a small UCC church in Boston. He was doing political fieldwork and she was leading worship as a seminary intern.

“I was up front and I noticed Seth,” Griswold recalls. “When it ended and he was leaving, I followed him out the door to introduce myself. I invited him back to the church parlor, where little old ladies were serving punch and cookies.”

Punch and cookies turned into a romance that deepened over time. But they knew that they would face personal and professional difficulties.

“For Elizabeth and her ordination, [intermarriage] was not a conflict,” he says. “For me it very much was, and our courtship went though a number of stages where I had to decide whether I would be a rabbi or in this relationship.”

Adds Griswold, “I remember telling Seth repeatedly, if it comes down to choosing between ordination or this relationship, I would understand [if he broke it off] and respect it. I thought that might be the choice I would make as well.”

Love won out, and the couple married in November 2011. Griswold’s beloved minister from her original church co-officiated with a rabbi, Castleman’s good friend. The wedding took place at her parents’ home under a chuppah the couple made themselves.

The two were itinerant clergy for a while. Griswold had taken a job as a pastor at a UCC church in Irvine, and Castleman became the rabbi at two synagogues in Michigan while still living in Boston. In 2013 they moved to the Sacramento area, where she became pastor at Parkside, he the rabbi at B’nai Harim.

Ever since, they have been open about their unusual interfaith partnership. Even Jewish community activists who work to promote a welcoming attitude toward interfaith couples admit they have rarely or never seen other examples of married interfaith clergy.

“I’ve heard of a few through the grapevine,” says Rabbi Mychal Copeland, director of InterfaithFamily Bay Area. “It seems it is not an issue on the Christian side. The Christian community is not as worried about extinction. On the Jewish side it’s a totally different dynamic. [Jews are] a small minority trying to keep afloat.”

When Copeland attended the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, interfaith partners or spouses were forbidden. Her partner (now wife) chose to convert to Judaism. Now that her movement accepts interfaith partnerships, Copeland hopes other liberal streams will follow suit.

“I felt very relieved that [Reconstructionist Judaism] would stop losing great people who could be rabbis serving our communities,” she says of the policy change. “These are people perfectly suited to working with today’s Jewish couples.”

Keren McGinity, an American studies professor at Brandeis University and a scholar on the subject of Jewish intermarriage, discounts the notion that once a Jewish person intermarries he or she ceases to identify as Jewish or chooses not to raise Jewish children.

“That has proven to be wrong,” McGinity says. “[Interfaith] couples where one is a member of the clergy help to debunk that. [Jews] involved with people of other faiths still strongly identify as Jewish, perhaps even more so after intermarriage and the birth of a child.”

Not all scholars agree. Steven M. Cohen, researcher at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at New York University, cites statistics from the 2013 Pew Research Center study forecasting an ominous future for the demographic health of American Jewry. Fifty-nine percent of the children of the intermarried went on to intermarry as well. Among the adult children of the intermarried — be they in-married or intermarried — only 9 percent are raising their children in the Jewish religion.

“It’s been a major change for Jewish life in the last 30 to 40 years,” Cohen told J. “All of us have intermarried people in our families. We welcome intermarried people into our families, even if we prefer that our children marry Jews.”

Cohen does not think it is any more objectionable for a rabbi to marry a minister than it is for any Jew to marry out of the faith. “If you believe that it’s especially important for a normative role model, such as a rabbi, to marry a Jew, then that judgment applies equally to people who are not Jewish, be they journalists, ministers or sociologists.”

But while McGinity sees the Reconstructionist movement’s shift on intermarried rabbis as a positive step, she understands why other streams hesitate to follow suit.

“In terms of seminaries and whether they will accept or ordain rabbis with partners of other faith backgrounds, I think it’s evolving,” she says. But still, she adds, “Rabbis serve as models of in-marriage, of Jewish identity under the framework of marrying another Jew.”

Castleman and Griswold had been dating only a few weeks when they had their first conversation about how they would rear their children. Griswold says they mutually decided they would give their offspring only one religious identity: Judaism.

Though their daughter Lilah has not yet begun her formal Jewish education, her parents have gotten the toddler started by maintaining a kosher home, observing Shabbat and celebrating Jewish holidays. They also subscribe to PJ Library, a national program that brings Jewish-themed children’s books into the home. All three say the Shema every night at Lilah’s bedside.

Yet Lilah’s mommy is a Christian minister, so the family spends time in church, where Lilah’s daddy occasionally speaks on Jewish subjects from the pulpit and teaches Bible class.

Sacramento residents Joan and Dennis Cusick belong to Parkside Community Church and have enjoyed having their pastor and her husband introduce them to Christianity’s Jewish roots.

Dennis Cusick regularly attends Sunday morning Bible class, including sessions led by Castleman. “Seth explained the organization of the various books of the Bible in a structural way I’d never understood before,” Cusick says. “He’s really expanding my knowledge of religion, as is Elizabeth, who has a scholar’s approach to the Bible.”

Joan Cusick says she finds the Hebrew prayers during Communion “very comforting, giving me a deep connection that I had never felt at a Communion table before. And to have Seth bring information from the Jewish tradition is just wonderful.”

Castleman and Griswold realize their relationship may trigger discomfort on the part of some Jews.

“I have the utmost respect for congregants or colleagues who have a hard time with a rabbi not only married to someone not Jewish, but a minister,” Castleman adds. “But the institutional and cultural approach of ‘We won’t marry you but then we want you to come back to our world after we rejected you’ is problematic.”

Griswold is currently working toward a doctorate in ministry; her dissertation subject is how progressive Christians can amplify their voices.

“I do not want the religious right to dominate what it means to be Christian, who’s in and who’s out,” she says. “We need to be more proactive about sharing that message about a God of love.”

She says their marriage is a sign that at least her church is one place where “what’s most important is not judgment or hypocrisy.”

And as resolute as he is about adhering to the tenets of Judaism, Castleman has come to appreciate aspects of his wife’s Christian faith: “How can I begrudge any religion that makes its most celebrated day the birth of their rabbi?”






Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.