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The Willows Radnor Township.jpg

The Willows historic mansion is visible in the distance. A bridge connects the park to a small peninsula that juts into the lake, shaded by a gorgeous willow tree. It’s the perfect spot for an intimate wedding ceremony.

If you are looking for a short and sweet wedding ceremony with just you, your beloved, and a handful of guests, The Willows is one of the most perfect, picturesque places to do so in Philly’s western suburbs.

Radnor Township has a park called The Willows (430 Darby Paoli Road; Villanova PA 19085). If you type the address in Google Maps, and select Satellite view, you will see that the park is centered around a small lake with a view of a historic mansion.

Jutting out into the lake is a small piece of land with an enormous flowering willow tree (hence the park’s name, presumably!) It’s all the space you need for a group of 3 to 10 people to stand in a semi-circle and watch you become married!

Here is The Willows on  GoogleMaps.

The Willows park is a 47.5-acre estate purchased by Radnor Township in 1973 from the Zantzinger family. Situated at the end of a long, winding driveway is the beautifully restored three-story mansion. The mansion was built in 1910 by John Sinnott Jr. and Rose Garland.

The mansion still contains many of the original architectural features that add to the historical value of the property. The cottage (or gatehouse) was a multipurpose building. It housed estate employees, stabled horses and other animals of the estate, as well as cars. It was the first point of contact visitors made to the estate.

Today, the property also contains a nature trail, picnic areas, and restrooms open to the public.

For more information on visiting the park, as well as information on reserving the park for a larger more-formal event, visit the township website here: www.radnor.com/Facilities/Facility/Details/The-Willows-29.

 

The Willows Radnor Township.jpg


chuppah2As a wedding officiant, one of the first questions couples ask me is where they can find a chuppah — the wedding canopy that is used traditionally in Jewish weddings.

Chuppahs remain a popular element in Jewish weddings, including interfaith weddings, and for very good reasons.

For starters, they are beautiful! They create a picturesque “frame” around the couple and carve out a visual space for the ritual events to unfold.

Secondly, the meaning of a chuppah works in so many different types of weddings. Although it is clearly a Jewish tradition, there is nothing Jewishly “exclusive” about it — meaning, it works perfectly well for Christians too.

The idea of a chuppah is that you are symbolically creating the new home that the couple is making together. Like a home, it has a cover, to provide shelter, but unlike a home, it is open on all sides. This symbolizes the idea that all couples need the help, love and support of the people around them; by keeping the walls open, they are inviting all of this love inside.

You may have noticed that there is nothing theistic about anything I have just said. The majority of weddings I officiate are for couples where at least one person self-identifies as an agnostic, atheist or secular humanist — and chuppahs work perfectly with these kinds of ideologies too! Inviting in the love of friends and family into your new home has nothing to do with an omnipotent being.

How To Find a Chuppah: The Nuts and Bolts

All of that said, allow me to return to my previous point, which is the literal question: Where do I find a chuppah? Here is some advice that I have culled from couples whom I have married:

1) Start with your wedding venue. They may have chuppahs they can rent you, or they may have an “arch”-type piece of decoration worked into their grounds, which you can use as a symbolic chuppah.

2) Next stop is a florist. Many florists also rent chuppahs. If you have a florist and they don’t offer chuppahs, move to point 3.

3) Third stop is looking for vendors who are strictly in the business of renting chuppahs. Keep in mind, the closer the vendor is located to the location of your wedding, the better the price they can offer. Travel time is often the biggest time drain for every person you are hiring to do your wedding! You will also pay more on a Saturday in May, when folks in the wedding business are booked out to the hilt, than you will on a Thursday in December.

4) Last idea: For those crafty inclined — or for those on a budget — or both, buy a chuppah starter kit (about $125 from one website I like, called www.galleryjudaica.com) and get handy. These kits will give you the basics of what you need, and you will usually need to figure out the polls.

