Weddings in the time of corona

What’s it like to get married in the midst of a pandemic? Increasingly restrictive directives from the Health Ministry are impacting weddings. ‘In Jerusalem’ spoke with some of those affected.

Huppa of Miriam Cyber and Mickey Polevoy (photo credit: AVIGAIL TRESGALLO)
Huppa of Miriam Cyber and Mickey Polevoy
(photo credit: AVIGAIL TRESGALLO)
The rabbi:
Rabbi Yuval Cherlow is one of the founders of Tzohar, an organization of 800+ religious-Zionist Orthodox rabbis who work to bridge the gap between religious and secular Jews in Israel. 

Tzohar provides officiating rabbis to couples getting married in Israel.

Cherlow reported a significant drop in requests for an officiating rabbi.

“Many of the couples don’t want to give up their dream [wedding]. Now they’re asking [about] organizing weddings during the Omer [between Passover and Shavuot] and during the Three Weeks [leading up to Tisha Be’av].” These are semi-mourning periods in the Jewish calendar when Jewish weddings are typically not held.

Cherlow explained Tzohar will register weddings during the Omer period and in the beginning of the Three Weeks, but not during the final Nine Days before Tisha Be’av when mourning practices intensify.

He explained that couples whose weddings are impacted by the coronavirus restrictions fall into three groups.

The majority decide to postpone, hoping they will be able to salvage their dream wedding.

The second group of couples are getting married now and asking whether the rabbis can create what Cherlow called a “huppah-like” ceremony, to precede the festive wedding party they hope to enjoy in the future.

The third group are couples who are simply getting married now. 

A Jewish wedding is typically divided into two parts. Kiddushin, or formal engagement, requires only the couple and two witnesses. The huppah itself requires a minimum of 10 Jewish men above the age of bar mitzvah in addition to the couple. 

Today, this is accomplished with weddings held outdoors, with guests standing at least two meters apart. This arrangement allows for a kosher huppah, including the recitation of the sheva brachot (seven blessings).

Other elements of a traditional Jewish wedding, including the festive meal, can be postponed. Cherlow related that, at a recent brit milah in his own family, individuals brought a sandwich from home and ate their own food, sitting an appropriate distance apart. This allowed the family to fulfill the requirement for a festive meal following a brit milah. 

“All the things I said are in compliance with the orders of the Health Ministry. We don’t endanger others. We don’t violate rules,” he emphasized.

Cherlow said that Tzohar does not advocate for any of these approaches when working with an engaged couple. “We don’t make the decision for the couple. We do whatever they want,” he noted. 

“Personally, I love the idea that you don’t postpone. The central thing is that you got married and can build a new family,” he revealed.

The main issue Tzohar rabbis are concerned with now is how to keep to the guidelines of the Health Ministry while enabling brides to safely immerse in the mikveh prior to standing under the huppah.

“It’s a big issue,” Cherlow indicated. 

Looking to the future, Cherlow and his colleagues hope “something good will come from this. Weddings will be more reasonable, not such a huge expense and burden on the families, requiring them to take out loans.”

The wedding planner:

Adena Mark Kapon of A to Z Events Israel has been an event planner in Israel for 10 years. Cancellations and postponements are the norm now.

“Most people are holding off on planning weddings,” she indicated.

As the restrictions came into effect, she did a wedding on its original date in mid-March. The plans called for a 500-person event. At first, the guest list was cut to 100. Then the 10-person rule was implemented.

Rather than postponing, the couple decided to get married; they hope to have the rest of their simha in the future.

The wedding was conducted “in a large garden at the bride’s home. There were 10 people from each family, and they were separated into different areas of the garden. Observing social distancing, neighbors looked on from windows and from the street.”

“The bride sat on a chair in one section of the garden, and the huppah was in a different garden. We followed the guidelines [in place at the time],” Kapon noted.

The wedding included a photo shoot in a nearby forest with a professional photographer, family photos and professional makeup and hair. According to Kapon, most guests helped themselves to refreshments and quickly left the grounds.

Missing were the original 500 guests, the band and the dancing.

Kapon has no regrets. 

“I’m advising couples not to postpone a huppah. I think they should not postpone even if it’s the bare minimum. Smahot (parties) can be postponed.”

