While traditionally most Jewish couples were married in a synagogue, couples increasingly are choosing to move their simchas off-site, a trend that is not going unnoticed by rabbis.
“In the four years I have been rabbi at Har Shalom, the majority of weddings have been off-site,” said Rabbi Adam Raskin of Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac. “I think people prefer to have the ceremony and reception in the same place, and while the sanctuary is a spectacular wedding venue, the social hall in its current condition requires significant dressing up to bring up to par.”
Though there are other factors, the desire for a location to have both large and attractive reception and ceremony spaces seems to be the biggest push for holding a wedding somewhere other than a synagogue.
“Most synagogues do not have beautiful reception spaces to work with and many times they are not as large as other types of venues,” said Shari Zatman, owner of Perfectly Planned by Shari, an event-planning business based in Pittsburgh. “The majority of my clients do not get married at a synagogue. They typically select a location that works to accommodate both ceremony and reception all in one location. This is likely because it is more convenient for guests.”
And yet several local synagogues have recently renovated or have plans to renovate their event spaces, such as the social hall, outdoor space or sanctuary.
According to Raskin, synagogue renovation “does seem to be something of a trend around the county.”
Washington Hebrew Congregation renovated its social hall in 2006, and Lindsay Fry, director of member services there, said its administrators now “receive amazing feedback about our space.”
Adas Israel Congregation in Washington is undergoing construction to renovate its Kay Hall, Gildenhorn Foyer and Wasserman Hall.
In addition, Har Shalom has begun its 50th anniversary capital campaign, a $5 million project with plans to renovate the social hall, original sanctuary, outdoor space and entryway. The construction is expected to be nearly complete by the fall of 2016.
“The goal of the campaign is to renovate the older part of the building so there is a consistent atmosphere throughout,” Raskin said. “The social hall is at the center of the project, and of course we want the synagogue to be attractive for all life-cycle celebrations, as well as community-wide events. Greater usage of the social hall for these functions will also increase the number of kosher and Shabbat-sensitive receptions and events, which is certainly part of our mission as well.”
However, if synagogues are counting on increased revenue from more people choosing to the hold functions in attractively renovated space, they may want to think again. According to Har Shalom President Sorrell Schwartz, redoing the social hall as a revenue-raiser is a gamble.
“The numbers just don’t work out that way,” Schwartz said. “It rarely happens. You can run into a lot of trouble paying for it once you see the money is not coming in.”
Other factors motivate Jewish couples to opt out of a synagogue location for events apart from size and aesthetic reasons. Many synagogues are particular about the type of food that can be served, and it can be difficult to set up for a Saturday evening wedding with Shabbat restrictions.
“Because b’nai mitzvah are scheduled three years out, and many families rent our space for the party, a Saturday evening wedding is almost impossible to book,” Fry said.
Despite the challenges, some couples still prefer to celebrate their simchas at their own synagogues, finding that familiarity and religious venues trump other concerns.
“Har Shalom is already blessed with a sanctuary of extraordinary beauty; it is spacious, bathed in natural light, gorgeous wood and stone architecture,” Raskin said. “It really is a makom kadosh, a sacred space.”