Every Friday, we choose an alum who has been making headlines—for better or for worse.
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Rabbi James Ponet ’68

James Ponet ’68 is the first Yale graduate to serve as Yale’s Jewish chaplain. He may also be the first rabbi to conduct the wedding of a presidential son or daughter. But Ponet was something of a celebrity at Yale long before he gained national celebrity status for co-officiating, with a Methodist minister, at the wedding of Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinksy. In a New York Times mini-profile this week, Ponet says he first “glimpsed observant Judaism” as a student at the home of Yale’s then-rabbi, Richard Israel, and was “enchanted.” By the time he graduated from Yale, Ponet had decided to study at the seminary of the Reform movement, where he was ordained in 1973.

He returned to campus in 1981 as the university’s Jewish chaplain and, later, director of the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life. His profile in the 1980s included hosting a radio show on student-run WYBC and hopping on dining hall tables to blow a ram’s horn on Rosh Hashana. More recently, he has co-taught a Yale Law School course on the Book of Job and a college seminar with Dr. Ruth Westheimer on “The Family in the Jewish Tradition.”

While mum on the specifics of the Clinton wedding (he would tell the Yale Daily News only that “a number of people” put him in touch with the couple), Ponet did acknowledge that until recent years he declined to perform interfaith weddings—a no-no in traditional Judaism that is also officially discouraged by the more liberal Reform movement. Now—perhaps fittingly for a teacher and intellectual provocateur—his role in this front-page nuptial has stirred a national discussion about intermarriage.

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