Simcha Secrets From Israel
Updated: Jan 25, 2020
AN EVENT PLANNER'S GUIDE TO A SUCCESSFUL EVENT IN THE HOLY LAND
By Pamela Azaria of Celebrations in Israel
Planning a simcha in Israel? Mazel tov and great decision, because it will be wonderful! With these insider secrets, you will be on your way toward a meaningful, magical and memorable simcha in Israel.
Whether it is a bar/bat mitzvah, wedding or another milestone celebration, your simcha in Israel will have no need for clever themes and flashy graphics. Nothing can match the natural beauty of a sunny event in Israel, with its holy ancient stone structures surrounded by majestic Cyprus trees and golden flowers. You can have a bar/bat mitzvah ceremony directly at the ancient Western Wall, which is not only a wonder to behold but the most sacred place of worship for the Jewish people. Similarly, your ceremony can take place on Masada, a plateau in the Judean Desert covered in the stone ruins of an ancient outpost where the famous story of Jewish courage, bravery and martyrdom took place.
Breezy beautiful weddings here always have spectacular views, as they are most often by the sea, in the forest or in an ancient setting. No matter where you choose to hold your event in Israel, it will be meaningful and strikingly unforgettable as your photos capture spectacular scenes of Israel’s glowing ancient stones, woodlands and beautiful blue waters.
In addition to the gorgeous surroundings, the food and entertainment experience will be pure joy. As the people of Israel hail from all over the world, so do their recipes. More than ever before, Israeli chefs are capitalizing on their heritages by inventing unique spins on traditional dishes using Israel’s fresh home-grown dairy products, flavorful spices, fragrant herbs, sweet and colorful fruits and vegetables, and excellent meats and fish. Your entertainment will also be a wow, with visual performers, musicians and singers who mix traditional compositions, instruments and performance styles with modern ones.
Dressed as if they walked out of the biblical desert in light white cotton, the Israeli Drummer’s Circle shofar player and drummers will lead you to your ceremony in a bold musical procession under a hand-held chuppah. At night, you can enjoy a performance that lights the sky with performers such as Jaman, who combine ancient fire juggling with modern technology. Their spinning LED light images of the bar/bat mitzvah child or wedding couple inspire awe every time. In addition, acapella choirs such as Kippalive and Rabotai, mix traditional Jewish music with English language pop songs and beat boxing, for raucously fun performances.
This meaningful, magical and memorable experience is truly worth the effort and expense of coming to Israel. Coupled with the tips below (based on my longtime experience of planning events in Israel for Americans and Europeans), your event in Israel will be nothing short of amazing!
11 SECRETS FROM ISRAEL: WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW FOR A SUCCESSFUL SIMCHA IN THE HOLY LAND
1) Cherish your decision to celebrate in Israel and make it matter! I don’t know what may have motivated you to decide to come to Israel for your simcha, but now that you’ve made that decision, my advice is to treat it with the importance it deserves, with detailed plans and bespoke touches that make the trip more than just a vacation. The most magical and memorable events are those that are full of surprises, highly interactive and tailor-made to your passions. Create activities where the honorees and guests can dance, sing, are brought into the performance, can create something, are praised in speeches, and are included with affection in picture montages and videos. Dress is more casual in Israel, but if there are going to be professional pictures, it is encouraged to fuss and look your best. Hire a hairstylist and makeup artist to help the women and girls get ready. Have a professional photographer and videographer meet you at the hotel and join you throughout the day.
2) Accept the cultural differences. When planning a simcha in Israel, it is important to realize that you are dealing with a culture that values the characteristics of resourcefulness, informality and the ability to improvise. At the same time, they tend to reject excessive concern with minor details and rules. This is a blessing and a curse. It may have won them the Six-Day War, but it makes planning ahead and sticking to the plan a bit of a challenge. So, my advice is to be patient and go with the flow. Know that there may be frustrating last-minute unforeseen changes. However, when something really goes wrong, the Israeli superpower of improvisation might save the day and be the reason that your event was both interesting and superb.
