BY LISE STERN / JNS.org //
Picture a wedding in an ancient Roman amphitheater on the shores of the Mediterranean. Or in the mystical city of Safed, the sun setting over the Galilean Hills. Or in the multi-level garden by the Tower of David in Jerusalem. All these are possible options for destination weddings in Israel, a growing industry.
“It is estimated that there are over a thousand weddings annually of people from abroad coming to get married in Israel,” says Lian Matias, who operates the website Hatunot with Tracey Goldstein. The two-year-old organization, described as “The English speaker’s guide to planning a wedding in Israel,” acts as a clearinghouse of details on the wedding industry, with links to planners, venues, photographers, and more.
Weddings held by foreigners in Israel differ somewhat from native Israeli weddings, says planner Naomi Tabor, owner of Imagine Weddings in Israel. A native of France, she started planning weddings in Israel six years ago when she married an Israeli. Tabor notes that Israeli-style weddings are generally quite different from those of out-of-staters.
“Most Israelis dress down for weddings, while Americans and others dress up. Israelis are very relaxed, with no speeches,” she says. “Most of my clients have a more intricate plan, a precise sequence of events. For the meal, most Israelis do a buffet.” The sit-down meal approach is now called “American style” in Israel. And then there’s the invitation—because of the nature of the wedding (namely the fact that travel plans are needed), many couples send out invitations or “save the date” notifications 6-12 months in advance—compare to the two weeks’ notice or so for Israeli weddings.
Israeli weddings also tend to be huge, with 400-600 people and more (the traditional gift for such nuptials is almost exclusively cash). Destination weddings can be that large, but the average is closer to 150-200, and some are as small as 20-50.
Nikki Fenton of Bespoke Weddings made aliyah from England in 2007, and has been planning destination weddings in the Jewish homeland ever since. “The energy of weddings in Israel is unexplainable,” she says. “Many of the guests are on holiday and have come because they love the couple and their families and the couples chose Israel because they love the country – therefore the energy in the wedding is electric and has a whole lot of soul. I wouldn’t want to work on weddings anywhere else because they are so special and beautiful here.”
Matias agrees. “Because Israel is so unique and diverse, it abounds in wonderful locations and venues for weddings.”
Tel Aviv-Jaffa is the most popular location, followed by Caesarea, Jerusalem, and the Galilee. Venues include hotels, each with their own character. The 24-story David Intercontinental in Tel Aviv is good for larger groups who want the backdrop of modern Tel Aviv. The boutique-style modern-meets ancient Mamilla Hotel outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem has a rooftop space and a fashionable elegance.
But hotels and event halls aren’t the only options. “Many weddings are held in private homes,” says photographer-turned-planner Danny Marx of Danny Marx Ltd. “We planned an amazing wedding of two days in the desert for a couple from New York—200 guests stayed the night and enjoyed the experience of special desert breakfast and camel tour.”
Some weddings may have a theme revolving around the food, a favorite color, or a movie. “I planned a wedding where theme was entirely Alice in Wonderland,” Fenton recalls. “We even made the aisle to the chuppah multi-colored stripes to match the theme.”
Outdoor weddings in Israel are especially popular, with those in deserts, by the water (Red Sea, Dead Sea, Mediterranean, Lake Tiberias), on farms, at vineyards, or in forests. “You absolutely know from May to September you’re not going to have rain,” says Tabor. “You can choose your dates in peace.” And if you want a winter wedding, head way south. “It’s amazing to get married in Eilat in January—it feels like June or July.”
Given the logistics of arranging a wedding from afar, a wedding planner seems almost a necessity, though a wedding can be arranged without one. There are so many components to coordinate: venue, menu, drinks, table décor, flowers, band, photographer, ceremony, the rabbi, and more. “I think it’s very, very hard, aside from it being my business,” Tabor says. “One reason that gets overlooked is that I will get better prices than a foreigner who picks up the phone and calls the venue speaking only English – they’re going to get the ‘tourist’ price.”
“Planners are highly skilled and experienced people in the wedding field here that will make your wedding day dreams come true and will be able to do all that through long-distance planning,” Matias says.
Tabor says the popularity of Israel as a wedding destination has almost tripled since she started.
The cost for a destination wedding can range, but several wedding planners agree that rates can to start around $200 per person—this includes the location, meals, etc. (but not the dress!); planners may charge a set fee, or a percentage of 12-15 percent, depending on the size. And couples marrying in Israel do need to apply for an Israeli marriage registration if they want the wedding to be considered valid in Israel. This can be a bureaucratic process (it includes providing documents verifying that both bride and groom are Jewish and single). A good wedding planner helps take care of this too.
“I know how to do it chik-chak, I do it all the time,” says Tabor.