I officiated a wedding for a couple who chose Organza Chuppah Silver for $125, free ground shipping, from Gallery Judaica. They invested a fair amount of time making polls with matching fabric and gold ribbon hanging off the end; I loved it!5-27-12 Alanah & Scott (5).jpg

Another couple I married went the super-simple route and just bought four matching poles and then tied a tallis (prayer shawl) over the top. The tallis they used was an old one, which had been passed down in the family. Here is a picture of how theirs came out (at right). As you can see, it’s gorgeous! You don’t have to spend a lot of money to have a chuppah, especially if you are willing to work with the type you hold.

One of the best chuppah-making secrets I’ve learned about of late is a guy who sells on Etsy full-sized birchwood polls, fashioned to hold a fabric top on one end. The price? $51 for four polls! (How he makes any profit at that price, I have no idea!)

Buy some birchwood polls on Etsy, add a family tallis on top, and you’ve got yourself a gorgeous handmade chuppah for under $100! Right off the bat, you’ve carved $900 off your wedding budget; not too shabby, I’d say!

Below I have listed a few vendors that have been recommended to me personally, and at prices that strike me as reasonable. Keep in mind, you can pay upwards of $1,000 for a chuppah, depending on how fancy you want to get.

** Philly Event Rental (http://phillyeventrental.com/) offered a price quote of $450, with an additional $50 for lights. Their warehouse is located in the NE Philly / Port Richmond area. “We were very happy with how it turned out.”

* A florist in South Philly, Baileflor, recently offered a price of $350, which included draping, flowers and hanging crystals. But she was also being paid separately for larger floral work at the ceremony, so it’s not a straight comparison in the price department. “She can also customize depending on your budget,” my source told me, and the couple “seems to be very pleased with her thus far.”

Her contact info:
Leah Reinhard Albarouki
MD wedding (3).JPGbaileflor
www.baileflor.com
484.557.8010

Of course the best place to go these days to just scope out ideas is Pinterest. There, you will find thousands of pictures of chuppahs that people have uploaded to the site.

For example, check out this beautiful chuppah one of my couple’s made, overlooking a lake in Delaware. It is nothing more than unadorned tree branches, with a large piece of lace draped over the top. Simple, yet perfect!

Have you rented a chuppah in the Philly area and liked the service you received? If so, please email me the name of the provider, the price you paid, and whatever other details are helpful to know, and I will add them to this list!


Honoring the death of a person who was difficult to love

– A combo memorial service / shiva minyan can help you do so

 A few months ago, I had the complicated privilege of helping a family plan a memorial/shiva service for their father, who had died after a long illness, and after an even longer period of pain of estrangement from his four adult children, their spouses, and his grandchildren.

“Andy,” as I will call him, was a complicated persotombstonen, which is why I described my job, as the rabbi, to be “complicated.”

Andy was in his 80s and was hard to get along with, perhaps even abusive at times to his children. He played favorites in a way that the adult children had learned to cope with, but which had surely created much pain and heartache when they were younger and less mature. Andy had divorced his kids’ mother and she had no interest in attending any kind of memorial. None of the women he had dated since  the divorce cared to attend any kind of service either. It appears he had no friends.

Jewish burial practices were clearly made with a different kind of person in mind. Jews and non-Jews alike, including the world of psychiatric research, has a great deal of admiration for the way Jewish tradition handles end-of-life mourning practices. People have written many books about the wisdom of Jewish mourning traditions, and how they seem designed to gradually lead the survivors through the stages of mourning, and eventually back into the world of the living.

I agree. They are brilliant. And I encourage Jews who never do more Jewishly in their lives than appear at Kol Nidre services to take the time to familiarize themselves with the Jewish ways of mourning when a loved one dies. Together, they betray a keen awareness of how we humans process loss, and how marking intervals of time over this mourning process with specific rituals and prayers can help us move through our grief.

I won’t go into the various elements now – you can read them many places. Rather, what I would like to talk about here are those deaths that we feel a need or desire to ritually acknowledge in some way, but for a variety of reasons, the Jewish script on how to do so doesn’t fit quite right.

• The death of someone who is very old, and thus leaves few survivors, is one whole category of cases where classical Jewish mourning practices don’t entirely make sense.