While she urges people not to cancel or postpone the huppah, Kapon wants people to plan a party in the future.

“People are minimizing the importance of celebration of a couple starting their lives together. Don’t minimize the importance of having celebrations. It’s an important part of the circle of life,” she urged.

The other wedding planner:

Events coordinator Risa Shapiro from FABEvents Israel, a social worker by training, has been involved with four corona-era weddings.

The first, on March 12, was supposed to have been a 320-person event for Sam McCartney and Sarah Hirsh. 

“After seven months of planning, the whole image of the wedding had to change. Immediately, I got that the bride and groom were going to be disappointed. All of a sudden the rug is pulled out.”

Shapiro sees her role as “a shock absorber, not letting the turmoil destroy their image of what it can be, not letting them lose sight of their simha.

“This is where my social work skills come in. I have to keep my cool, no matter what. That’s my job. In these times, I have to manage the parents, the bride and groom, the guests. It’s not just the bride and groom who are disappointed. Guests are also nervous to come.

“Some service providers cancel. They don’t want to endanger their lives. That requires troubleshooting. My troubleshooting is on steroids. I’m like a punching bag that keeps bouncing back.”

A second wedding took place with 10 people in a backyard. What was supposed to have been an April wedding “changed overnight,” Shapiro explained.

The couple moved the date up because they could see that things were changing every day. Unable to predict what might happen if they waited, Shapiro helped them get married within 48 hours of their decision to expedite their huppah.

Shapiro agrees that “putting off a wedding is not a great option. It’s anticlimactic. It’s better to deal with their disappointment while ensuring they will still have a fab event. Logistically, things might change. Emotionally and spiritually, nothing has to change,” she commented. 

Shapiro is currently involved in planning yet another wedding. “It’s a dynamic situation. There might be a whole shutdown, with not even 10 people.”

She applauded the photographers, makeup artists and others in the industry who are still working. “Service providers are really getting hit very hard. Their livelihood is being hurt for the year.”

The bride and groom:

Miriam (Syber) and Mickey Polevoy of Katamon recently had a dramatic, intimate, hastily-organized, midnight wedding.

In a Facebook post written shortly after, Polevoy described the memorable event. 

“I got married to Miriam at midnight on Thursday between March 19th & 20th in a Jerusalem apartment with only 10 guests due to the Coronavirus (COVID-19). I couldn’t have dreamt, hoped, or prayed for a more beautiful, better, or happier wedding in my wildest dreams.” 

Their wedding had been planned for 350 guests on April 16.

“Miriam and I understood that our wedding was in danger the moment that the government passed a regulation limiting gatherings to 100 people.”

One of the things that pushed them to act quickly was to ensure that Miriam’s mother, who was being urged by the Australian government to return to her home in Australia, could attend.

Miriam reflected on having totally reshaped their wedding.

“We both feel and know that getting married midnight Thursday night was min hashamayim (sent from Heaven) and that is exactly how it was supposed to be. With all the craziness, uncertainty and deliberation leading up to the huppah, I feel total closure and happiness following. For all the complexity and uncertainty there is in the world right now, I feel so centered about our decision.”

A sweet moment stands out for the bride.

“Even though it was only a very short period of separation, searching for him as I entered the room and waiting for him filled me with much anticipation and joy. It was as if there weren’t even 10 of us in the room.

Just me searching for him. I can’t even explain the excitement and anticipation,” she shared. 

Polevoy’s Facebook post details all the arrangements and all the people who helped create their magical midnight wedding.

“We called our closest friends and family and told them that the wedding was happening now with whatever clothes they had on. I got into my tuxedo and Miriam into her wedding dress. I could not have planned a more beautiful, better, or happier wedding in an eternity,” Polevoy wrote.

The mother of the bride:

Esther Struel and Yishai Nissanian, both from Efrat, were married on their original date of March 23. Mother-of-the-bride Yael Struel said, “We were all adamant not to push it off. We quickly organized a festive meal with a caterer, which we then had to cancel, as more restrictions were made.”

Since the couple had “always wanted to get married locally, outdoors,” a scenic outdoor site in Efrat was chosen.

Yael Struel explained, “We invited only siblings. A few uncles and aunts came, [but] no cousins. Some of the grandparents came, but stood far away. The bride and groom each had four friends in attendance.

