Tali Cohen is very busy planning her July wedding, an outdoor affair on the beach at Caesarea overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Although she and her fiance, Mark Silberstein, live and work in San Diego, the two have long dreamed of getting married in Israel.
“We feel that Israel is a big part of our lives even though we live in the States, so it was important for us to begin building our family here,” Cohen explained this week, during a visit that involved endless appointments with the caterer, the events venue, the wedding planner, and everyone else she needs to meet face-to-face before returning to the United States.
They have friends who have held destination weddings in Italy, Florida and Costa Rica – thus, asking over 100 family and friends to join them on their special day several thousand miles away didn’t seem so far-fetched.
“Our friends weren’t surprised when we told them where the wedding would be,” she added. “Our Judaism is centered around our Zionism. It’s central to who we are, so it was only natural that we get married here.”
Cohen and Silberstein are not alone. Although official statistics are not available, anecdotal evidence suggests that they are part of a growing trend among Jews from abroad who come to Israel specifically for their wedding.
“There’s definitely a surge in the number of people from abroad who have been calling to plan their wedding here,” said Danny Kaizler, president of IsraEvents, a Tel Aviv-based event-planning agency. “A few years ago, it was just the pioneers.”
Conversations this week with a number of wedding planners, as well as others in the industry, point to several factors that have led to the rise: ideology, finances, and sometimes, simply wanting to be original.
“Making a wedding here is now very much in fashion,” said Judy Krasna, partner and co-owner of CelebrateIsrael.com, an English-language Web site that provides information on venues, caterers, photographers and other suppliers for people planning an event in Israel. “It’s very trendy and hip to send an invitation for a wedding overlooking the Old City. It’s considered more interesting.”
The large majority of couples come from the U.S., France and Britain, according to Rabbi David Banino, head of the marriage department at the Jerusalem rabbinate.
Wedding planners who work with couples from abroad say that the ideological and spiritual pull of getting married in Israel is one critical factor that has led to the trend. Cohen and Silberstein, for example, met at a conference for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the pro-Israel lobby group. She now works for the Anti-Defamation League and in the past, he led teen trips to Israel for groups like Young Judaea.
“Zionism plays a big part,” says Yael Adar, a wedding planner in the Gilboa area. “People say, ‘If I’m going to spend so much money, I may as well spend it in the Israeli economy.'”
But the pull of Israel is sometimes also practical. Many couples chose Israel because weddings here generally are more low-key than the opulent extravaganzas many of their friends throw back home.
Prices for gourmet kosher food in New York or London, for example, are twice or three times more expensive per person. According to wedding planners, some venues abroad start at $150 per guest and that does not even include all the extras. Here, they say, good food is more affordable and other “must-haves” like a photographer, a band, a florist and everything else are significantly less expensive as well.
“People are fed up with the rat race,” said Joan Summerfield of Anglo Israel Events, an event-organizing company based in Ra’anana that works with couples from abroad. “They don’t want to feel that they have to compete to make their wedding bigger and better. The cost overseas is almost obscene. In England, there are people spending 100,000 pounds on one day.”
According to Summerfield, who is planning the Cohen-Silberstein wedding this summer, the Israeli wedding industry has now reached a stage of development that meets the standards of customers from abroad.
“The food is no longer hummus and falafel,” she said. “There’s tremendous choice, and suppliers are very professional. The food is gourmet and the service has also improved, so that people know they will get what they are expecting.”
Some of the more popular venues for brides and grooms from abroad boast a view of either Jerusalem’s Old City or the Mediterranean Sea.
“Couples won’t go to just a regular wedding hall,” Summerfield added. “They want something that’s different from what they could get in their own country. They want something with a ‘wow’ factor.”
Still, the trend does have some hitches. Most Israelis don’t plan their weddings so far in advance and sometimes, people from abroad will try to reserve a place a year and a half ahead of the event. “When they call, the people at the hall will tell them that their calendars don’t go that far ahead,” said Krasna, of CelebrateIsrael.com.
She also pointed out that the more “laid-back” Israeli mentality doesn’t always jibe with the more formal expectation of customers from abroad.
The couples, meanwhile, also need to navigate the bureaucracy of the rabbinate in order to get married here – a process that can be particularly daunting for tourists. Both the bride and the groom need to prove their Jewishness, but sometimes, couples will fly in just days before their wedding without always leaving adequate time to deal with the hassle.
A new service has emerged to facilitate the growing trend. ITIM: The Jewish Life Information Center will now open the necessary file with the rabbinate for a couple from abroad, so that they don’t have to wait until the last minute or ask a distant cousin to try and do it for them.
“We open the file and then they show up a day before the wedding to sign it,” said Rabbi Seth Farber, director of the Jerusalem-based nonprofit organization.
That’s what Cherie and Jonathan Morgan did for their Israeli wedding last summer. “We needed the right forms and the right papers since the process with the rabbinate is quite complicated, but Rabbi Farber helped us with everything,” Cherie said. The couple, who live in London, got married outdoors in a garden venue in Shefayim.
“I couldn’t imagine a stiff, formal wedding in England,” Cherie said of the experience. “I knew that I wanted to get married in Israel with some balagan [mess] and lots of people.”