Synagogues help to plan cut-price celebrations

Masorti's 'one-day kosher licence' is among initiatives to help couples stage a party without breaking the bank


Rabbis from across the communal spectrum have criticised the "shameful" amount spent on kosher wedding celebrations following our special report last week , which calculated that an average kosher wedding costs £130 a minute. But synagogal movement leaders have also highlighted services which have sprung up out of the necessity of helping those who otherwise could not afford a kosher event.

Masorti chief executive Matt Plen feels that "many people get caught up in the event itself and forget that the purpose is getting married". He is also critical of kosher caterers, observing that prices were "through the roof."

As a response, the European Masorti Beth Din was established 10 years ago to provide a cut-price solution for kosher functions. It offers a £580 "one-day kosher licence" for non-kosher venues and caterers.

The programme's director, Rabbi Chaim Weiner, then brings in a team that oversees the menu and ingredients, ensures the kitchen is kosher and supervises preparation and serving. Catering costs can be as low as £20 per head.

It has been involved in 100 weddings and the service is also open to non-Masorti members.

Mr Plen maintains that "the Jewish values of the event should be available to everyone, not just those who have a lot of money. We want to encourage people to integrate Jewish practice into their lives and be involved in the Jewish community.

"The wedding is where that all starts. The thought that a couple would be priced out of having a kosher wedding is anathema to us." Similar sentiments are expressed by the senior Reform movement rabbi, Laura Janner-Klausner, who says that "a wedding that puts you into debt makes your married life more difficult.

"The point of the wedding is to set up a happy marriage, not be an obstacle. There is a fear factor in going away from what's established but the more you spend, the more stress you put on a young couple."

She had most enjoyed officiating at a wedding where the couple and their families set up a marquee, brought in a big van of cold food and let guests serve one another.

"It was a wonderful celebration and the idea of people helping and looking after each other set the tone for the marriage. I would encourage us as a community to think about different models of what weddings can look like."

Liberal Judaism chief executive Rabbi Danny Rich argues that the vast sums being spent on weddings could have a more useful communal application. "The tens of thousands of pounds aren't being paid to rabbis or synagogues. People can spend the money as they wish, but I hope they're also making an appropriate contribution to tzedakah."

Simchas Nisuin, assisting strictly Orthodox couples in Stamford Hill, makes hosts limit the number of guests to reduce expenses. According to local leader Rabbi Abraham Pinter, the services of wedding gemachs - who help cut the cost of celebrations - are slowly changing attitudes.

"Spending a lot of money has become the culture for a lot of people," he says. "If you see the prices people spend on simchahs, it's shameful. It causes a bad name for the community. And ,for many couples, it causes them tremendous hardship afterwards, because they've spent more than they could afford.

"I know people who've taken out loans [and] mortgages for weddings. None of them admit it.

"But now a high proportion of people use gemach services for their weddings. You're not going to get anyone charging high-end catering prices in Stamford Hill and that is down to gemach services - £60,000 to £70,000 [on a wedding] would now seem really ostentatious to people here."

Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis and the senior Sephardi rabbi, Joseph Dweck, declined to comment on the cost of weddings.

Individuals across the wider community also do their bit to help out. For example, Golders Green couple Miriam and Ronnie Moore supply wedding limousines for £50, a tiny fraction of the commercial cost. Even part of the nominal charge is donated to charity. And in cases of need, they waive the fee completely. Over a 14-year period, they have helped hundreds of couples, raising thousands for good causes in the process.

"If you look around, cars are not that affordable," Mrs Moore says. "A bride should travel in style. It's her special day. Weddings cost so much. There are so many expenses. A bride's stresses are many and this is one detail we can take care of."

When Tarryn Chonin's father died suddenly a few years ago, she and her sisters, Melanie and Gina, discussed an appropriate memorial that would help others. The Stanmore siblings decided to set up a service to provide free wedding decorations and dancing props such as fans, umbrellas and inflatables.

"My dad was a very kind, caring person," Miss Chonin explains. "He wanted to give back to the community. He loved to be happy and have simchot and we thought it was a fitting way to honour his memory. There's a mitzvah to bring happiness to the bride and groom and that's what we do."

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