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The 12 white tables at Kibbutz Palmahim are arranged with delicate bouquets of sweet-scented lilacs and white roses. Cream-colored napkins fastened with azure bows were carefully arranged next to sparkling wine glasses and silverware. The bar is fully stocked with liquor, ice, wine, and beer. Giant bamboo sticks arranged in caramel-colored clay pots separate the dining area from a grassy lawn to give the space a more intimate feeling.
A single orchid is centered among four small sand boxes with names and a seating chart at the greeting table. The huppa, constructed of four bamboo poles and topped with a single layer of white chiffon, is beautifully wrapped with delicate ferns and white roses. A white carpet covered in rose petals runs between the rows of empty chairs. An air of anticipation and romance fills the air as an army of workers busily finishes the last touches for the wedding.
Since the early morning hours, Menashe Shani and Amit Stein, the wedding planners, have been walking around giving directions, building decks and carrying decorations. Now that everything is in place, they busy themselves with inspecting the flower arrangements, adjusting bamboo sticks, straightening lights and placing candles with the dedicated air of professional perfectionists.
"Where are you?" Stein asks the sound man on his cell phone, pacing back and forth between the dance hall and the dinner tables to hear the answer. Noticing one bamboo pole slightly out of alignment, he walks over to the newly-constructed shelf to shift the renegade piece back into place.
"He was supposed to be here sooner," he says in a private aside, cupping the bottom part of the phone with the palm of his hand and smoothing a wrinkle on his crisp, button-down shirt.
According to schedule, the preparations for the band are running slightly late. But everything else is ready. A basket of baby-blue blankets has been rolled up and tied with gold string in close proximity to the dinner tables. "It is colder than we expected today, so we decided to bring blankets for the guests, and we hope it's not going to rain," Stein says, nervously glancing up at the hazy sky.
"I can't do anything about the rain, but as of now, everyone knows what they are supposed to do and where they are supposed to be when," he explains, pulling out a neat time line with every person involved in each arrangement from 9 a.m. until the end of the wedding later tonight.
"We've met with all of the managers and everything is in order. Now we're just waiting for the couple to arrive for photographs and the wedding to start."
For Stein and Shani, planning elegant weddings like this one is easy because they have years of experience. But couples getting married for the first time often find the task completely overwhelming. Ever since Jennifer Lopez played a hard-working, ambitious wedding planner in the 2001 romantic comedy The Wedding Planner, the job description has become a household term. And the need for an overseeing manager who knows how to handle a wedding comes as no surprise in today's world. Both members of the couple usually work, leaving little time or energy to plan an event of such magnitude.
And with nearly 40,000 couples getting married here annually (the most recent Central Bureau of Statistics figures are for 2002) and spending an average of NIS 150,000, the industry is gigantic. And according to the Israel Religious Action Center of the Progressive Movement, 25 percent of all couples look for alternative ways to celebrate their union, which includes creating their own religious ceremonies.
In 2003, Stein and Shani formed a partnership to meet the growing demand for wedding planners, but they say the actual title has been around for at least the last six years. "It wasn't an officially recognized career, but many people were doing the job without calling themselves 'wedding planners,'" Shani says.
From their backgrounds in catering, Stein and Shani easily crossed over to the production side of event planning. "I met Amit when I was managing a catering business. We worked together for three months and then I left for New York, but we both knew we wanted to run our own business together one day," Shani says. "We had a lot of managerial experience and knew the catering business well. We enjoy working with people and organizing things, so it was a natural progression."
In fact, many wedding planners get into the business because it matches their skills and career history rather than because they always dreamed of the job. After all, no academies or institutions for wedding planners exist, and it's not something that you can study at university.
ZVI OSOSSKY started as a manager of a photography studio before becoming a wedding planner. "Couples used to come in for help with photographers, and I started helping them get lower prices and giving advice about how to plan the wedding and what to do next. I didn't decide to be a wedding planner, I just found myself here after things progressed, and today I help couples with the organization and planning," he says. "It's an incredible amount of work to plan a wedding, and when most couples arrive in the studio, they don't understand how to do anything, and they don't have the time to deal with it."
