What’s in a Name? For Jewish Couples, the Answer is Changing

Walking down the aisle at an outdoor venue, Andrew Davies, wearing a suit and tallit, holdsthe hand of Molly Wernick, wearing a white dress
Molly Wernick and Andrew Davies decided to keep their respective names after getting married, in an effort to reject patriarchal norms and preserve their respective family identities. | Courtesy of Molly Wernick and Andrew Davies

For as long as there’s been Judaism, there’s been the Jewish tradition of bucking naming conventions.

Abraham and Sarah, the religion’s foreparents, changed their names from “Avram” and “Sarai,” adding extra letters as a reminder of God’s presence. After Jacob wrestled with angels, God changed his name to “Israel.”

Thousands of years later, Jews in the Philadelphia area are continuing the longstanding Jewish tradition of breaking and remaking the rules with the name game, especially when it comes to marriage.

Instead of following the convention of a woman taking her husband’s last name upon tying the knot, heterosexual couples are getting creative with changing their last names — or refusing to change their names altogether.

“We have the power, we have the agency to go by that which we choose or feel inspired to become,” said Philadelphia resident Molly Wernick, who married her partner Andrew Davies in 2017.

Wernick drew on the breaking of naming conventions of Jewish ancestors in her decision to keep her last name upon getting married. (On their wedding website, the couple wrote in jest that Davies chose to keep his last name, instead of taking Wernick’s.)

Jewish values aside, Wernick was not interested in what she called the patriarchal practice of changing her last name to match her husband’s.  

“I​​ grew up just seeing with every wedding invitation or bar mitzvah invitation, credit card offer, the societal assumption that a woman becomes the property of her husband,” Wernick said.

Keeping her last name also felt like an opportunity to hold onto family lineage, harkening back to her family’s story of her great-grandfather coming to the U.S. after a run-in with the czar’s army. At the end of the day, Wernick’s name was intertwined deeply with her own identity.

“I was born Molly Wernick,” she said. “It is who I am.”

For other women, the decision to keep a last name is practical.

Ellie Kaplan-Kahn, though she legally hyphenated her name, still uses her maiden name Kaplan in professional settings. She is a research psychologist who has published in several journals under her maiden name. When applying for new jobs, that old moniker made it easy for employers to see her credentials.

“Many of my women friends are also in academic settings, where your name is really important,” she said.

However, some couples have decided to change both their last names, forging a new identity for future generations.

Josh and Rachael Silverbauer both legally changed their original last names and opted for a new last name that combined Josh’s last name Schwartz-Neubauer and Rachael’s last name Silverstein.

“It was more symbolic of our relationship to create something that binds the two of us together and create kind of a new generation together,” Josh Silverbauer said.

The couple wanted to make sure they kept parts of their original last names as an homage to their respective family histories.

Now with a young child with the last name Silverbauer, the couple feels a sense of pride in their new tradition.

“It’s exciting for him to one day understand the story of that, like, ‘My name came from two people that love each other, wanting to start something new,’” Rachael Silverbauer said.

Though the choice to create a new last name was obvious, the execution was more difficult. Legal name changes require time, money and even some strategy.

Josh Silverbauer decided to change his name before the couple got married so that Rachael would be able to go through the expedited process of taking what was technically her husband’s last name after the wedding.

Over eight to 10 months, Josh Silverbauer made multiple court appearances in front of a judge, published his new name in journals and newspapers and paid more than $2,000 for the name change.

Danielle Abrams, who is in the process of changing her name from Danielle Brief, had a similar story. She and her husband, originally Jonah Adams, decided on the joint last name Abrams to honor Jonah’s grandfather, who changed his name from Abrams to Adams to assimilate into his new home country of England.

With both of them undergoing a name change after their wedding, the process is twice as challenging. They’ve been undergoing the legal process for more than a year, but the fight for a new last name has, in some ways, brought the couple closer.

“It is nice to kind of be frustrated together,” Danielle Abrams said.

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  1. Although I appreciate this article sharing stories of these couples, I do not find surname selection to be a notable concept that is newsworthy. Many people generations before us have chosen to keep their surnames after marriage for various reasons. Further, choosing a family name is not exclusive to heterosexual couples! LGBTQ couples go through this quandary and decision-making together as well and it is a complete oversight to not include those stories in this conversation here.


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