• The death of someone who was, essentially, a hard person to love, is another important category. This is the situation “Andy’s” family found themselves in.

 *   *   *

Before we explore what alternatives might work best in these types of situations, let’s first review what a “typical” series of events would be following the death of a beloved, when Jewish tradition kicks in with a set of clearly prescribed actions:

1.         Call the funeral home.
2.         Plan for either a burial or cremation.
(40% of Jews today are being cremated; it’s the hush-hush secret no on talks about.)
3.         Schedule a date and plan on 100+ people coming to the funeral home for a service inside the funeral home.
4.         A portion of those mourners will then drive to the graveside, where thtexte rabbi will read a few more psalms or poems, and conclude with the mourner’s kaddish. The final act is the throwing of dirt on the casket or the urn that is being buried. You can assume steps 1-4 will take about 5 hours out of your day, much of it in travel time, since the funeral homes and the burial grounds are often located very far apart. In Philly, most of them are located in the far outskirts of the city.
5.         Then comes shiva. Traditionally, it is 7 nights, but most families outside Orthodoxy observe only 1 or 2 nights. The rabbi who led the funeral usually leads the shiva as well, unless you have an educated friend or family member who can lead the service. (This is one way of saving some money, if that is an issue.) While a shiva service itself usually takes just 40 or so minutes, it is essentially a daylong event, emotionally speaking. Folks almost never go to work during shiva, and many families feel obligated to have food on hand for those attending — even if it’s food that others have brought.
6.         Then, about 6 months after the death, immediate family members gather graveside for the unveiling of the tombstone. This is a brief ceremony, 15 minutes tops, but people often have lunch together afterward. Due to travel time, this often takes another 3-4 hours — so in other words, another half day spent.

The average cost for all this (assuming a burial and not a cremation) is $35,000, according to national statistics. The rabbi makes a miniscule fraction of this sum, by the way. In Philadelphia, the fixed rate for a funeral is $600 for the rabbi; (shiva minyans and tombstone unveilings are negotiated separately, and vary depending on travel time.)

At the end of the day, this “whole big megilla” of a traditional Jewish burial is a whole lot of money, (and time, and emotional latitude.) It’s especially a lot of money if you suspect few people will even attend the funeral, the graveside, or a shiva, either because the deceased had outlived his social circle, or because the deceased did not endear himself much to others.

But forget the money for a moment and just focus on the emotional costs. When the relationship was strained, you can’t help but ask yourself honestly whether you want to invest 10 or 20 hours of your life memorializing someone who, despite their kinship, caused you unmitigated grief or heartache.

How much time do you want to spend formally mourning a person who caused you to spend years of your life on a therapist’s couch?

I’m going to take a wild guess here and say: Probably not much.

And that also doesn’t mean you want to do nothing at all, either.

After all, a memorial event, however it is done, is done for the living, not for the dead. So, more than anything else, the event needs to meet the needs of those who are left behind. In the case of this family, the many layered, time-consuming, and expensive Jewish traditions usually done upon the death of a beloved was not what Andy’s family needed.

Although the death of a difficult family member, like Andy, is a different kind of loss than the death of someone close, but it is still very much a loss. Sometimes, quixotically, it can be an even harder loss because it can bring up all sorts of feels of regret, thoughts of “If only…” and “What if…?”

The death of a person with whom you had a broken relationship means this relationship can NEVER be repaired. Of course it couldn’t have been repaired by any means, because the man who died was himself too broken of a person, but having the window close of even an imaginary opportunity is its own sort of terrible finality. You, the survivor, is left with the shards of this broken vessel, and a memorial service, done the right way, can be your own first step to making peace with that fact.

Fortunately for me, Andy’s surviving children and spouses were an incredibly wise bunch. While they didn’t know exactly what they wanted as far as a formal ceremony or event marking Andy’s passing, they had figured out — intuitively really — that doing the traditional Jewish funeral rites was not what they needed. It would have been, pardon the expression, overkill. But they intuited that they needed to come together in some manner as a family, and in some way mark the passing of this person who had, for better and worse, made such an enormous impact on their lives.

