Life & Culture

The £130-a-minute simchah: Are we wedded to excess?

A lavish wedding is fine for those who can afford it. But ‘keeping up with the Cohens’ is pushing many newly-weds into debt


It should be the happiest day of your life - and will likely be the most expensive. Wedding planners say that the cost of a kosher celebration can comfortably exceed £50,000. Our £55,000 wedding quote works out at an eye-popping £130-a-minute for a seven hour event.

Of course, expenditure is the prerogative of the couple and their parents. But heightened expectations and a desire to "keep up with the Cohens" leads many to spend beyond their means.

An international wedding planner for 18 years and founder of simchah-planning guide It's Your Affair, Joan Summerfield notes that Jewish weddings are becoming more extravagant and it is not uncommon for the outlay to run to six figures.

As well as higher catering costs, there are other differences with non-Jewish weddings, notably that the hosts generally foot the drinks bill. Musicians are often flown in from Israel to perform.

"When I started off, people used to just have a synagogue for the ceremony and then a hall. It was a very conservative affair," recalls Ms Summerfield, who supplied the costings for our £55,000 wedding graphic. "Now they are more extravagant.

"Many people take out loans and remortgage their homes. A wedding is always expensive and no one ever sticks to their budget. It is very competitive. Everyone wants the same grand affair that their friends or members of their family have had. I have never heard of a Jewish couple running off to Vegas for a cheap wedding."

Financial expert and JC Money Mensch, Martin Lewis, says there are ways to cut costs, if only the hosts would see sense. In his view, a sensible starting point is not to "consider it a Jewish wedding. It's a pejorative term in some respects. Forget what anyone else has ever done and don't see it as something competitive. The worst possible thing you can do is start your married life in debt. Your wedding is just one day." To help families in financial difficulty - and in line with its desire for simchahs to be kosher - the United Synagogue can help organise a wedding party for 120 guests in London or Manchester for under £3,500, with the vast majority of that amount going on catering.

Almost as important as the saving is the service's confidentiality.

The US's simchah executive, Loraine Young, agrees that couples face peer pressure to have a celebration with all the trappings.

"It's embarrassing to phone round caterers to ask for prices," she says. "Some people only have a certain amount to spend and they don't want to make themselves look foolish. I'm sure most couples would probably be frightened that news would get out that they can't afford a certain caterer. All the caterers are very discreet but you just don't know."

Around 20 celebrations annually are arranged through the service, an example of the "wedding gemach" who helps to keep the cost of weddings within reach of all.

This is particularly important within the strictly Orthodox community, where large families are the norm.

Stamford Hill leader Rabbi Abraham Pinter estimates that 10 per cent of the 4,000-family community are gemach providers. He himself used a gemach for the wedding of his eldest daughter, Rivki. "It was for around 500 or 600 people," he recalls. "They helped me to have it for £5,000. It would have cost £25,000 otherwise."

Outside of a gemach, it is not easy to contain costs for a kosher event. According to a Claridge's spokesperson, use of a kosher caterer adds £12,000 to the bill.

Talking to the JC, one bride says she was quoted "obscene prices" for catering. "Kosher companies know that they can charge more for weddings. It's extortionate for one event, but maybe it is what it is." Her wedding was kosher catered.

Another talks of the pressure applied to keep kosher. "There's definitely a problem with people who are forced to have a kosher caterer because their Orthodox rabbi won't officiate otherwise," she points out.

"That has such an impact on the per-head price, so they have to have a smaller wedding. That's hard if you, your friends and family aren't strictly kosher.

"A lot of people I know didn't even consider a kosher wedding because of the cost."

With the vast sums involved, it is now common for both families, plus the bride and groom, to chip in financially.

For the couples, a monetary input is a means to exert a larger measure of control over their big day. But this can also lead to problems. And those marrying later in life are more likely to foot the bill, a significant factor in a community where the average age for a non-Charedi bride is 33 - and 35 for a groom.

"Arguments tend to be around who pays for what - how the percentage of the wedding costs are split," says Jewish Marriage Council director, Daniel Segal.

"Weddings of younger couples will be paid for by their parents and in-laws. The older the couple are, the more likely they are to take responsibility for paying for their own wedding. They might take a gift payment, or something like that, from their parents.

"People are paying £20,000 or £30,000 for a wedding and they don't have that kind of cash."

Mr Lewis feels Britons are judged "very harshly" when it comes to weddings. "If they put you down for not spending enough, they are not your friends," he says. "If you are Jewish, [the complainers] are probably your family."

One bride confides that despite her parents having spent £60,000 on her wedding, they still felt that they had let her down.

"My mum and dad were saying that they felt guilty that I wasn't going to have the £100,000 wedding my sister had. They were careful to give all of us the same, which is very healthy. But I was like: 'What are you talking about?'

"We had an extremely lavish and lovely day. But if I'd been paying for it myself, we'd have had a very different wedding."

Mr Lewis adds that a trend towards marrying overseas reflects more competitive pricing. Israel is the obvious example and Ms Summerfield reports an increasing demand.

"People are coming to Israel to save money. A £50,000 wedding in London will easily cost you £30,000 in Israel," she says.

"And for those who would have 'non-offensive' catering in the UK to save costs, well, in Israel it is hard to find a caterer that is not kosher. The rabbinate in Israel are unlikely to sanction a wedding if it is not kosher."

To one London bride and her husband, whose relatives are Israeli, the decision was a no-brainer.

"You definitely get more value for money in Israel," she says. "We still could have had a wedding for the same price in the UK, but it wouldn't have been as nice.

"Because there's more competition you can get better value for money on catering. You can have top end in Israel and spend the same amount of money as for an average wedding in the UK."

The couple's ceremony was on "a beach with a beautiful view" - another selling point - and there were just under 200 guests. "In Israel a lot of people have these massive weddings and halls cater for that. In the UK, a lot of halls didn't have the capacity for 200."

On the negative side, UK guests have to meet travel and accommodation costs, although some look upon it as the opportunity for an Israel holiday.

Mr Lewis's final piece of advice to soon-to-weds is not to bow to external pressures.

"Do what you want to do. When I look back, I remember the love in the eyes of the couple, not whether the chicken soup had extra foam on it.

"Focus on what is important and that includes what you can afford. Work out your budget before you do anything else. Your love and commitment counts, not how much money you put down. Don't let it be a cause of strife."

Ms Summerfield also has cautionary words for those contemplating spending more than they can afford. "I have noticed that most divorces come after extravagant weddings. I think it is because they are focusing on the wrong things."

Caterers: We are not profiteering

Kosher caterers maintain that they do not exploit wedding couples.

Celia Clyne - whose eponymous banqueting company provided the fare at Limmud 2014 and caters weddings across Britain - says that "if someone is genuinely on a budget, then you go out of your way to help them. But then they need to apply it across the whole package of what they're doing.

"People really have to trim their menus to suit their budget. It's a bit like how you can drive a Rolls-Royce, but you choose the car that fits your price range."

Ben Tenenblat, whose company is new to the market, observes: "There are some caterers who charge an arm and a leg, but if a client wants to pay it, that's up to them."

He says he tries to take a flexible approach, adding: "Our cheapest per head is £95 and we will always work to agree something for anyone's budget. We'll come up with a compromise."

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