Planning a wedding can be challenging, especially the way our community does it – typically, with just about three months from engagement to wedding.

Brides may have to compromise on their dream dress because a specific order usually takes three months just to come in, and then requires multiple fittings. They might have  to borrow a dress or buy one that is available in a store. The couple and both families compile long lists of hundreds of family members, relatives, friends, and acquaintances, making sure not to leave anyone out, and that there are no doubles (there’s always some overlap in this tightknit community). They also have to find the right invitations, hall, florist, caterer, DJ, photographer, hair and makeup artist, and so on – not just for the wedding, but also for the le’haim, engagement party (yes some people have both), swanee, and shower.

All this packed into just three months. The pressure is tremendous, but somehow, it all gets done.

When Plans Go Awry

Now imagine for a moment spending all this time, money and effort, and just days before the wedding, the whole world shuts down. You planned, imagined, and paid for a huge room packed with hundreds of guests, but suddenly, people are scared to be in the same room as their parents.

This has happened to countless brides and grooms all over the world, and it was devastating. The difference between us and the rest of the world is that we don’t postpone weddings. It’s not our custom. So  weddings weren’t delayed, but rather reduced from hundreds of people to a handful. In at least one known case, a community bride and groom both had COVID-19 at their wedding, were symptomatic, and had fewer than five people present at their nuptials.

As time passed, and we learned a little more about the virus that shut the world down towards the end of March 2020, strategies to avoid passing and catching the virus started becoming normalized. If you wanted to visit with family, you did so from a distance, outdoors, and if you wanted to be extra cautious, you wore a mask. With the popularization of social distancing (keeping a distance of at least six feet from anyone apart from your household members) came outdoor weddings. They started out small, and as time went on, things changed. A major factor in this change for our community was the annual move from Brooklyn and Manhattan to the Jersey Shore which typically happens in the summer months. This year, many community members moved into their summer houses as early as March in order to quarantine near nature and in larger houses. Weddings, too, started moving to Jersey Shore homes in the early spring, for a number of reasons. First, gatherings of any kind became a criminal offense in New York. The Governor of New Jersey adjusted the maximum number of permitted guests as the pandemic went on, allowing more people as the case numbers gradually decreased – in stark contrast to the Governor of New York, who continually imposed tighter restrictions, notably targeting Jewish neighborhoods. And, New Jersey houses offered more outdoor space for larger weddings. You could safely invite more guests because they could properly distance.

Downsized Weddings

Gradually, as time went on, things began to shift. We moved from the phase of downsizing planned weddings, to planning downsized weddings. A couple would get engaged outdoors during the pandemic, and plan to have a wedding in just weeks instead of months so they could have an outdoor backyard wedding in Jersey, instead of a who-knows-what kind of wedding in New York in the fall or winter. This past summer, News Agency NJ.com wrote about this phenomenon, reporting that the borough of Deal saw a massive uptick in issued marriage licenses in 2020 – as opposed to the three or four licenses issued in an average year, a whopping 30 were issued just in the summer of 2020!

Here are a few stories of brides who got married amid the pandemic in 2020.

Marcy J Cohen

I got engaged on May 21st. It would have happened sooner, but my husband is an essential worker, and since he was on the front lines when the pandemic hit, he contracted Covid right at the beginning.

I understand that for many it was hard cutting down on guests, but this was my second wedding, so it actually worked to my advantage. My fiancée and I decided to split the cost of the wedding, since my father had already thrown me my first wedding. And, there’s something special about a small, intimate wedding where every person in the room is close to you and genuinely happy and excited about your simha.

The event was supposed to take place at a brand new hall in New Jersey, and we were set to be the first wedding there. If we learned anything from 2020, it was to expect the unexpected. Just ten days before our wedding, the hall backed out. They were worried because of the state’s changing Covid policies, and decided it wasn’t worth the risk. So we had to adjust everything. We decided to make it a backyard wedding. Unfortunately, since it was so last minute, we were unable to get a tent. This added to the stress, as we were constantly checking the weather, and the forecast wasn’t looking good. Each day we checked, and each day it said rain. We just kept planning, praying, and arranging. There is not much else we could have done.

Wedding planning never ends up just right, but due to the pandemic, we had a lot of major and minor inconveniences. We had to hire security guards to check the guests’ temperature, we set up sanitization stations, and we offered masks. File these under “minor inconveniences.” As far as major inconveniences…we missed out on a “party all night” wedding. All that stressful planning and money went into a 2.5-hour event. And, it didn’t just rain; it poured. It was hot and sweaty – and then a torrential thunderstorm hit.

If I could do it over, I’d get a tent, with air conditioning. But that’s about it.  Everyone we really wanted to be there was there for us. Our wedding was filled with love and joy. Everyone wanted to be there, and no one left until it was over.

My advice to other brides would be: don’t sweat the small stuff! Only invite people you want – not those you feel you have to, and no matter the weather, it will be so special, so just be excited!