After speaking at length with one of Andy’s daughters, and learning the details of their story, we concluded that having a modest, in-home memorial service with just immediate family members would be the best way to help them do that. So, working together, here is what we did, (I think of it as a Jewish funeral/shiva combo). It was inexpensive; it was respectful; and it served its purpose of helping the mourners mark the loss of their father and grandfather.

It was almost like building a new foundation out of the rubble: By making peace with the brokenness, they could then move forward in their own unbroken lives and relationships with each other.

 *   *   *

Combined Home Memorial  / Shiva Minyan Service

(in lieu of the traditional memorial service at funeral home /
graves
ide service / and then shiva minyan)

Timing: Andy had died and been cremated about one month earlier. An in-home memorial was planned for a few weeks after his death to give relativmosaices from out of town time to buy plane tickets at a reasonable price and prepare time off from work and school (in the case of the grandchildren).

Location: At the home of one of Andy’s daughters in the Mainline PA.

Time: Late morning or early afternoon on a Saturday or Sunday seemed to make the most sense. This minimized impact on their own work/school lives, while also making it possible to follow the home memorial with a meal together, which they had at a restaurant. (I led the service, but did not join them at the meal).

In Attendance:  Four surviving daughters, their four spouses, and all but one of the grandchildren (the missing grandchild was in college and had only met his grandfather once, so in his case, it didn’t seem to make sense that he would incur the cost and headache of missed collegiate work.)

Our Service:

We sat in chairs in a circle in the living room, where we could all face each other.

Rabbi: I began with a favorite reading from Albert Einstein, where he reflects on the meaning of life. I concluded by saying:

“Thank you to all of you who have come here today, to stand in comfort and support of the Smith family, as they mourn the passage of their father, father-in-law and grandfather, Andy Smith. Please turn to page 4a.

 Rise for the Shema.”

Rabbi: After group recitation of the Shema, service-leader reads a brief writing from Chaim Stern.

Mourner #1: Reads an English rendition of Ma’ariv Aravim.

Everyone: Recites the Shema together.

Mourner #2: Reads an English rendition of V’ahavta.

Rabbi: “There are times when each of us feels lost or alone, adrift and forsaken, unable to reach those next to us, or to be reached by them. And there are days and nights when existence seems to lack all purpose, and our lives seem brief sparks in an indifferent cosmos. Fear and loneliness enter into the soul. None of us is immune from doubt and fear; none escapes times when all seems dark and senseless. Then, the ebb-tide of the spirit, the soul cries out and reaches for companionship.”

Please turn to 13a as we rise and recite together the first three blessings of the psalmnatureAmidah. For the 15 remaining blessings, I invite you to recite them silently, or simply take this time for quiet personal reflection.

Group: Recites the Amidah (Also called “The Tefillah”).

Conclude the Amidah by singing together Oseh Shalom.

Rabbi: Shares a reading from Marge Piercy.

Rabbi: Shares some highlights from Andy Smith’s life: where he was born, raised, what kind of work he did. Mention his strengths and those things he did well in life.

Then open the circle to anyone else who would like to share some memories. Three members of the family shared some brief positive memories they had of Andy. (We all knew that these thoughts did not reflect the larger arc of his life, but that was okay. It was an act of love, really — one final unrequited gift that they gave him — by choosing to focus only on the positive and the joyous.)

Mourner #3: The circle closed with a recitation of the poem by Albert Fine: “Birth is a Beginning, Death is a Destination.” (The poem had been suggested by one of the daughters; she had heard it at another funeral and liked it.)

Rabbi: Sings/Chants El Malei Rachamim – a chanted prayer of mourning filled with beautiful allegory whereby the petitioners ask that the soul of the departed carry on into the next world on the wings of angels.

Rabbi: Leads the concluding Mourner’s Kaddish.

 *   *   *

Shavuot: Let's keep it the harvest holiday it was originally meant to be!

