JERUSALEM — As destination weddings go, it wasn’t too shabby.

Overlooking Judaism’s holiest site, the 2,000-year-old Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, some 30 Portland-area residents gathered on a brisk Tuesday evening to do the Israeli circle dance known as the hora and celebrate the wedding of two Cape Elizabeth residents.

Gary Berenson and Sindee Gozansky, who have been dating for more than seven years, were married in a traditional Jewish ceremony conducted by Rabbi Moshe Wilansky, the Portland-based director of Chabad Maine, from a balcony with a stunning view of the retaining wall of the Second Temple, which existed between 516 B.C. and 70 A.D.

The plaza below was scattered with worshipers and tourists eager to touch the awe-inspiring wall or place folded notes in its crevices that, according to tradition, reach the eyes and ears of God. It’s a location that Jews have flocked to ever since Israel gained control of the Old City in the 1967 Six-Day War, and it provided the ultimate hook in Berenson’s ongoing efforts to betroth Gozansky.

“I have been asking her to get married for the last few years, and she always said no,” said the jocular Berenson, 64, the rabbi of Portland’s Etz Chaim Synagogue.

Gary Berenson and Sindee Gozansky stand under the huppa, a canopy used in traditional Jewish wedding ceremonies. The pair decided to marry on a trip to Israel at a location near the Western Wall and invited all the other people on the trip to attend.

However, after organizing a 10-day trip to Israel in February for his congregants and the Portland Jewish community, Berenson had an inspirational idea.

“We had visited Israel last year – her first trip – and she fell in love with it. It was my fourth trip, so I already loved it,” Berenson said during a food-and-drink-laden wedding reception at the Simchat Hall, whose picture windows revealed an unparalleled view of the Western Wall plaza and the shining Dome of the Rock looming on the horizon.

“I told Sindee, ‘Look, I’m not going to ask you anymore to get married, but if we were to get married, wouldn’t it be amazing to do it at the Kotel (Hebrew for “Western Wall”)? So if we’re going to get married, let’s do it on this trip.'”

Gozansky, 51, said the offer gave her “a very long pause.”

“I knew it would be hard to resist. Jerusalem is so special to both of us, so when he asked me to get married there, I was really overcome with emotion,” said Gozansky, a psychotherapist in Portland. After a couple of weeks of deliberation, she presented Berenson with a card with a heart on it and inside a written word: “yes.”

“I’m standing there listening to the words that have been said to Jewish brides and grooms for thousands of years … How could it not be emotional?” Berenson said.

The couple organized the wedding online with suggestions from friends. Getting the guests there proved just as easy.

“About two months ago, I sent an email to all of the participants who had signed up for the trip, and said: ‘You don’t have to come. It’s an optional free night on the tour. But if you want to come and celebrate our marriage, we’ll have a great time,’ ” Berenson said. “And everyone said yes.”

So after four days of touring and bus travel from the shore of the Mediterranean in Tel Aviv to the northern expanses of the Golan Heights, the group arrived in Jerusalem on Tuesday with just enough time to check in to their downtown hotel, change into their informal wedding garb and make the half-mile trek to the Old City. Another dozen guests, including the groom’s daughter from a previous marriage and family from Boston, and sister and brother-in-law from Florida, flew in especially for the event.

Instead of risotto and prime rib, the guests dined on Mediterranean dishes such as couscous and spicy eggplant, and the background music included traditional Yiddish tunes. The non-American and more informal vibe seemed to delight the guests.

“Not only did everybody from the group come, but everybody wanted to come, because they’re such lovable people,” said Gary Koocher of Portland, who has known Berenson for 30 years. Koocher was last in Israel 10 years ago with his long-term partner, Roz Siegel, and when they heard about the February trip they signed up unaware about the special nuptials.

“The wedding was definitely a bonus, the cherry on top of an amazing trip,” she said.

Neither of them had ever attended a wedding so far from Maine before.

“We’re going to a destination wedding in Florida in April,” said Koocher. “But I would call this is the ultimate destination wedding.”

That sentiment was echoed by the other guests and, of course, the main players.

“I tend to joke around a lot; I’m very lighthearted. But under the huppa (wedding canopy), I had to stop myself a couple times because I was getting so choked up,” Berenson said. “I’m standing there listening to the words that have been said to Jewish brides and grooms for thousands of years, and here am I standing 100 yards away from the Western Wall with the bride of my dreams. How could it not be emotional?”

“It was like having our own community from Portland here in Jerusalem,” Gozansky added. “And for them to experience a wedding at the Kotel made me so happy inside.”

David Brinn, a Portland native, is the managing editor of the Jerusalem Post.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: