For many Jewish couples, having a dreamy beach destination wedding sounds good in theory, but the reality just isn’t, for lack of a better word, kosher. Especially for a kallah and a chatan wanting to follow a traditional route, or who hail from more traditional families, there’s more to tying the knot than setting up a chupah on the sand.
A traditional Jewish wedding is full of meaningful rituals, symbolizing the sanctity of the marital relationship, as well as the couple’s obligations to each other and to the Jewish people. Even couples that don’t typically follow tradition want their wedding to be both a happy and holy day. They may choose a kosher wedding feast for their own reasons, or to honor close family members. And then there’s the rabbi. He or she is a critical and integral part of making the day a success.
Back in early 2011, the way Monica Roberts saw things, the destination wedding business in the Mexican tourist towns of Playa del Carmen and Cancún was missing something. Roberts is director of operations for Real Resorts, which maintains four upscale resorts in popular Riviera Maya, including The Royal Cancún, The Royal Playa del Carmen, Gran Porto Real and Gran Caribe Real. Destination weddings are important to the company, which typically hosts more than 500 weddings a year, with many of those nuptials planned from out of town. Real Resorts has onsite romance concierges at each property, a professional wedding planning department and the ability to customize just about any kind of ceremony. Honeymooning couples are treated like royalty, enjoying everything from fresh flower art created in their suite daily to gourmet meals at the surf’s edge. But while couples could opt to be married by a justice of the peace, Catholic priest, minister or even a Mayan shaman, a rabbi wasn’t an option — there just wasn’t one to be found.
Now there are two. And at all Real Resorts, seven Jewish wedding packages offer a wide range of options, from fresh kosher cuisine to an Orthodox ceremony to a full-on reception that will have your guests doing the hora in no time. The rabbi’s services cost $1,200, with wedding packages priced from $900 and up.
Rabbi Nir Koren, 34, is the eighth generation of his family to be born in Israel. But Koren is a wanderer. He met his wife, Andy, while backpacking through Argentina, and when the couple had the opportunity to establish an Orthodox synagogue in Cancún in 2011, they couldn’t say no. “The biggest danger to our faith is assimilation,” said the rabbi, an earnest young scholar with an easy smile and warm eyes. “Jews need to be able to be Jews in Mexico, whether they’re visiting or living here.” The couple and their growing family now lead a community of about 120 people, with a recently completed mikvah just another sign that this rabbi is committed to his adopted home.
“The wedding is the most important day of your life,” he said. “More than anything, the bride, groom and family need someone to tell them to relax, enjoy, everything is under control.” Rabbi Koren customizes each ceremony, meeting with the couple in advance to find out their personal story, which he integrates into the ceremony.
Andy Koren supports the mission with her catering business, Kosher Cancún. “I started first with cakes,” said the mother of three. “But I saw that people who wanted kosher food here had to make compromises in the quality of the food. It was frozen, never fresh. When we first came here on vacation three years ago, I was eating canned tuna fish every day.” She provides fresh kosher meals, delivered to the hotel, for folks on holiday, or a complete wedding reception menu for 10 people and up.
“People think about Cancún and Playa as a party place with great hotels and amazing beaches, and it is that,” said Andy Koren. “But it’s also a place where Jewish people live every day.”
In the past year, the rabbi has performed more than a dozen weddings, most like the fall ceremony on the beach for Hila and Shlomo Ashkenazi, who are Cancún residents. Perhaps because the Jewish community is becoming more visible, tourism from Israel has been growing, with a 30 percent increase in Israeli visitors noted in 2012. “You can get married, you can pray — even if someone passes away suddenly, we are here to help,” said the rabbi, who is fluent in Spanish, English and Hebrew.
Not too long ago, if you had told Rabbi Steve Spiegel that he would be living and working along Mexico’s East Coast, from Cancún to Tulum, he wouldn’t have believed you. Then again, he was just ordained a few years ago, after working on the administrative side for his Florida synagogue since the 1980s. Spiegel and his wife have loved Mexico for years, and they bought a condo in the area after visiting his daughter, who happens to be a cantor there.
“She said, ‘Dad, I’m so busy here, and I need help.’ The next thing I knew, I was standing with my back to the water marrying a couple on the beach.” Spiegel performs traditional, contemporary and interfaith weddings, and also presides over Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, baby namings, memorial services and unveilings. He even has a website, mexicorabbi.com. He officiated at more than 50 weddings last year, and now works closely with the wedding planners at Real Resorts.
“I believe in celebrating our similarities, not our differences,” he said. “My style is very spiritual, but also warm and inclusive.” He sends a questionnaire to couples by email in advance, and then has several phone or Skype conversations to iron out details. “My main rule is that there are no rules,” he said. “I want to do your wedding, your way.” His brides typically want a Jewish-style dinner that isn’t kosher — “kinda Jewish,” he says. “Filet mignon with no butter on the table, bagels and cream cheese and lox, turkey bacon — but the food doesn’t have to be kosher.”
With two rabbis on call and a menu of options to keep Jewish couples observant and happy, the Jewish destination wedding is alive and well in Riviera Maya. “We listened to our customers,” said Zulma Dominguez, weddings specialist manager at The Royal Playa Del Carmen. “We can now offer them the Jewish wedding they want in paradise.”
Beth D’Addono is the chief travel correspondent for Special Sections. This article originally appeared in Simchas, a Jewish Exponent supplement.