I’m here to tell you it doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, destination Jewish or interfaith weddings can offer fabulous, unique, never-to-forget events at prices you can’t begin to approximate in the U.S.
In exploring the question “Can you can a Jewish wedding in the Caribbean?” I will also share with you what happened to me, when I tried to plan such a wedding.
With a little research, you will learn that the only functioning synagogue in the Caribbean is on the island of Curacao. The congregation, called Mikvé Israel, dates from the 1650s, and was founded by Spanish and Portuguese Jews from the Netherlands and Brazil. In the 19th century, there was a breakaway Reform community (Emanu El); the two merged to form the present community in 1964.
The synagogue (pictured at the top of the post) is built in the Sephardic style, which means it has 360-degree seating with the bima in the center, from where the rabbi or hazzan recites the prayers. The best part is, the synagogue’s floors are made up entirely of sand. Imagine – what a photographer’s delight! As you can see in the picture above, some of the main “cities” in Curacuao look like a quaint, beautiful seaside villages.
But back to your wedding: Here’s the problem. Actually, there are a lot of problems … The synagogue hires a cantor, and when I asked for more information, they sent me a list of “rules” that looked like they had been copied straight from the Middle Ages.
1. For starters, no intermarriages. That’s right, if you are one of 60% of American Jews marrying outside the tribe, you are a second-class citizen who can’t use their building.
2. The cost to rent the facility and hire their cantor is $2,500. That is perfectly fair. Maintaining such an exquisite building in such a hot climate has got to be expensive, and the community surely relies on the infusion of off-shore funds to keep the place running. But what upset me is that we didn’t need their officiant. As a rabbinical student, I had a whole cadre of rabbis and would-be rabbis on my guest list. I wanted to work with a rabbi whom I have a close bond with, and who would frame things and say things in the way that I would want them said.
They were okay with that — but they were still going to charge the $2,500! Their fee was their fee, no matter how much or little we asked them to do.
For my partner and me, that rule ended the discussion right there. We didn’t have rings with stones; but we did resent some synagogue committee intruding its opinions on our fingers and telling us what we could and couldn’t wear on them! Any Why exactly is it their business?
I have nothing against a solid gold band. But with so many beautiful rings out there now, why would anyone want to limit themselves to that?
Yes, it is a Jewish wedding tradition to exchange rings that are not “broken up” by stones. The idea is that a couple’s love is continuous, and a solid band symbolizes that. It’s a lovely tradition, and it is also just that: a tradition. There are good 100 other Jewish wedding traditions and most couples do not choose to follow all of them, either. Talk about arbitrary.
4. Then there was the issue of dress. The Curacao shul requires that all women have their shoulders covered in the interest of tsniut = modesty. Meanwhile, all the men have to wear formal attire. Yes, you read that right: Ties and SUITS … in a tropicial paradise whose humidity level probably tops 110!
What is the value we are communicating here? It seems to me the value they are communicating is this: “We wish to convey a certain sense of decorum in our holy space. We define ‘decorum’ using the standards that the occupying white culture imposed on native island people 400 years ago. We don’t define ‘decorum’ based on contemporary values of gender equality, or based on the environmental/temperature realities of where we are standing today.”
Let me just say it: That is annoy annoy annoy annoying.
I offered what I thought was fair middle ground. How about I arrange a tour of the synagogue earlier in the day, as an “outing” for my guests, for which their building and cantor would recieve a fee? We would do the ceremony the way we wanted, with the officiant and the sentiments we desired, overlooking the ocean, in the clothes we felt were climactically appropriate, over at a hotel?
That was fine they said. But it would still cost $2,500. And they wouldn’t help us coordinate with the hotel.
All things considered, we concluded that getting married in the only functioning synagogue in the Caribbean just wasn’t meant to be. If these restrictions don’t bother you, Curacao might be a perfectly great option for you.
If, however, you want more ritual freedom, there are plenty of other ideas you might consider:
Looking Beyond Curacao
1. First off, Curacao is still a beautiful place and judging from this picture I found from the Marriott Resort in Curacao, their hotel knows how to build a chuppah for a Jewish wedding! Hire a rabbi and bring him/her with you, and hold your wedding at the Marriott hotel. Your guests can choose to tour the synagogue as one of many excursions they have to choose from on the island.
2. Curacao isn’t the only island with great beaches. And really, the only two things you need to make a wedding “Jewish” is a Jewish officiant, and a chuppah. You can bring the officiant with you, and small, lightweight handheld chuppahs can be made for under $200. (Email me; I can help you figure out how.)
My fiance and I briefly entertained a wedding in Jamaica. I have several friends who married there, and the island’s hotels are great at putting together package vacations. Their beaches are amazing, and the temperature of the ocean feels like bath water! They also offer resorts that cater to families with small children who are not yet potty-trained — a big issue for any guests you may have coming who have very young kids. (Look at Beaches and FDR resorts for starters).
Another idea I wish we had thought was one a little closer to home: the Ritz Carlton in Tucson. I recently officiated an exquisite wedding there replete with hiking, majestic views and 5-star vegetarian fare all rolled into one.
Whatever “destination” you consider for your “destination wedding,” most hotels offer wedding packages with discounted room rates for their guests (which you don’t have to pay for). Many resorts outside the U.S. offer all-you-can-eat buffets for meals.
For another $1,000 bucks or so, resorts also provide photographers, videographers, and even a cake. I wish I could get married over and over again, just to have reasons to go to beautiful places like Turks & Caicos, the Bahamas, and a diver’s paradise, Bonaire!
Resorts that offer wedding packages always include a local minister or pastor to officate the ceremony itself. There are, no doubt, great officiants out there, but if you are looking for something Jewish, or something theistically unconventional (such as –secular or nontheistic), you probably need to bring an officiant with you.
For a few nights stay at the hotel, a daily honorarium and a plane ticket, you can find a rabbi or rabbi-in-training who would be happy for the opportunity to enjoy a taste of paradise along with you! Even with this added cost of bringing your own officiant, you will still save considerably less money by having a destination wedding than you would hosting a wedding on your home turf.
Congratulations on your engagement — and if you had a destination wedding of your own, write me here, in the Comment field, and let me know how it went!