This is just one of many ways a combined at-home memorial / shiva service can be conducted. The readings and content was selected after speaking with the family members. In total, the service lasted about 40 minutes.

Every death is different, and the needs of every family of mourners is always different. The service outlined above, for example, assumes that those attending have a basic understanding of core Jewish liturgy, and that the mourners are in favor of references to God in Hebrew. What the right service might be for your family could look very different.

To discuss what kind of service might meet the needs of your family, please give me a call. There is never any charge for a consultation, and if I feel I am not able to meet the needs of your family – for whatever reason – I am happy to help you find someone who will.

Every death, even the most difficult one, deserves to be honored and recognized in some way. Working together, we can make this happen for you. I am an ordained rabbi with formal training all across the non-Orthodox spectrum: Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal, and Secular-Humanist. (I’ve been a quintessential “Wandering Jew” in my learning and life; hence the name of this blog! 🙂 ).

We can craft a ceremony that reflects your relationship with the deceased, however it might have been.

I’m not always checking my electronic devices, so if you have a time-sensitive inquiry for a funeral, a memorial service, or a shiva minyan, please text my cell and send me an email. I will be in touch as soon as I see one of the other. If possible, please give me a general sense of what day you either must or hope to have your gathering, and how much flexibility you have on that scheduling.

To reach me, please fill out the contact form found at SecularJewishFunerals.com


In 2014, I had the pleasure of officiating a wedding at the most unlikely of places: a downtown antique auction house and furniture store called Material Culture. Located in north Philadelphia, just east of East Falls at 4700 Wissahickon Ave., the store promotes itself as “A spacious emporium carrying an array of global antiques, arts & crafts, plus other unique finds.”

Unique indeed! Built in 1920, the 60,000-square-foot store occupies a former train station of the Atwater Kent Radio Factory. With towering ceilings, expanses of glittering light, and galleries adorned with architectural elements and artwork from around the globe, the store provides an amazing backdrop for any couple looking to bring a Pier One-aesthetic to their wedding day.

Here are just a few shots I captured that day. The smudge on all of them came from a toddler’s fingerprint that I didn’t know what there! 😦 You can view much better photos from a variety of events in the store’s photo gallery, which you can find here. 

cool wedding venue material culture (4).JPG

From the outside, Material Culture looks utterly commonplace. It isn’t until you go inside that the real magic begins!

cool wedding venue material culture (13).JPG

Looking down at the reception.

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One of the funky furniture pieces for sale.

cool wedding venue material culture (6).JPG

The colorful chuppah under construction before the ceremony.

cool wedding venue.JPG

The carpet room provides lots of places for folks to sit down and enjoy cocktails. 

cool wedding venue material culture (3).JPG

The tech-savvy couple had fun jumping online right after the ceremony and registering the change from Dating to Married on their relationship status on Facebook!

 


Their Secret Was
Jalal al-Din Rumi, 1207 – 1273

A married couple used to come see me once in
a while. Among the many I knew who were wed,
they appeared the most happy.

One day I said to them, “What marital advice
could you offer to others that might help them
achieve the grace you found?”

And the young woman blushed and so did her
husband; so I did not press them to answer.
But I knew.

Their secret was this: That once every day, for
an hour, they treated each other as if they were
gods and would, with all their heart, do anything,
anything, their beloved desired.

Sometimes that just meant holding hands and
walking in a forest that renewed their souls.


It’s possible to be married under twinkling stars in the planetarium of The Franklin Institute! It is definitely one of the most memorable and ethereal wedding venues in metro Philly.

Should you write your own wedding vows? It’s a question only you can answer; it’s a challenge only about 1 in 10 couples whose weddings I officiate choose to take on.

Below is an example of a great personally written vow — it’s an ideal length and strikes the perfect tone.

I’m sharing it with permission; their anonymity was requested:

They say love comes to those who still hope after disappointment, who still believe after betrayal and who still love after they’ve been hurt. I know this is true because I found you.

Patrick – you are my best friend and I thank god he brought you into my life.

