Saying ‘I Do’ From a Social Distance

Helen Crowley and Paul Jacobs met at Fitzsimons Park in Evanston, Illinois, 17 years ago. Their sons played in a youth soccer league together, and Jacobs was the coach. A year later, they started dating, waiting until their kids were old enough to be independent before finally moving in together. Last spring, Jacobs surprised Crowley while she was on a trip to England with her mother, popping up out of nowhere and proposing in England’s Paddington Square. He was playing their song: “What Are You Doing The Rest of Your Life.”

The rest of their lives had started, but after 16 years, the couple wasn’t in a rush to tie the knot officially. “We’ve been together for so long, and have everything settled, so there’s no questions about anything,” said Jacobs. “I’ve even said to people, we’ve been married for a long time, just not legally so.” They planned an August 2020 wedding, to honor the 16th anniversary of their first date, giving family and friends spread out across the globe enough time to book travel.

Then, everything changed. The speed of coronavirus contagion was picking up in the states, and city after city issued increasingly stringent social distancing measures. “Last Tuesday, I looked at him and said, I’m really worried,” said Crowley. “We’re not married, what if something happens to one of us? We need to know that we’re okay.”

Crowley and Jacobs decided to get married ASAP. But having a traditional in-person celebration, complete with guests and dancing, is becoming increasingly out of the question. In addition to more sweeping shelter-in-place edicts, which ban large gatherings like wedding parties by default, some institutions have issued wedding-specific decrees: The Church of England is limiting nuptial ceremonies to “the couple, the priest, and two witnesses,” according to Sky News; Uganda banned all weddings and religious ceremonies for a month.

But people are finding ways to celebrate love anyway while keeping their physical distance. Across balconies. In jails. Behind white masks. On chairs spaced six feet apart. Down shopping market aisles. As characters in the online game Animal Crossing. And in Crowley and Jacobs’ case, on Zoom.

After deciding there was no time like the present, the couple rushed to a local courthouse last Wednesday, getting the last marriage license before the office closed for the foreseeable future. City Hall was closed, so two of their kids would be home to act as witnesses, and a friend who was ordained said he’d officiate. Then, Illinois’ stay-at-home edict was issued. It was time for an online intervention.

A flurry of emails later, they pulled off a Zoom rehearsal dinner, and by Sunday, the day had come. Some 82 guests signed on, from as far away as England and as close as across the street. Some guests dressed up from their living rooms, wearing bow ties and floppy hats. Crowley’s family performed a song from the Brady Bunch. Trader Joe’s flowers framed the couple as they recited their vows.

Crowley and Jacobs’ families toast to the happy couple, decked out in their wedding-wear. (Courtesy Emma Ryan)

“We are in this scary and uncertain time,” said Crowley. “For one day, it was just about this.”

Others are attempting to keep their weddings open-air. Since Judaism discourages postponing scheduled weddings, couples in Israel have rushed to come up with alternative plans. One couple held their wedding in the courtyard of a yeshiva, with guests scattered across multiple balconies overlooking the ceremony.

In another ceremony shared on social media, a couple held their wedding on a rooftop, while a band played atop a nearby building.

A Jerusalem family with a balcony overlooking the Western Wall offered to let couples hold their mini-weddings there, in a Facebook post that was shared more than 500 times. “Know a couple who had to cancel their wedding due to coronavirus restrictions? Please let them know that they can get married with a party of 10 on our porch overlooking the kotel and har habayit for free,” read Chaya Weisberg’s post.

Weisberg says that the home has long been famous for its views, and that for decades its balcony has been a hotspot for engagements and weddings. “Jersulamites know it as the ‘Shrem Balcony’,” she said. “A famous rabbi and his wife lived here for over 40 years. They always opened their home and porch to people …  and they only wanted tenants who would do the same.” In the past week and a half, Weisberg says three proposals have happened out on the porch — she disinfects fervently after guests leave — and that after the Facebook post, several other couples have come by scouting the place as a potential wedding venue.

Because Weisberg was so strict about the guest limit — ten people plus the couple and a Rabbi — no one ended up taking her up on her offer. But she says the view and the sentiment inspired them. “It made them excited and made them want to go for it in whatever place was good for them,” she said. “A few people just got married in their homes.”

After holding a wedding ceremony for a small group on the steps outside a closed synagogue, a chasidic couple in Crown Heights led a procession of cars through the streets of Brooklyn in a white convertible, playing music in yiddish as onlookers cheered. Word of the impromptu ceremony had spread through WhatsApp, and the neighborhood was ready to dance and sing along.

“All people are trying to find a way for the humanity to shine through this crisis, and find a way of creating these points of light amidst all the stress that’s out there,” said Motti Seligson, a rabbi and media relations manager for, who works in Brooklyn and has family who watched the wedding from Crown Heights. “People in the community found a way of, while physically distancing, not socially isolating.”

The steady drumbeat of tradition offers communities a sense of normalcy, but also gives them something to look forward to in days spent indoors listening to the sound of sirens. ”Just as much as all people were contributing to the joy and celebration of this couple, the couple really created a special moment for everyone else as well, amidst all of the chaos that’s going,” said Seligson.

Virtual birthdays and happy hours and game nights can foster similar senses of belonging these days. But performing ceremonies has added weight, he says: “As Jews, the practice of Judaism is living. It gives purpose and meaning and also confidence and joy in the future.”

Crowley hopes that in August, she and Jabobs and their loved ones will still be able to have the wedding they’d originally planned. But having a makeshift ceremony now, amid all this uncertainty, acted as an affirmation of love as much as a legal safeguard. “There’s so much that’s scary, and this we can grab on to, this we can do,” she said. “We didn’t have to be in the same room to be surrounded and held up by our family and friends and community.”

After the festivities, the couple delivered some leftover wedding cake their neighbors. (They wore gloves, and left the plates out on the front stoop.)

With reporting by Alisa Odenheimer from Israel.

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