3) You don’t need to execute your event strategy more than a year ahead. If you are working with an event planner like me, we can explore all the possibilities and come up with the event that perfectly suits your interests and aesthetics well in advance. However, don’t be alarmed that your venue of choice won’t take your reservation or deposit even as short as eight months before the event. Often even the fanciest locations, which mostly cater to non-Israelis, will laugh and tell you to call back less than six months before the event. While we would think that offering a deposit to hold the date is securing their future business, they can’t be bothered. The trick will be to contact them again when they are willing to take the reservation while making sure that we called them far enough in advance that someone else didn’t get the date. (My ruse, and this has worked, is to call a week later on a different day and time and see if we can find a different person at the establishment who might be more flexible.)
4) When it comes to Judaism in Israel, girls and boys are not the same. In the US, people think nothing of girls reading from the Torah on their bat mitzvahs. Here in Israel for some people, a girl reading from the Torah on her bat mitzvah is a radical act. That said, there are no laws against it, and I plan bat mitzvahs here all the time. However, there are some constraints. If you want to have a bar or bat mitzvah at the Kotel where men and women can be together and girls can read from the Torah, the only place to do it is under Robinson’s Arch at the Ezrat Yisrael entrance through the Masorti Foundation for Conservative Judaism in Israel. In the sex segregated areas, boys can read from the Torah on the men’s side and the women and girls from the party will have to stand on chairs and look over the partition. On the women’s side, it is possible to arrange a bat mitzvah on Rosh Hodesh with Women of the Wall (egalitarian prayer/women’s rights group) but you might find yourself in the center of a political standoff between Ultra-Orthodox and progressive Jews. Otherwise, there are many picturesque private places for bar/bat mitzvah ceremonies all over Israel. It is easy to find a Reform or Conservative rabbi who will joyously officiate over a bat mitzvah. Be wary of Orthodox synagogues -- I learned the hard way at my very first bat mitzvah. When the gabbai of a Yemin Moshe synagogue saw that it was a girl reading from the Torah, he started disrupting the service, yelling and banging on the walls. Luckily, the rabbi stood his ground and the ceremony continued to the end.
5) Make it a spiritual wedding (not a legal one). Putting aside the internal Israeli debate of the Orthodox marriage monopoly, if you don’t need your wedding to be legally recognized in Israel, don’t go through the headache. It will be much easier to legally marry in your country before you travel, and emotionally and symbolically marry in Israel. Israel has a ton of requirements and you’ll be biting your fingernails waiting to see if the authorization will get back to you in time for the wedding. You need two in-person meetings, which include opening a marriage file and bringing two non-related witnesses who will testify they know the bride/groom as single. You’ll have to bring lots of IDs, both your parents’ ketubot, and proof of Judaism from a recognized rabbi. The bride and groom must attend family purity law classes and the teachers will need to provide a letter verifying that the courses were completed. The bride is required to prove to the officiating rabbi (via signatures) that she went to the mikveh both after the purity course and on the eve of the wedding. The rabbinate even require a copy of the Kashrut certificate from the wedding venue. Then to have your marriage recognized in your country, your wedding paperwork will have to be translated and notarized with an apostille to validate the document abroad.
6) Avoid making the bar/bat mitzvah a stop on the day’s tour. When people include the mitzvah ceremony as part of their tour, it loses its significance and just becomes something to check off the day’s list. “City of David, check.” “Joshy’s bar mitzvah, check.” “Kotel tunnels, check.” “Jerusalem, done!" If this is your plan, you may want to ask yourself if it is the best way to make it meaningful to the child. After the long trip home and through the years, will it be memorable? The best events that I have witnessed are the ones where the parents invested, not just monetarily, but spiritually, mentally and educationally in what their child can gain from this experience.
7) Make it heartfelt and personal. Explaining in a speech or otherwise why you have come to Israel to celebrate and what it means for you and your family will have a huge impact. Tell the rabbi enough about the child and your family so they can make a personal ceremony that includes some words on the family significance of having your child’s bar/bat mitzvah in Israel. At a recent Yad Vashem Twinning ceremony where the bar/bat mitzvah child commemorates a child who perished in the holocaust, one mother did genealogy research and made heartfelt film about a cousin (a little girl with the same name as the bat mitzvah child) who died in the Holocaust. She told their family’s personal story in the context of the importance of the State of Israel for Jewish survival. Everyone was in tears!