Some wedding planners, like Stein and Shani, handle the decorations themselves and oversee the catering, the music, the ceremony and the location, while others focus more on helping the couple on the day of the wedding.
"I recommend caterers and DJs and help couples find a place to get married, but on the day of the ceremony I spend my time helping them and taking care of things they need done," Osossky says.
In addition to helping with prior arrangements, having a wedding planner on what some people consider the most important day of their lives can sometimes end up saving the day. At one sunset wedding in Caesarea, Osossky explains that all of the guests had arrived and everything was ready for the ceremony - except the rabbi. "I had to send someone to go and pick him up because his taxi didn't show up. We didn't want the ceremony to be in the dark, and he was much later than we expected. In the end, it worked out, but it was stressful."
At another of Osossky's weddings, the DJ decided at 1:30, just as the party was getting revved up, that he had played enough. "I went over and sat with him. To keep him playing, I gave him some extra cash." The couple getting married was happy to pay the extra fee.
Stein and Shani have also had some near disasters. The freezers at one wedding broke down and the dessert sorbets melted. "In the end, we made a new dessert out of figs and grapes that they already had. We put yogurt on top and it ended up being very tasty," says Shani.
In another instance, the bride and groom forgot to mention that 10 of their guests required kosher meals. Stein and Shani immediately ordered takeaway from a nearby kosher restaurant and had a taxi pick it up and deliver it.
But perhaps the worst near disaster involved the bride. As she was getting into the groove on the dance floor, her corset came untied, ripping her dress down the seams on both sides and leaving her embarrassed and exposed. "I found an emergency seamstress and we got her sewn up in the middle of the wedding," Osossky says with a chuckle. "Of course we cut that part out of the video."
SO WHAT does a wedding planner cost? Well, that depends. The process typically begins with a meeting with the planner to discuss the couple's vision for the wedding. If they haven't found a location yet, the planner can offer advice and put together packages that include the place, the catering, the music, the decorations and the bar service.
"There are no fixed prices because each couple wants something different. Sometimes we only meet with the parents of the couple, and sometimes the couple cannot agree on anything, so we have to try and reach compromises between what they tell us their fantasy is versus how we can feasibly turn it into a reality," Shani explains.
"They usually tell us what they want. Then we think about the production side of things and how it can be done practically without considering the money. At the end, we get to the money and we reach agreements," Stein says.
Even with a wedding planner, the couple is still responsible for making the final decisions about everything. They still have to compile a guest list, create invitations and send them out, arrange a seating chart, buy their clothing and all of the other details that require enormous amounts of time and organization.
"It's important to remember that having a wedding planner doesn't mean you won't have to do any work at all," says Osossky. "It's still a lot of work for the couple. But having an experienced professional can certainly make it an easier process."
And while the luxury of a planner is a great security blanket if you can afford it, some couples do opt to plan their own weddings from start to finish, taking advice from friends and managing the details themselves. It can still be done. It just takes more time.
Around 10% of Israeli couples choose to tie the knot abroad. This way, they can avoid both the rabbinate's requirements and the cost and hassle of a big wedding.
With so many options, it's important for couples to carefully consider what they want and agree on a vision and a budget before they decide how and where to get married. According to Stein and Shani, if the couple can agree on how to arrange the wedding, it's a great start.
"We had one couple come in and fight constantly about every detail. They were both successful and opinionated people, and we thought they were making a mistake in getting married. Life is so much harder without compromise," says Shani, who jokes that giving this type of advice is where his psychological training comes in handy.
"Getting married is a very emotional and happy time. It's very exciting and it's always a happy event," he says. "We're fortunate because we get to work with happy couples and be there for one of the happiest moments in their life."
Some couples equate the amount of money they spend and the grandiosity of their wedding with how successful it will be. But Osossky says this is a common mistake. "It doesn't matter how much you spend on your wedding. It doesn't matter if you hire the best belly dancers and the most expensive catering. At the end of the day, what makes a successful wedding is the guests." n
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