There was no cocktail hour, no chicken dinner, no teary-eyed mothers and fathers, and no beaming grandparents. But this was a grand Jewish wedding celebration, which took nine months to plan, in one of the largest synagogues in the United States.
Three couples, each denied Jewish wedding ceremonies in Israel for various reasons, were married on Dec. 3 in a ceremony at Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan.
Gady Levy, the executive director of the Temple Emanu-El Streicker Center, and Rabbi Joshua Davidson, the senior rabbi at the temple, began planning the event last March. “We met with people from the Israel Religious Action Center in Israel to find a way to make a change in the marriage laws there, and we decided that having a real wedding in New York was the way,” Mr. Levy said.
In order to produce the wedding, Mr. Levy said with a smile, “I became a part-time wedding planner.” The event he arranged was a stunner: Three couples were married in a traditional ceremony with klezmer music, violins, flowers, white wedding dresses and cupcakes. It was an event he called “Three Weddings and a Statement.”
The festivities started at the Friday evening service at Temple Emanu-El, where Rabbi Davidson spoke, beginning the pre-wedding ceremony for the couples with a traditional blessing.
“We love Israel and wish it to be the spiritual homeland for all Jews,” he said. “We wish for all Jews and non-Jews alike to be treated equally there. The events this weekend are about religious and civil liberties in Israel.”
The three couples had no bridesmaids, no groomsmen, no parents attending. But there were more than 1,300 guests, six rabbis leading the ceremony and about 40 more who stood with them to bless the newlyweds at the closing of the Sunday wedding ceremony.
It was produced flawlessly, like good theater, set in the sanctuary of the Romanesque Revival building with its 60 stained-glass windows and an altar built of marble flanked by sturdy columns of golden mosaics that soar. It might have seemed like theater (tickets, which were free, were needed for admission), but the message and the messengers were very serious.
Since there is no separation of church and state in Israel, there is no going to city hall to be married. And for a Jewish wedding in Israel, a couple must fulfill the Orthodox rules of marriage. Those rules include the fact that same-sex unions are not permitted; the acquisition whereby the groom pays a bride price as is reflected in the wording of the traditional marriage contract (ketubah); and if the marriage does not work out, only the man is allowed to initiate a divorce.
However, in New York City any couple, gay or straight, may obtain a marriage license; have a legal, civil ceremony; or ask a rabbi or other person who is certified to sign the license.
And so, there in the huge, majestic Emanu-El sanctuary, under a wedding canopy, and dressed in a strapless wedding gown designed by Danielle Caprese, stood Ori Berwald Shaer, 30, ready to marry her best friend and the love of her life, Alona Livneh, 26, who wore a blue pantsuit and a pink bow tie. Both women, who live in Tel Aviv, are activists in the gay and lesbian community in Israel.
The couple arrived in Manhattan on Friday morning, went to City Hall — where they obtained a marriage license in 30 minutes — and were off to find a wedding dress for Ms. Shaer to wear. (Kleinfeld Bridal donated the three wedding dresses.)
“The ease of getting a marriage license here was very exciting,” Ms. Shaer said.
Ms. Livneh said: “The dream is to get married in Israel, in our language, in our culture, with our family and friends. But with that not being possible we’re going with the next best option.”
Dani Dayan, the consul general of Israel in New York, said in a text message that it is “no secret many members of the American Jewish community disagree with existing Israeli legislation on civil status issues. Israelis pay serious attention to the positions of our brethren across the Atlantic, and ultimately the Israeli Knesset — elected democratically by the Israeli citizens — legislates. I wish a heartfelt Mazel Tov to the couples married today in New York.”
(The Israeli Ministry of Religious Services and the Chief Rabbinate in Israel did not respond to a request to comment about the event.)
But legally recognized weddings abroad — whether civil, or any other form — are recognized by the Interior Ministry for the purposes of being registered as a married couple in Israel.
Gali Geberovich, 29, and Alon Sela, 30, met seven years ago on a kibbutz. Both finished their military service and were working, without pay, he in a cowshed, she in a factory.
“We smelled really bad after a day of work, but it was very romantic,” Ms. Geberovich said. They now live in Tel Aviv, where she works for the reform movement while studying for a master’s degree in Jewish education at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and Mr. Sela is an analyst in an investment banking consulting firm with an interest in high technology and renewable energy.
“We didn’t want any ceremony that doesn’t reflect our beliefs and values as a couple,” Ms. Geberovich said. “We have a really respectful and equal relationship, and the ceremony of the Orthodox does not reflect it.
“We didn’t want to use our privilege and be part of an institution that doesn’t recognize other couples. We have in our family, we have our friends, same-gender couples and they don’t have the right to get married and it’s unbelievable. And also, I didn’t want to be part of that institution.”
For Valentine Boldovsky, 29, and Elizabetha Komkov, 27, students at the Technion in Haifa, a wedding in the United States was also a solution to a spiritual problem they have in Israel, a country they both emigrated to with their families for reasons of oppression where they were born.
Ms. Komkov and Mr. Boldovsky, both born in St. Petersburg, Russia, met as young teenagers at a Jewish Sunday school run by the Jewish Agency in St. Petersburg. Both families immigrated to Israel; hers in 2004, his in 2005. The two had lost track of each other but became reacquainted five years ago on Facebook.
Even though Ms. Komkov was raised in a Jewish family, she decided to convert in Israel with a reform rabbi in order to have proof of her Jewishness. She did not have proof, she said, because her maternal grandmother was given to a Christian family during Stalin’s time in Russia, when many Jewish families were persecuted. Therefore, Ms. Komkov had no documents to prove maternal religious heritage. A reform conversion is not recognized by the strictly Orthodox religious authorities in Israel.
Mr. Boldovsky said, “It’s really important for Liza to bring this heritage and the memory of her grandmother.”
He said that because Ms. Komkov is not considered Jewish enough for the Orthodox rabbinate in Israel they wanted to make a statement. “So someone will hear it, so people will pay attention, so they will know that there is a problem,” he said. “And that this problem will not go on for our children and so on and so on. I’m not separating the marriage from the political aspect, I am separating my vows to my wife from the political aspect, because it’s about love, not about any of this mess.”
On Sunday, before the ceremony, while guests were taking their seats in the sanctuary, a klezmer band led by Michael Winograd entertained the audience and set a joyful, foot-stomping mood.
Then at 11 a.m., as the ceremony was about to begin, 10 violinists strolled down the center aisle of the temple playing “Sunrise, Sunset” followed by “Erev Shel Shoshanim,” a Hebrew love song often played at weddings.
When the music ended, each couple entered from side aisles, one partner from each side, joining in the center to walk up the steps to the altar, taking their places under three wedding canopies that were on the stage. Each canopy had one of three words printed on the front: “Equality,” “Justice,” “Love.” Under each canopy were a couple and two rabbis, one female, one male.
The traditional ceremony included drinking wine from silver goblets, the chanting of the seven blessings by Cantor Mo Glazman of the temple and the breaking of glasses (both brides and grooms stepped on glasses, which is not traditional but served as a nod to feminism and equality; historically only the groom breaks a glass). Afterward, about 40 rabbis from all denominations, including Modern Orthodoxy, joined the couples on the stage for concluding prayers, songs and spirited circle dancing.
The klezmer band started up again as the now married couples happily pranced back up the center aisle to a loud, collective yell of “mazel tov” from the crowd.
And just outside the temple doors on Fifth Avenue, there were 1,400 white wedding cupcakes waiting, each with a tiny plastic solitaire ring atop the shiny frosting.