“Some extra people surprised us, but stood far away on the sides,” Struel added. 

“The family helped to set everything up, and a friend had to go and get our son from the army. He was given three hours off [to attend his sister’s wedding]. 

“The wedding was so special, nearly what the couple had really wanted originally,” missing only the presence of family and friends.

“The three weeks before were very emotional and worrying, but we continually told them that the wedding would (God willing) happen. We were very sad for them, that this wasn’t the wedding they had planned.

“The community of Efrat, especially in the Zayit neighborhood, were beyond special. Hundreds of people came out onto their balconies with drums and guitars. It felt like a real yishuv wedding, like a wedding should be.

“Maybe we can all learn a big lesson from this, to cut back on big smahot,” Struel concluded.

The mother of the groom:

Dina Belfer’s son Mordechai married Cherut Odess on Sunday, March 15.

“Like everywhere around the world, things kept changing, and we didn’t know what would be,” Belfer reported about the wedding they pulled together “in a few hours.” 

Dozens of calls flew back and forth as arrangements were adjusted to meet the new circumstances. And there was a lot of emotion to process.

“From Thursday evening, when the instructions were to have only 100 people in a room, we were trying to work out the logistics of how to do that with 300 guests that we had. My son looked at me with tears in his eyes, saying, ‘How will we get married?’ I reassured him and told him, ‘No matter what, you will!’

“On motzei Shabbat, when we received the new rules of only 10 people, it was even harder for my son. My heart was broken for his broken heart. Needless to say, I got almost no sleep the night before the wedding.

“It was very difficult sending out messages to our extended family and friends telling them they couldn’t come.

At first we thought we’d only be able to have the parents and siblings, but I needed my parents there, too. 

“My parents are both in their 80s. This is their last grandchild to get married; they had to be there. This was going to be the first time in 17 years that they would have had all their grandchildren together. It was such a huge disappointment when everyone had to cancel their flights.”

In the end, family and friends pulled off a uniquely joyous wedding.

“We had a fabulous drive to the yeshiva, five cars following each other, Mordechai’s in the front, decorated with ribbons, stopping along the way to take pictures by the new ‘I LOVE SHOMRON’ sign. I was already so emotional and nothing had even started yet!” Belfer described.

“And then we got to his yeshiva. You cannot imagine the sight that filled our eyes. His friends set up the entire wedding and did a most amazing job! There aren’t enough words to describe what they did.

“Everyone was so happy. The simha was palpable. The joy and love was amazing, [seeing] what it means when friends give over from their whole heart! We couldn’t have dreamed of anything better!”

The bride-to-be:

Tamar Rosenbaum and Noam Vaanunu got engaged outdoors on March 19. Vaanunu, dressed in a hazmat suit, mask and gloves, proposed to Rosenbaum from two meters away, moments before he went into mandatory 14-day isolation after returning to Israel from the US.

The couple planned to get engaged in America while they were both there for family celebrations, but Rosenbaum canceled her trip, and Vaanunu returned earlier than intended. 

“I thought he would propose after quarantine. I never thought for a second that it would happen this way,” Rosenbaum reported about the engagement, which happened outside her home in Ginot Shomron, with an aunt standing across the street and grandparents even further away.

“We smiled for one picture, and then he went straight into isolation. It was a little light and happiness in a situation that sucks.”

The wedding is planned for the end of June. “We don’t know if it will be the wedding we planned or a smaller event,” Rosenbaum acknowledged.

“There’s something sad about getting engaged with all this going on. You want to be able to celebrate with people you love, and you can’t do that. We did video chat with friends, but can’t have an engagement party. I couldn’t even hug my aunt. It’s very sad.

“We have mixed feelings. With all the joy in the world and how amazing it is, it sucks because you can’t share it with the people you love.”

The couple expect to be married on June 24.

“We’re getting married on that date no matter what. What we’ll do, how we’ll do it, I don’t know. Hopefully, his parents and siblings will be able to come in [from America].”

Rosenbaum has a recommendation for couples thinking about postponing their wedding.

“It doesn’t matter what kind of party you have. You get to spend the rest of your life with this person. That’s what really matters. Just roll with it.”