Like other synagogues, Congregation Etz Chaim is still deciding when and how to reopen its sanctuaries to the public for services, simchas and other social gatherings after shuttering for COVID-19. It has postponed many b’nai mitzvah during the world health crisis.
Meanwhile, the Marietta synagogue opened its newly renovated sanctuary to its first wedding May 24. And it wasn’t just the only such simcha in the new facility with a yet-to-be-opened social hall next door still under wraps, but the first wedding and simcha during the pandemic. And in traditional COVID-19 style, it was a simcha that adhered to strict social distancing, and instead of gown and tux, veil and bowtie, the bride and groom, along with a handful of family in attendance, dressed up and sported the latest in COVID designs – masks.
Stephanie Lievense and Andrew Cohn had planned a May 24 wedding for 200 guests at The Biltmore Hotel in downtown Atlanta officiated by Rabbi Daniel Dorsch of Etz Chaim.
The couple had sent out invitations, which resulted in a steady stream of positive responses until the health crisis began affecting daily life. Devastated, the couple realized they had to change course, and approached Rabbi Dorsch about the possibility of having their ceremony on the same date at the synagogue in which Cohn attended Hebrew School and became a bar mitzvah.
“We asked Rabbi Dorsch if it was just the two of us,” Lievense recalled. The number grew to both sets of parents (Lievense’s drove about 10 hours from Fort Myers, Fla.) and Andrew’s sister and boyfriend, an unrelated witness to sign the ketubah – nine people, including the rabbi.
The plan was to have a traditional ceremony at a later date that included a larger crowd, Lievense said. “However, with the unknown of when that would actually happen, we decided to have our parents come for the real marriage ceremony.” Plans still call for a standard photo shoot and dress-up reception when it’s safe to do so, she said.
“It was generous of Rabbi Dorsch,” Cohn said of being able to use the sanctuary for the ceremony. “We are so thankful he was able to do that for us.” Learning that they were the first wedding in the renovated sanctuary and the only simcha during COVID-19, he added, “We are definitely honored.”
Rabbi Dorsch said the wedding worked because all in attendance had adhered to strict quarantining. “I was not afraid because I knew they were taking necessary precautions as was I,” he said. “I was happy to do this [wedding] in such an unusual way that made sure everyone was safe and everyone was comfortable.”
Most of the party, the Cohn family, sheltered at least two weeks in advance of the wedding in their Marietta home. The bride and groom, in masks, stood under the chuppah on the bimah holding their own wine glasses and the rabbi stood at least 6 feet from them. Lievense’s parents sat on one side of the sanctuary and the Cohn family, the other.
One ritual that held special meaning at a wedding during a pandemic was the breaking of the glass, Rabbi Dorsch said. It’s a metaphor for putting the broken pieces of the world back together again, he said. “I challenged them to go out and do that. It’s easy to see the world as a broken place” right now.
He stressed that the wedding at Etz Chaim proves that “Jewish life endures even in times of hardship. As I reminded them under the chuppah, love is stronger than a virus. I remain proud of the way they have continued to persevere.”
For the couple, it may not have been their dream wedding, but they try to keep an open mind and larger perspective on life, Cohn said. “We still love each other. … We see the bigger picture and that’s what marriage is about.”
That despite having to cancel both their bachelor and bachelorette parties, and a honeymoon in Aruba. The wedding photos, complete with wedding gown, hair and makeup, big reception, caterer, decorator, all postponed with credits for future use.
“We still are excited to celebrate with family and friends at a safer date,” Lievense said.