8) Bring everyone and focus on the honoree. An enormous demonstration of the event’s significance is also by who attends. By making the trip with an extended family and good friends, you send your child the message of how much they are valued. This is also enforced by making the entire ceremony day about the bat/bar mitzvah child. It starts well before you come to Israel by making sure the child comes to Israel prepared to read their Torah portion with confidence. It includes little touches such as monogrammed Kippot and welcome baskets with Israeli treats and gifts. One client of mine had blank postcards in the welcome gift bags addressed to her bar mitzvah son. She asked her guests to write to her son about how special it is to share his important milestone with him in the Holy Land. Each child feels so special by the fanfare when the drummer’s circle escorts them to the ceremony in a musical procession. After the ceremony, it is all about the fun! You hold a delicious celebratory lunch or dinner, in places that are wholly unique-to-Israel, such a historic Jerusalem hotel with a gorgeous view of Mt. Zion and the Old City. Or maybe a Bedouin tent with a gourmet mobile chef.
9) The aesthetics are, well, different. Israel is a gorgeous country, Israelis fought hard to get it, continue to fight to keep it, and treasure its wonders. But for some reason, for the average Israeli, keeping it pristine is not part of the Zionist ideal. Just about anywhere you go in Israel, ancient Caesaria, mystical Sfat, the Dead Sea or the waterfalls of En Gedi, you will see recently thrown garbage on the ground. If you are not on top of it, your event could have the same combination of gorgeous and grungy. The event could be in the most exquisitely designed space with 360 hillside views under the shelter of pecan trees. Yet the brilliantly designed Moroccan-tiled bathrooms will be dirty, and the wait staff will be wearing dingy t-shirts and holey jeans, consolidating the sushi bar by dumping the rolls from the half empty plates onto one. I combat this by visiting every event location while someone else’s event is going on. When I commit to a location, I will tell them what I expect in terms of cleanliness. I always have tastings to ensure the level of food and presentation, and I email photos with detailed descriptions back to my clients. While I cannot tell their staff how to dress and behave, I have brought in my own caterers whose waitstaff, food, service and presentation meet the standards of Europeans and Americans.
10) Bring cash and change it in Israel. The small vendors such as photographers, videographers, florist, hair and makeup people are all used to dealing with Israelis who pay for their services using domestic bank transfers. Hardly anyone is set up to take credit cards, very few want to use Paypal because of the hassle and commissions, and nobody will take your foreign check because cashing it takes at least two weeks with big fees subtracted. I will also warn you against changing to shekels at any bank, in your country or Israel. For a client this week, I discovered that the bank was making close to $400 on exchange rates alone (before any fees). The US bank was selling shekels at 3.28 to the $1, while the actual exchange rate was 3.46. Everywhere in Israel, there are little retail storefronts that say, “Change.” As unofficial as these may look, they take the lowest commission and give you the most shekels for your dollars or euros. For my clients, I prepare a worksheet detailing each vendor’s payment amount and how they need to get paid. On the day of the simcha, so the family will not have to think about paying vendors, we will put cash in envelopes and I will manage all the vendor payments throughout the day.
11) Delete the downtime. I notice a lot of times at events where I am a guest that there are pockets of time where nothing happens, and no one knows what to do with themselves. This is when I am ready to say my goodbyes, even if it is close to the beginning of the event. The biggest key to a successful event is timing and flow. Make sure you have a timed schedule of activities, there is a natural flow from one thing to the next, and there is no downtime where people have nothing to see or do. Deleting the downtime can also mean thinking on your feet when you are faced with unplanned empty time. I had a bat mitzvah at Robinson’s Arch that got off schedule because the drummer’s circle didn’t show up as planned to lead us in horah dancing after the ceremony. I found myself with a group of 45 people and 45 minutes to kill before lunch, which was just a 10-minute walk away. I asked the Israeli tour guide if he had any ideas, and he stepped in and took the group on an enchanting tour of secret exotic narrow arched roof spice and candy shuk exactly until the restaurant was able to welcome them. They hardly noticed our glitch! Just as described in SECRET #2, the Israeli superpower of improvisation not only saved the day but made the event more interesting and possibly perfect.
About Pamela Azaria
Since planning her own wedding many years ago, Pamela has always had a deep passion for organizing simchas. With the belief that every special occasion deserves to be stunning, she founded Celebrations in Israel in 2011. She acts as your “sister-on-the-ground” coupling an in-depth knowledge of Israel with an intrinsic understanding of American and European standards to help make each client's dream event in Israel become a reality.