Lucy Winter and Eli Surkis decided to get married more than four years ago but opted not to have a religious ceremony.
The 50-somethings from Elkins Park had each been married before, and not having a Jewish wedding didn’t particularly bother either of them. They visited a judge in Philadelphia and were joined in a civil marriage.
Then, last year the couple was presented with an opportunity by their synagogue, Congregation Beth Sholom, to reconsider their earlier decision. Winter was serving on a committee planning educational programs for the congregation’s Shabbat Experience centered on Jewish life-cycle events. The programming included a mock bris performed on a teddy bear. Next on the docket was a wedding ceremony. Another committee member proposed that, instead of holding a mock wedding, perhaps the Elkins Park congregation could find a couple willing to actually get married.
Winter volunteered. The ceremony could potentially feel like filming a how-to video, because there would be pauses every so often to allow a narrator to explain Jewish wedding rituals, but Winter liked the idea. The congregation paid for the entire ceremony, party and assorted expenses through its own funds and donations. In January, the two were married before a room half-filled with people they didn’t know.
“It felt very natural,” Winter said. “It was done in such a way to where it was really informative” and, she added, it didn’t feel like the narrator, actor Ian Lithgow, was lecturing.
Lithgow is a fellow congregant and son of actor John Lithgow.
Rabbi Andrea Merow said she hopes the life-cycle events expose people to Jewish traditions that they’re not familiar with.
But aren’t there enough people at Beth Sholom getting married, having babies and dying each year so that people don’t need to attend mock educational ceremonies? Couldn’t they just see the real thing?
Merow said that the actual life-cycle events at the synagogue do allow people to see Jewish traditions, but couples and families don’t always employ every part of a particular ceremony. For example, most couples, she said, will stand under a chuppah and sign a ketubah before the wedding. But other rituals, like the tisch, where the men gather and toast the groom before the ceremony, aren’t done as often in today’s Jewish weddings.
“I would love to see people, as much as they are able, take advantage of the full depth of Jewish tradition from birth to death to everything in between,” Merow said.
And for families, who might normally leave the children with a babysitter while the parents attend a wedding, bris or funeral, the educational ceremonies offer children a chance to watch without fear of disrupting a special day.
Surkis, the groom, said one of the nicest parts of the ceremony was actually having the children in the audience. He recalled looking out into the main sanctuary at the audience of more than 300 people and seeing the children with eyes wide open, staring straight ahead.
“I was just overwhelmed by the kids,” said Surkis, who is from Israel. “When I was a kid, you went to the weddings and all you cared about was the food. They wanted to see, to learn, and that was the most exciting thing.”
Winter said she doubts that they would have ever had a Jewish wedding ceremony if it weren’t for this opportunity. For one thing, weddings are expensive, and she lost her job last spring after 28 years at a computer company.
Surkis said he was a little nervous before the wedding, but “a few shots of whiskey and it was OK.”