Welcome to destination weddings, Israel style.
In recent years an increasing number of Jewish couples from abroad looking for an alternative to a formal wedding at home or a more typical remote destination in the Caribbean or Tuscany have decided on Israel as the place to break the glass and officially start their lives together.
"We are very casual and would not have had a black-tie wedding," said Gena Bresgi, 23, who was married last year in a large glass hall amid the lush gardens of a kibbutz. "Our wedding had a nice feel, very relaxed. There was not that high pressure."
It was her husband's first visit to Israel, and together the two toured the country. Close friends and relatives who came used the wedding as part of an Israeli vacation, too.
With relatives around the world, Israel proved to be an ideal place to gather, Bresgi said.
"I have a lot of family in Israel and all over the world," she said. "This was a more central meeting place for everyone."
Beyond the dramatic settings, gourmet food, guaranteed good weather between May and late September and more informal feel, Israeli weddings tend to run just a fraction of the cost of a wedding in the United States, Europe or Australia.
For example, couples said they paid about half of what they would have for weddings in the United States and about a quarter of what they would have in England.
The help of a bilingual wedding planner can reduce the stress considerably, recent brides and grooms said. Also, venues in Israel tend to be one-stop shops, providing not just the setting but the design of the event, florists and catering.
Of course, there are cultural differences. The lack of formality may puzzle those living outside of Israel who expect, for example, to be served by waiters and have the ceremony start on time -- neither of which happens at a wedding in Israel. But as the number of foreign Jews coming to Israel for weddings increases, more venues are learning to cater to their needs, from adding enough chairs for all the guests at the chuppah -- Israelis usually stand -- to making sure the musicians or disc jockeys keep the volume within reason.
Joan Summerfield, a wedding and event planner who started Anglo Israel Events Ltd. in 1993, said the political situation plays a role in weddings from abroad as it does with tourism in general.
Summerfield noted that after the Lebanon War last summer, there was a brief drop in inquiries. But she said her weddings were not canceled because of the fighting. Those with plans for weddings in the North did what other Israelis did -- they moved their celebrations southward.
Summerfield, originally from England, said having a planner was almost essential in helping a couple from abroad navigate the Israeli-overseas divide.
"You really need someone to bring it all together," said Summerfield, who helps oversee all aspects of the celebration.
Shani Falik Roth, an event planner who runs the company Eventfully Yours, says she helps couples with everything from venue selection, caterers, invitations, photographers, florist, benchers, hotels, touring arrangements and hospitality bags.
Roth also helps couples and their families grappling with differences in the Israeli culture, including the aversion of some Israeli vendors to signing contracts.
"There is a lot of explaining, a lot of hand holding, a lot of expectations that need to be managed, otherwise there can be disappointment," she said. "People think things will be more Western, more similar to where they come from. We find our job includes explaining things, especially how and why things are different yet special in Israel."
Judy Krasna, who runs Celebrate Israel, a Web site that helps people from abroad plan events, says couples also are drawn to Israel for the intimate, more meaningful wedding experience it can provide.
The number of guests who come tend to be smaller because of the distance, so those who attend typically are among the couple's family and closest friends.
Krasna has seen two trends recently: Those who want to marry in Jerusalem, specifically near the Old City for the historical and spiritual connection, and those who seek natural outdoor settings, from national parks to beaches or even near archaeological sites.
"Israel offers so many venues," Krasna said, noting two of her recent favorites -- the northern coastal town of Rosh Hanikra, where the bride and groom can ride to their wedding on cable cars overlooking cliffs and the Mediterranean below, and Neot Kedumim, a biblical landscape preserve where the couple and their guests walk down a torch-lit pathway lined with pomegranate and fig trees and quotes about love and marriage from the "Song of Songs."
Debbie Goldman, 22, of Manchester, England, is planning an August wedding in Jerusalem along a promenade overlooking the Old City. She and her fiance decided to marry in Israel after becoming engaged here and attending the weddings of several friends.
They were impressed by the casual ease and meaningful settings.
"It's a different type of wedding altogether, much more spiritual, not so formal like an English wedding," she said.
After seeing her sister deal with the stress of planning a wedding closer to home, Goldman is relieved to have Krasna's company help her make the arrangements.
Even for the usually thorny bureaucracy of Israel's Orthodox rabbinate, which oversees issues of marriage in Israel, there is help from a new nongovernmental organization called ITIM, the Jewish Life Information Center. The center aims to help Jews from Israel and abroad navigate the rabbinate and its regulations.
Through its Web site, couples can register online and find the information on the documentation they will need. ITIM will prepare their file and bring it to the rabbinate for approval. "We want people to have a meaningful event," said Rabbi Seth Farber, who founded the center. "We don't want the rabbinate to be a stumbling block for them or an obstacle."
The center also provides information on mohels in Israel for couples who return for the ritual circumcision.
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