Chuppah of palms, steel band give Jewish weddings a new spin

A bride, a groom and a chuppah. Palm trees swaying in a balmy breeze. Blue skies and an aquamarine sea. Sandpipers and seagulls running along the sandy shore. "Yerushalayim Shel Zahav" (Jerusalem of Gold) played by a steel drum band.

No, this isn't your bubbe's wedding.

In today's mobile global society, many Jewish couples are taking their wedding show on the road.

Instead of exchanging vows at the typical synagogue, catering hall or hotel in the bride's hometown, dream weddings are taking place in dozens of exotic locations. For some lucky couples who want to stand under the chuppah in paradise, Jewish weddings aren't what and where they used to be.

According to Victoria Lewis, a Jewish wedding consultant whose company, Island Dreaming, is located in Nassau, in the Bahamas, the popularity of tropical island weddings is growing, especially among Jewish couples who live in the United States.

Although a huge, elaborate affair far from home can be very pricey, more affordable wedding ceremony/reception packages for smaller groups are attracting many hardworking young couples who are paying for their own dream come true.

So you've decided that a black-tie wedding extravaganza in the ballroom of a posh hotel for 500 of your distant relatives, parents' friends and business associates isn't what you had in mind.

Not into high heels and high society, you veto that plan in favor of inviting just a few dozen close buddies and relatives to share your special day in that little dot on the map where the air is clean and the hassles of everyday life are an ocean away.

You still want to hear the Sheva Brachot, the Seven Wedding Blessings, and partake in all the other rituals. But the thought of a Calypso group singing "Hava Nagila" at your reception as you kick off your shoes and dance the hora along the shoreline sounds so sweet.

Now what? Anyone got a chuppah to go?

Fear not. Geoff Hurst, appointed by the registrar of the Bahamas as the first Jewish Bahamian marriage officer, president of the Freeport Hebrew Congregation and administrator of the Luis de Torres Synagogue, can drive or fly to your desired Bahamas hideaway.

He can conduct a traditional Jewish wedding ceremony complete with that chuppah, Kiddush cup, kosher wine, ketubah and all the blessings and customs that you can handle.

Although not a traditionally trained rabbi, Hurst has the approval of the American Union of Hebrew Congregations, the governing body of the Reform movement, to perform weddings. He can officiate at his Reform Freeport synagogue or in any one of the islands' romantic settings ranging from elegant garden gazebos to secluded surfside estates. He doesn't mind the sea spray in his face.

And if you think that marrying couples is an easy way for this retired English pharmacist to get rich, you're wrong.

"This is strictly a service that I offer for my own pleasure and for the couple's benefit," Hurst said.

Aside from the small fees for a Bahamian license and an official copy of the marriage certificate, all he requires is that his expenses be covered and that couples pay $200 for a one-year membership to his synagogue.

Hurst's goal is to provide couples with exactly the kind of Jewish wedding they want.

He encourages them to plan every detail of their special day which may include using the groom's tallit as the chuppah or even making their own out of cloth decorated with flowers.

Many couples decide to purchase their own Kiddush cup, to become a family heirloom they can continue to use on Shabbat and other special days.

Alternative wedding locales are not just for the very young. Many second-timer couples in their 30s, 40s, 50s and beyond choose to start their new life in the Bahamas and similar places.

"A lot of second-marriage couples like to get away and get married 'their way'" Hurst said. "The first time was for everyone except themselves."

If you're looking for something unusual but still want to incorporate a traditional Jewish ceremony into your plans, search the Internet for information about Jewish weddings, wedding planners and consultants in your desired location.

There are hundreds of listings for bridal professionals who can help you arrange your unique Jewish wedding anywhere in the world.

And if you're headed for paradise, don't forget the sunscreen.