February 12, 2004
Get Me to the Beach on Time
Tired of the same old country club I-dos? Bored with the been-there, danced-to-that-Beverly Hills reception? Why not take your wedding on the road?
At one time, destination weddings were reserved for celebrity vows, hushed elopements and civil ceremonies. Exotic locales meant no chuppah, no rabbi, and no kosher-wine toast. But today, Jewish couples can have their wedding cake and eat it, too. Brides and grooms are getting married on the sandy beaches of the Bahamas and under the neon lights of Sin City, where traditional religious ceremonies are being hitched to romantic getaway affairs.
Nikki Sutker, 27, has lived in Los Angeles for six years, but never thought of Tinseltown as home. She always assumed she'd get married in her hometown of Dallas. But when her fiance, Santa Ana police officer Scott Bender, explained that most of his L.A. friends and Walnut Creek family wouldn't be able to make the trip to Texas, the couple opted for a Vegas wedding.
"We're both big Vegas fans," said Sutker, a counselor at Patrick Henry Middle School in Granada Hills. "L.A. was really never an option, Dallas didn't work for Scott, and Vegas is always so much fun."
They are regulars at Sinai Temple's Friday Night Live, and they wanted a Jewish wedding with Vegas flair. On Aug. 8, they will be married in a ballroom at the Venetian Hotel. The Sunday night, black-tie optional wedding will be conducted under a chuppah by a local rabbi, and kosher meals will be provided for their more observant guests.
Both the bride and groom's guests support the couple's decision to have a destination wedding.
"Most people have decided to make a vacation out of our wedding. They'll arrive in Vegas on Friday and leave Monday," Sutker said. Bender's groomsmen are planning a Friday night minibachelor party, the couple is planning a Saturday rehearsal dinner, and they will provide their guests with a guide to the weekend's Vegas attractions.
"There's so much to do in Vegas -- we're really excited to have our wedding weekend there," Sutker said. "I just hope I don't have to drag Scott out of the casino."
For their destination wedding, Raphi and Danielle Salem chose moonlight over neon lights. Raphi loved the kibbutz weddings he had attended while living in Israel.
"The ceremonies were outdoors and the whole community was invited. I wanted my wedding to have that same feeling," said Raphi Salem, who runs judaicastore.com. So when he and Danielle got engaged, they looked at traditional venues with outdoor accommodations. Unsatisfied with the hotel courtyards and banquet hall patios they saw, the couple decided to have their wedding at Club Getaway, a 300-acre family camp in Kent, Conn. Guests were encouraged to bring their children, and they slept in cabins on twin beds. Activities ranged from kickball, water-skiing and archery to egalitarian and Orthodox Shabbat services. Club Getaway even provided camp counselors.
"As children we both loved overnight camp, and we loved the idea of turning our wedding into a whole weekend camp event," he said. "We've been to so many weddings where you eat, you drink, you dance, and you spend zero time with the bride and groom. Rather than see each of our friends for five minutes at the reception, we spent the whole weekend playing with them."
The Salems married under an outdoor chuppah on the lakefront in a traditional ceremony conducted by two rabbis. All of the weekend's food was kosher, including the reception's peanut butter and jelly sandwich appetizers.
"The actual ceremony was just a formality," he said. "What made our wedding special for us was spending time with our friends and family. Having our wedding at Club Getaway was what allowed us to do that."
Like the Salems, Daniel and Amy Nissanoff wanted a destination wedding, kosher meals and a weekendlong celebration, but they also wanted to be wed in the Caribbean. The tropical resorts they looked into did not have kosher caterers and would only kosher their kitchen if the wedding party reserved the entire hotel. So the Nissanoffs found a hotel -- an island -- they could fill: They were married last June in Jumby Bay, a 300-acre private island located off the coast of Antigua. The couple's 90 guests filled the Jumby Bay Resort, the island's only hotel, and participated in four days of fun, sun and celebration. The weekend included a cocktail party, a beach barbecue, snorkeling, tennis, calypso dancing and culminated with the Sunday night wedding. The Nissanoffs flew in an Orthodox rabbi to conduct the ceremony, a mashgiach to supervise the kitchen and food preparation and ferried in kosher ingredients and wine to feed their guests.
Looking to control the size of their guest list, a destination wedding seemed a natural choice.
"We always talked about having a smaller, more intimate wedding" said Daniel Nissanoff, who grew up in Hancock Park and attended Cal State Northridge. "If we got married in Manhattan, we would have been obligated to invite 400 people."
With Jumby Bay, the couple could pare down their guest list, and because attending the wedding required a substantial time and monetary commitment, only their most devoted friends and immediate family responded yes.
"It was a fantasy weekend," said Nissanoff, the founder and chairman of a New York-based Internet company. "And believe it or not, it cost less than if we had stayed in New York. We would have rented a fancy hotel, hired a 20-piece orchestra and bought thousands of dollars worth of flowers. In Jumby Bay, we got more for our money, had a more casual reception and the island was filled with its own beautiful flowers."
Not every Jewish couple can find a rabbi willing to fly to an exotic locale, so many who choose to have a destination wedding are forced to have a civil ceremony. This is no longer the case in the Bahamas. Five years ago, Freeport Hebrew Congregation President Geoff Hurst was sanctioned by the Union of Reform Judaism(URJ) (the regulatory body of Reform congregations) and the government of The Bahamas to officiate at Jewish weddings.
"I wanted to insure that couples coming to the Bahamas to be married could have a proper, Jewish wedding," said Hurst, a retired pharmacist. "Not a single rabbi lives in the Bahamas, so I approached [URJ] and asked if I could officiate."
Hurst, who will conduct ceremonies on any of the Bahaman Islands, screens his couples; they must want to be married under the chuppah, with kippot and witnesses and with traditional vows in English and Hebrew. He doesn't charge for his services, but asks that couples pay any of his travel and hotel expenses, and make a donation to the congregation.
"How can I charge for this? It's a mitzvah," Hurst said. "I am simply helping Jewish couples wed in the Jewish tradition."