Archive for December, 2012

Magohany bimah with sand flooringWith only one synagogue operating in the Caribbean, it’s easy to imagine why a Jewish destination wedding to the Caribbean gets quickly cut off the list.

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.

You do, however, need to start curacao mapthinking creatively.

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.

curacoThe 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.

Jewish Pirates of the CaribbeanFor you history buffs out there, you might love reading Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean; Curacao made an appearance, as did many other of my favorite Caribbean haunts!

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.

star of david3. Then, number 3, they require couples  to exchange wedding rings that are solid gold bands. The rings, they said, can’t have any jewels or stones of any kind, or any engraving on them.

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

curaco marriot resort1. 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).

Ritz_Dove_Mountain in TucsonAnother 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!

ritz_carlton_dove_mountain_marana_arizona-mainResorts 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!

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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 of 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!

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. 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.

0363_Alanah_Scott_2012_05_27 - handheld chuppah 2Below 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 is below:
Leah Reinhard Albarouki

Of course the best place to go these days to just scope out ideas is Pinterest. There, chuppah3you will find thousands of pictures of chuppahs that people have uploaded to the site, such as the gorgeous chuppah posted here.

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!

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