For Synagogue Duo, Stage Is Familiar But Roles Are New

By Jacob Savage

Published July 22, 2005, issue of July 22, 2005.
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Like many couples today, Rabbi Arnold Rachlis and Cantor Ruti Braier met at work. At first their relationship was strictly professional; the two spent years together serving as the rabbi and the cantor of University Synagogue, a Reconstructionist congregation in Irvine, Calif. Eventually they started dating. When they cautiously told the synagogue’s board members about their relationship, the board approved wholeheartedly. This past Yom Kippur, when the couple announced their engagement in front of more than 1,000 congregants, they received a standing ovation.

Rachlis and Braier consider members of their synagogue to be their “extended family”; the two are quick to point out that they owe their very relationship to the congregation they serve. So when the time came to send out wedding invitations, the couple mailed them to the entire congregation — all 600 families’ worth — almost 1,600 people in all.

Their wedding, held Sunday, June 26, was performed — where else? — at University Synagogue. More than 900 people gathered to celebrate. “Virtually everyone who was not on vacation came to the wedding,” Rachlis said. “It was the biggest wedding anybody had been to.” Tables were everywhere, stretching from the social hall to the foyer to the parking lot. Rabbi Harold Schulweis, the officiant, remarked that the synagogue was so packed, it seemed as though the congregants were there for Rosh Hashanah services.

The wedding began with the traditional marriage rites under the canopy. In an egalitarian version of the customary bridal circling of the groom, Braier circled Rachlis three times, he circled her three times, and they did one circle together. The bride then sang “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” moving many audience members to tears.

After the ceremony, the synagogue exploded into song. Two well-known Los Angeles cantors — Chaim Frankel and Marcelo Gindlin — performed, as did Sam Glazer, a Jewish songwriter who produced the bride’s CD. The synagogue’s Young Cantors’ Ensemble and children’s choir both performed. A klezmer band played throughout the wedding. Following the late-afternoon ceremony, guests ate hors d’oeuvres and dessert.

The congregants helped the bride and groom prepare for the wedding in any way they could. One man played trumpet with the band; another baked more than 70 challahs. One woman, a chocolatier, provided guests with homemade chocolates as party favors. Ten other members help pack them. Several congregants volunteered as ushers or directed parking. Synagogue staff helped plan the details of the wedding. “We were so happy for the help and support of the community,” Braier said.

The couple didn’t have time for a long honeymoon. After spending less than a week in Montreal, duty called: Rachlis had to officiate at a wedding in Burlington, Vt.

The 56-year-old bridegroom, who hails from Irvine, graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and was ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. The bride, 45, is originally from Buenos Aires, Argentina. She received degrees in music from the Conservatorio de Musica and the University of El Salvador, both in Buenos Aires. Both bride and groom were previously married, and both marriages ended in divorce — many years before they first began to date each other. The couple will live in Irvine and will continue to work at University Synagogue. In lieu of gifts, they asked guests to contribute money to the synagogue or to Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger, of which Rachlis is vice chair.

Jacob Savage is entering his senior year at Princeton University. He is majoring in history with a certificate in creative writing.

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