For Israel’s Anglo olim (immigrants), the name Givat Shmuel conjures up a marriage scene to rival that of New York’s Stern College for Women. Home to hundreds of young English-speakers studying at the adjacent Bar-Ilan University, Givat Shmuel has produced a vibrant, growing community of overseas students – and a reputation for their enthusiastic coupling. Each year, the community watches as many new couples are formed, engagements are announced and weddings are celebrated.
While the events vary according to the couple’s religious, financial and other needs, the one common denominator among most Givat Shmuel weddings is that they were planned by students without immediate family in the country.
“You get so overwhelmed planning a wedding all by yourself, while simultaneously studying for a degree and trying to have a life,” explained newlywed Elizabeth G, 21. “You end up obsessing over every detail, from invitations to centerpieces, and then suddenly realize – Oh, no! We forgot to order food for the wedding!”
Elizabeth, who moved to Israel three years ago from Detroit and is currently pursuing a degree at Bar-Ilan, recounted the hardships of tackling the preparations process alone. “If your family is living in another country, planning a wedding will actually start before you’re even engaged,” she explained. “Because your family and in-laws-to-be will need time to buy plane tickets and make other accommodations, you’ll need to coordinate everything with them, starting with when is the best time to get engaged.
“The hardest part is definitely communicating and trying to coordinate everyone’s wishes,” she continued. “Suddenly you have two sets of parents and all of their opinions need to be taken into account.”
Even with modern innovations like e-mail and Skype, Elizabeth confided, the distance and time zone can make even small details hard to communicate. “Something that seems trivial to you – like what songs will be playing under the chupah – can mean the world to your mother, but because you can’t be in constant contact it might just fall through the cracks.”
For Givat Shmuel’s olim, planning a wedding becomes a community project. If the young couple is without a car they’ll need to depend on friends and extended family for rides, especially when hunting for a wedding hall. Anglos with less-than-perfect Hebrew will need help understanding, and negotiating, prices for everything from photographers and floral arrangements to filing for a marriage license. And while parents may try to be as helpful as possible from abroad, they are just as unfamiliar with the system here as their children may be.
“Planning a wedding in Israel is much different than planning one in the States,” says veteran wedding planner Ann Roseman. “Here, everything is up for negotiation. A lot of times a vendor will tell an Anglo family that their requests can’t be met. But in Israel, just because someone says no that doesn’t it can’t be done.”
Roseman, a native of Toronto with fifteen years of experience in the business, sees herself as a bridge between her North American customers and the Israeli market. From organizing travel arrangements to personally translating all Hebrew contracts into English for the families so that they fully understand what they are paying for, Roseman helps young couples cut through the jungle of paperwork and negotiations.
“I act as the families’ eyes and ears and ensure constant interaction between all parties. It’s tremendous zechus(honor) for me to help these couples marry in Israel and I tend to every part of the organizing,” Roseman explained. “Well, almost every part – I don’t shlep the liqueur bottles.”
Even with the best of planning, olim weddings can remain complicated. For Chava Forman-Horovitz, 25, it wasn’t the organization that was difficult. Lucky enough to get her hands on a comprehensive list of vendors put together by a friend, the Philadelphia native developed it into a spreadsheet, adding in additional vendors recommended by others. Married for seven months now, Horovitz eagerly shares her mini database with engaged friends in need.
“I’ve attended enough Anglo-Israeli weddings to not stress out about the planning process,” she confessed. “What was really difficult was not having my grandmothers at my wedding. Not being part of the whole experience was difficult for them too.” Her family kept a live feed going throughout the event so that her grandmothers, who were unable to travel to Israel for the wedding due to health considerations, could take part in the celebration.
Elizabeth agrees, recalling how she asked her seamstress to snap pictures of her wearing her wedding dress every time an alteration, no matter how minor, was made. “I’d send them to my mother. It was my way of having her there with me the whole time.”