Pennie Shamah

When the pandemic hit, it didn’t occur to me that it would affect my wedding, because we were planning to get engaged only in the summer, and married in November. But as time went on, and it was clear that this virus wasn’t going away, our plans shifted. We started thinking of getting married in the summer, because we had no idea what hall we’d be able to book by the fall.

We got engaged on a fishing trip in mid-June. At the end of a fishing rod was a fake engagement ring, and at first, I thought he really fished it. Then he got down on one knee and took out a box with the real one. We went back to my father’s house to celebrate, and then decided that’s where the wedding would take place. We chose the date August 30th to give us ample time to plan and prepare the house. Instead of spending thousands on a hall, my father spent the summer painting and renovating his home to make me a beautiful wedding.

The guest list changed a few times, as the rules for outdoor events were repeatedly modified. In the end, we had a considerable amount of people – nothing close to what we may have had pre-Covid, obviously, but certainly a nice amount. I cannot complain. I didn’t care so much about the planning and the details. I told my mom I wanted hot pink flowers, and left the rest up to her.

It turned out beautiful. Everyone I loved was there, and it was truly the best wedding ever. All summer we were watching the weather, and although we got a tent just in case, the weather was perfect. I always wanted a destination wedding, and though we couldn’t travel, we had a wedding outdoors and near a pool, and the pictures looked like we were away.

I never pictured a summer wedding for myself, but this is what it was because of the virus. We also decided to have an early wedding. It was the right decision. We danced all day and had the best time. If I could go back and change something, I wouldn’t.

My advice to future brides is, no matter if it’s a pandemic or not, keep it small! You only need the people you love at a celebration to be happy.

Linda Betesh 

My wedding was…last minute. We’d been dating for about three years and by the summertime, I was done waiting. I knew it was time to get married. I tried to get both sides to talk, and by the time I did, it was already mid-August. I was stubborn and persistent because I knew it was time, so as insane as it sounds, we got engaged, with just two weeks to go before our newly-scheduled wedding date – Sept 2.

With the pandemic raging, I knew it was not going to be perfect, but the end result would be the same, so we started planning.

The wedding that I always dreamed of was small – just me, my fiancée, some family and friends, and a beach. This is pretty much what I had envisioned. Reality, though, came into play. We don’t own property on the beach, and so a beach wedding wasn’t practical. Instead, we decided to have the wedding in my parents’ backyard. But the small wedding thing – that was definitely happening. We took pictures on the beach before the wedding, so in some ways I got what I wanted.

There were a few unforeseen advantages to our pandemic wedding. Firstly, it was a lot cheaper. We didn’t have to worry about spending the amount we would have on a typical wedding. People were very giving at this time, offering whatever they can do to pitch in and help. Ike Douek (@dj_iked) – Gd bless him! – DJ’d our wedding, as well as many other weddings throughout this pandemic, for free. Although we didn’t spend extravagantly, it turned out to be a beautiful event.

Of course, there were also many challenges. We were too late to book a tent. In the event that it rained, my neighbor generously offered to let us get married on his porch that had a roof. It was not what I wanted at all, but since we didn’t have a tent, we at least had a “Plan B.” Because of the COVID-19 restrictions, we had to trim down the guestlist considerably. Also, since it was so last minute, and we were juggling so many balls in the air, a few people who should have been there were, unfortunately and unintentionally, not invited.

When it was almost “go-time,” I watched from my parents’ kitchen as the marchers went down. It was drizzling, I was panicky, and my stomach was in knots. When it was my turn to go, I have to say, I’m unsure if it was still raining or not, because that was the last thing on my mind. I know at some point the moisture stopped, and we had beautiful weather.

My advice to future brides would be: just let it go! Everything and anything, just let it roll right off your shoulders. Try not to worry too much and just let things happen. I was getting so worked up about the details that weren’t working, and in the end, I’m just so grateful for what I had.

Will Things be the Same?

Tradition is something this community does not take lightly, but we’ve had no choice but to adjust. The extended family and acquaintances, for the most part, had to be taken off the guestlist of these small events, which averaged about 150-200 guests – a significant reduction from the typical 1000-people invite list. With this came some fringe benefits. For starters, the pressure of spending over fifty grand on a wedding was a relief for many families, especially those who were financially hurt by the pandemic. Another benefit we found was the intimacy of these events. When the only people attending a wedding have a special, meaningful, close connection to the couple and their family, the enjoyment is magnified. These are unmistakable benefits that were reported by many, and which beg the question: will things ever go back to the way that they were? If we could spend less money, headache, and effort for the same result (marriage), why wouldn’t we?

Some brides stated that they cried for weeks when they realized that their dream Shaare Zion wedding of many hundreds of people had to be altered. A few expressed the value they ultimately saw in downsizing the guests to the most important people in their lives.

So what will the future of weddings in our community look like? Only time will tell.

But for now, we exuberantly celebrate each and every new wedding in our community, and excitedly look forward to more marriages, more beautiful Jewish homes, and more joy and happiness – no matter how long or short the guestlist is!