I love how tenderhearted you are toward me and when you show your sentimental side, the side that comes out when I am having a bad day and lifts my spirit.

I love how you love me, a pure love that I have never found in anyone else; the kind of love that is accepting of my flaws, knows my deepest insecurities and pain and continues to love me without judgment, but with acceptance and strength.

In this sometimes chaotic world, I know I can find peace with you by my side (and by that I mean binge watching Netflix and HBO Go).  I know with you beside me it will all be okay because of the love and friendship we share.

I promise my unconditional love for a lifetime, to listen and to hold your hand, to always kiss you goodnight and to do my best to always make you feel loved.

I promise to remember that although neither of us is perfect, we are perfect for each other.

I promise to fight for us, and to forgive quickly, no matter what challenges might carry us apart.

I promise to always find my way back to you.

Finally, (because this could be a deal breaker), I vow to love you when you are 65, retired and still playing Xbox.

I love your soul.


Whenever a couple has a piece of literature, movie or music that they share passionately in common, it presents such a fun opportunity to try to work in some quotes or passages into the wedding ceremony. This week, by happenstance, I finally found a perfect excerpt from Star Trek, which could be used for a Trekkie-loving couple!

Here, in Season 6, Episode 7 of Deep Space Nine, “You Are Cordially Invited,” we watch the wedding ceremony between Worf and Jadzia Dax. Watching the choreography in the episode is much better than just reading the script, but I’ve typed up the exchange below, for anyone who might wish to adapt it in their own ceremony.

Acting out the batlyths and the drumming would probably be a bit over-the-top for most folks, but even just using some of the quotes, or passages, as spoken by the officiant, could sound completely beautiful in a ceremony. Obviously, the references to “Klingons” would be replaced with “human” – as in No one can oppose the beating of two human hearts. And you could skip the fable about destroying the gods. In other words, this scene could be adapted into a funny, yet touching, text for the vow exchange.

For all of you random Google-readers out there, who have happened upon this blog entry, I’m an officiant in metro Philly who writes about Judaism and weddings (and sometimes both!). If you want a creative Star-Trek inspired wedding ceremony, I AM willing to travel! 🙂

 

 

Prior to the ceremony, the Klingon Martok says this:

And yet I love her deeply.

We Klingons, often tout our prowess in battle, our desire for glory and honor above all else. But how hollow is the sound of victory without someone to share it with? Honor gives little comfort to a man alone in his home, and in his heart.

At the ceremony, his wife Sirilla speaks as the Officiant:

{Officiant} (drumming) With fire and steel did the gods forge the Klingon heart. So fiercely did it beat, so loud was the sound that the gods cried out ‘on this day we have brought forth the strongest heart in all the heavens’. None can stand before it without trembling in its strength. But then the Klingon heart weakened, its steady rhythm faltered, and the gods said ‘Why have you weaken so? We have made you the strongest in all creation!”

And the heart said {groom} “I am alone”.

{Officiant} And the gods knew that they had erred. So they went back to their forge and they brought forth another heart.

{bride enters} {batlyths presented} {Officiant} But the second heart beat stronger than the first. The first was jealous of its power.

{ceremonial clash} Fortunately, the second heart was tempered by wisdom.

{bride} If we join together, no force can stop us.

{Weapons set aside. Couple embraces}

{Officiant} And when the two hearts began to beat together, they filled the heavens with a terrible sound. For the first time, the gods knew fear. They tried to flee but it was too late. The Klingon hearts destroyed the gods who created them, and turned the heavens to ashes. To this very day, no one can oppose the beating of two Klingon hearts.

{Officiant turns to the Groom} Does your heart beat only for this woman?

{Groom} Yes.

{Officiant} And will you swear to join with her and stand with her against all who would oppose you?

{Groom} I swear.

{Officiant} (Bride), daughter of ____ , does your heart beat only for this man?

{Bride} Yes.

{Officiant} And will you swear to join with him and stand with him against all who would oppose you?

{Bride} I swear.

{Officiant} Then let all here present today know that this man and this woman are married.

{Then guests rush them with padded sticks and konk them!}