The Jewish Pioneers Behind New Jersey’s Same-sex Marriage Victory

Gov. Chris Christie played Pharoah, but Marsha Shapiro and Louise Walpin made it to the matrimonial Promised Land.

Brian Schaefer
Brian Schaefer
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Brian Schaefer
Brian Schaefer

Last Monday, at 12:01 a.m., Marsha Shapiro and Louise Walpin got married.

To be sure, it was far from their first commitment ceremony. On the road to marriage equality in the United States, several place-holder institutions – like "civil unions" and "domestic partnerships" – have bestowed certain rights to committed same-sex couples, all specific to a particular state, and all of which fall short of the all-encompassing protections and recognition of marriage.

So although a rabbi performed a religious ceremony for Marsha and Louise in 1992, and even though they had a civil union in Vermont in 2003, became domestic partners in New Jersey (where they live) in 2004 and had another civil union there in 2007 as the state expanded the rights offered to same-sex couples, none of these carried the weight and significance of a legally-recognized marriage in their home state.

But on October 21, 2013, just after midnight, Shapiro and Walpin, a couple for 24 years, mothers of four and grandmothers of one with another on the way, wrapped themselves in prayer shawls and broke the glass, becoming one of the first same-sex couples to legally wed in New Jersey.

“When we broke the glass, we were destroying inequality and discrimination in New Jersey,” said Walpin in an interview with Haaretz, on speakerphone with her wife.

The wedding capped a grueling month of legal hopscotch. Up until the last minute, supporters held their breath waiting for Republican Governor Chris Christie, long an opponent of same-sex marriage, to forge forward with his appeal of a September 27 lower court decision ordering the state to allow same-sex marriage. When Christie dropped his appeal, having decided it was a losing battle - the last block to marriage equality in New Jersey was lifted.

It happened suddenly, “faster than a dreidel on steroids,” quips Steven Goldstein, founder of Garden State Equality.

Goldstein had been fighting for marriage equality since 1999, founding Garden State Equality in 2004 while a student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. He eventually put his rabbinic studies on hold to pursue marriage equality advocacy full time. “I wanted to give my heart and soul to the battle,” he said.

Lessons from the land of Egypt

The three New Jersey pioneers are far from the first Jews to play an outsized role in the American march to marriage equality. It was Edith Windsor’s case against the federal government that led the United States Supreme Court to dismantle the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as being between a man and a woman, in June.

Windsor, her late partner, Thea Spyer, and her lawyer, Roberta Kaplan, are all Jewish.

“Judaism has long been out in front,” said Goldstein, pointing to polls in New Jersey that showed two-thirds of the state’s Jewish population favored same-sex marriage long before it gained traction in the general population. “Every movement but the Orthodox has recognized marriage equality, religiously and civically.”

Goldstein, who married his partner Daniel in 2002 and became the first same-sex couple to have a wedding announcement in the New York Times, stresses the key role religious communities – Jewish and other - played in the New Jersey marriage equality campaign.

“One of the most gratifying parts of leading this movement has been the experience of working with clergy and laypeople of different faiths,” he said, citing 19 different religious movements involved in New Jersey marriage equality efforts, including Catholic priests working discreetly behind the scenes. This rainbow coalition changed the perception that people of faith are against marriage equality, he says.

He was also deeply moved at the participation of so many non-gay Jews. “If there’s one thing I got from my Judaism, it’s tenacity,” he said. “If we can march through the dessert for 40 years to Israel, certainly we can march 11 years from our first lawsuit in 2002 to marriage equality.”

The Exile from Egypt analogy evidently resonated with Shapiro and Walpin as well. For years, they would end the Passover seder with the words, “Next year, may we have marriage equality in New Jersey.” (They also, during the interview, referred to Governor Christie as “Pharaoh.”)

An evolving Jewish embrace

When they first sought a spiritual home, the Jewish landscape was less than welcoming. But they badly wanted a community that was both Jewish and gay, and thus helped found the first New Jersey gay and lesbian haverah.

Despite being proactive in that instance, the two were apolitical until their youngest son, Aaron, who was born severely mentally and physically disabled, died in 2008. When the funeral director asked them to explain their civil union, essentially questioning the validity of their family unit at such a difficult time, they realized anything short of marriage was considered inferior. They didn't want an "injustice" like that to happen to anyone else, says Walpin.

Ultimately their fight for marriage equality was embraced by a large number of synagogues in the state. This past Friday night, after their now-famous wedding, they were the guests of honor at a local oneg Shabbat, where they were treated like celebrities. And in fact, Shapiro and Walpin became public symbols of marriage equality for the entire state.

“We didn’t and maybe don’t understand how New Jersey embraced us as the faces of marriage equality,” said Walpin, adding that she’s grateful it did. “When we were ready to drop out and we were tired, the voices of others saying we were an inspiration kept us going.”

The two now say they are looking forward to returning to a more low-key life out of the spotlight. A honeymoon is on the horizon – either a cruise or a trip somewhere out west, like the Grand Canyon.

“We’ve been married to the media for the past four years,” said Shapiro. “And now we’re married to each other.”

Marsha Shapiro, right, and Louise Walpin kiss after a marriage equality rally in Montclair October 18, 2013. Credit: Reuters
Steven Goldstein, center, is the new executive director of the Manhattan-based Anne Frank Center.Credit: AJ Studios

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