By Rabbi Daniel Dorsch
After years of searching for a husband in Israel, my wife’s dearest friend from her year studying at Hebrew University found her Israeli beshert living in New York.
The engagement for us was not a surprise. Instead, the moment of surprise came when they asked me to officiate at their wedding in Israel.
I was surprised by the invitation because both of us knew that officiating a wedding in Israel wouldn’t be without its challenges. Legally, Conservative rabbis are not allowed to officiate a state-sanctioned marriage in Israel.
It was also challenging because speaking with the happy couple made it clear that their American and Israeli backgrounds were leading them to have deeply different expectations about what the wedding would look like.
Coming from a deeply chiloni/secular background, the groom’s family in Israel had come to expect a quick, standard, “no speeches” ceremony that was merely an obstacle to getting to dinner. The bride, on the other hand, was looking for an American ceremony as I was used to officiating.
The groom came from a largely Russian family that spoke Hebrew and Russian but little English. The bride’s guests would speak mostly English, a little Hebrew and no Russian.
In life, of course, I have discovered that the level of any challenge taken is commensurate with the reward. After meeting with the bride and groom several times before the ceremony, I was able to guide them toward closing some of the gaps in ceremony expectations.
The bride and the groom legally married in New York before they traveled to Israel, which, while inconvenient, avoided any legal issues. I also sought advice from Israeli colleagues with experience conducting bilingual weddings and prepared well.
The evening of the ceremony itself ended up being one of the most memorable, joyful experiences that I have ever had at a wedding. Israeli weddings are much less formal than American weddings. Imagine that after the hors d’oeuvres, the guests were paraded together from the banquet hall to the chuppah, led by a New Orleans-style jazz band.
If that hadn’t been memorable enough, the chuppah was set up in the port of Old Jaffa overlooking a panoramic view of the city of Tel Aviv. Everyone stood for the chuppah, and, needless to say, this may be the only wedding I will ever officiate where I was strongly encouraged not to wear a tie.
As I suspected, many of the groom’s family during the ceremony had been anxious to get to dinner, but this may have had to do more with the fact that, as is also typical of Israeli weddings, we were running an hour behind schedule. People seemed so overjoyed to be together, they almost forgot there was a wedding.
After the ceremony, as I spoke to the guests, I found that most of the Israelis gathered were pleasantly surprised by the idea of a Conservative Jewish wedding. Despite my tight timeframe, I was able to squeeze in a few personal words to say to our dear friends, the bride and groom. Yet I was told that in Israel, rabbinate rabbis often don’t know brides and grooms personally, and so they rarely take the time to say more than a perfunctory mazel tov. While it did not surprise the American guests, the Israelis gathered were simply floored that I stayed for the party and danced along with my wife. I hope that weekend I helped a few to see what a boon religious diversity could be for the state of Israel, if only a little.
I have been blessed to attend three weddings in Israel since being ordained a rabbi. This was the first one I ever officiated. For me, it was not only a joyous simcha, but also a truly sacred moment when I was able to deepen my connection with the land of Israel. I will always cherish it.
Rabbi Daniel Dorsch will take his new post as the senior rabbi at Congregation Etz Chaim in July.