Social Distancing ‘Decimates’ Jewish Events Business in Philly

Lauren James Events has seen most of their weddings through June postponed to the fall. Floral arrangement by Devon and Pinkett.
Lauren James Events has seen most of their weddings through June postponed to the fall. Floral arrangement by Devon and Pinkett. (Photo by Asya Photography)

With the economy as we know it at a standstill, few industries been more adversely affected by stay-at-home and shelter-in-place orders than the one depending on public gatherings: the events and party-planning industry.

With every conceivable manner of simcha either canceled or postponed indefinitely, the industry, in the words of Jeff Kalinsky, director of operations at kosher catering house Betty the Caterer, “has been decimated.”

Bands, caterers, florists, party planners, even religious officiants — all the vendors associated with the joyful circus of conventional weddings, bar mitzvahs and all manner of events — have seen depended-on dates disappear as we head into the part of the calendar that’s always been the busiest.

“It’s really sad to have worked with all of our clients for as long as we have and to see all of them getting their dates pushed,” said Lauren Lerner Akman, co-owner of Lauren James Events, a Philadelphia-based boutique event and wedding planning company. “Our first wedding of the season was to be March 28, and we’ve already rescheduled everything through June 13.”

While the wedding business is, of course, a business, these are not dispassionate business transactions; they’re weddings. And weddings, when they happen, and especially when they don’t happen, make all parties involved emotional.

“Even though all the brides and grooms are in disbelief, they’ve all taken it better than I could’ve anticipated,” Akman said. “But when you take the time to put all the effort in and select everything that you want — to then be told that you have to do it a different way, some people just don’t want to compromise. With an event like this in someone’s life, and with the amount of money that people are spending, I don’t fault them.”

With no end to the status quo of social distancing yet in sight and fear that things are not done getting worse, future forecasts are tinged by worries of a cancellation domino effect and the immutable laws of fear of missing out.

“We have clients booked originally for this fall asking if they should consider moving,” Akman said. “There’s fear that if (the status quo persists into fall), they’re going to miss out on having that time to reschedule and get the vendors that they want. So they would rather push (to a later date), as opposed to getting to the point where it’s two months prior and they have to throw everything up in the air and start over.”

If it seems complicated, it is. There are myriad moving parts in wedding and event planning, and they all have to click together just so for the thing to come off right. For now, the variegated pieces that normally come together like a head table’s centerpiece are all sidelined.

And in this industry that’s both collaborative and competitive, there’s an unprecedented feeling, party professionals say, a strange comfort, or resignation, that the circumstances are beyond their control.

“Our industry is getting decimated,” said bandleader Eddie Bruce. “It’s like, ‘what can we do?’ But here’s the answer: ‘nothing.’ Going through this together lessens the fear. Shared fear, shared pain is easier to bear.”

Bandleader Sally Mitlas echoed Bruce’s sentiments.

“Our industry’s taken a tremendous hit. It’s just been such a ripple effect, and it hit fast and furious,” she said. “The only comfort I take in it is everyone’s in the same boat. It’s not as if you, as a business owner, did something wrong. Which doesn’t ease the pain, but it at least explains it.”

Musicians seem to be uniquely affected. Playing music is the way they earn a living, but it’s also like an autonomic function, they say, like breathing. Not playing takes a financial and emotional toll and has left performers feeling disoriented.

“It’s a very strange feeling,” Mitlas said. “You’re so programmed to be performing every single weekend for decades. It doesn’t feel real.”

“As much as everybody’s scared financially, there’s this sense that we need to do what we do,” Bruce echoed. “I’ve never gone so long without singing for people. You take it for granted, but it’s a huge part of what fuels our psyche, and we’ve got to find ways to make that up right now.”

“A lot of these events will be deferred and the income will be deferred to a later date, so I’m not worried about that,” said Bruce, who anticipates his calendar will be a wash at least through May. “I’m just trying to balance (reassuring) the clients and my musicians, who are notorious for living gig to gig, and I get it. I can’t help them financially except to say, ‘we’ll make it up when things get better.’”

In the meantime, those in the area musician’s union have struck out to provide suddenly gig-less musicians with more immediate relief.

Jonathan Fink, a Realtor and cellist with the Philly Pops and the Harrisburg Symphony is one of the organizers of the newly created Philly Musicians Relief Fund, which is being administered by the American Federation of Musicians Local 77.

To benefit the relief fund, which for now is being managed in a GoFundMe account, Fink and others have launched the Philadelphia Virtual Music Phestival.

On Wednesday and Saturday evenings while the ban on public gatherings persists, notable Philadelphia musicians will livestream performances from their homes. Access to these livestreams will be free, though Fink assures there will be links and announcements and plenty of direction provided during the virtual concerts to those who wish to donate to the musicians’ fund.

The inaugural livestream featured Philadelphia Orchestra cellist John Koen; local pianist, arranger and educator Dean Schneider entertaining with jazz piano on March 25.

“A lot of the public doesn’t realize that other than the Philadelphia Orchestra, every other performing organization that they go to see — the Philly Pops, the Pennsylvania Ballet, Opera Philadelphia, the Walnut Street Theatre, Broadway at the Academy — the  musicians aren’t employed full time,” Fink said. “As soon as the performances stopped, nobody got paid for anything. That’s the real plight of the freelance musician right now.”

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  1. This has been a devastating time for the arts but, at some point, will also provide opportunities to articulate the times musicians, artists, writers etc. have experienced. It may usher in a new period of enlightenment which has been missing in recent years with the rapid development in other areas. Thanks for remembering us at this time


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