This story has been updated to correct the name Rachel in paragraph 10.
The sea of bearded men in black frock coats and fedoras, lifting their voices in ancient Hebrew chants, was the first hint that this was no ordinary South Carolina wedding.
Then there was the striking brunette bride, her eyes shielded by a rectangular face covering, led by her parents and grandparents seven times around the somber groom under a flower-decked chupah, or canopy, overlooking picturesque Rockyford Lake. The female and male guests were separated, as prescribed by Orthodox Jewish tradition, under two peaked white tents to witness the ceremony.
Chaya Epstein, 22, of Columbia, and Mendy Moscowitz, a 23-year-old rabbi from Chicago, wed Tuesday on a beautiful spring afternoon in Columbia’s first Chassidic wedding, an event that one visiting rabbi from California declared “an absolutely historic moment in Columbia.”
“This represents a community coming into its own,” said Rabbi David Eliezrie, of Yorba Linda, Ca.
Orthodox Jewish ritual included the reading of the marriage contract, the veiling of the bride, the ceremonial circuit around the bridegroom, the giving of the bride’s ring, the seven blessings and the final breaking of the wine glass and the welcome shouts of Mazel Tov!”
Rabbi Baruch Hertz, leader of congregation Bnei Ruven in Chicago officiated; his father had married the parents of the bride 27 years ago. Rabbi Baruch Epstein of Chicago, father of the groom, Hesh Epstein’s, brother, reminded those gathered that while men are traditionally physical protectors of women, “on the transcendent level it is women who protect men.”
Chavi Epstein, the bride’s mother resplendent in a soft brown Chantilly lace and silk gown, has sent her nine children off, one by one as they came of age, to attend rabbinical schools in places like New York and Chicago. Now, her daughter had returned to be wed in her hometown.
“It was fantastic,” she said, “unifying – it’s life, living here, our connection to God. It’s our whole life; it’s completely in sync with everything we do.”
The Orthodox rabbis and their families came from New York and Chicago, from North Carolina, Florida and Texas, England and Israel to witness the outdoor marriage at the home of Shep Cutler in Forest Lake. Many members of the Columbia Jewish community – Reform, Conservative, Orthodox – were in attendance, experiencing an elaborate wedding ritual rooted in ancient biblical and Orthodox Jewish custom.
“You know your Bible?” Eliezrie, of Yorba Linda, Calif., asked, as the groom, accompanied by his father, Rabbi Hesh Epstein, and future father-in-law, Rabbi Moshe Moscowitz, prepared to veil the bride before the ceremony. That tradition of confirming the identity of the bride is rooted in the Genesis story of Laban, who tricks Jacob into marrying his eldest daughter Leah instead of Rachel, thus ensuring Jacob would work for him for another seven years.
Chaya’s full length wedding gown, white French lace with a silk cream lining, had special meaning because it has been shared by three friends from her high school class. The face covering, or bedeken, was lined with a special piece of fabric that came from the home of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, the seventh leader in the Chabad-Lubavitch movement.
“He was the inspiration that sent the Epsteins to South Carolina,” said Penina Efune, aunt of the bride.
Hesh Epstein first came to Columbia in the late 1980s, along with his childhood friend Rabbi Meir Muller, as part of an Chabad outreach mission. Their presence drew curiosity and, perhaps, a little suspicion among Jews and non-Jews, but over time the Epsteins and Mullers integrated into the broader Columbia community as religious leaders and teachers. With their growing families, the two reopened the Jewish Community Center’s pre-school, transforming it into the Columbia Jewish Day School, which now educates children through the 5th grade. Chaya Epstein attended that school.
After the ceremony under the chupah, the bride and groom were led up to a room on the second floor of the Eastshore Drive home where the wedding was held. There they spent some quiet time before the joyous reception and night of dancing at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center.
“The wedding is not complete until they do this, go into the room and lock the door,” said Rabbi Shlomo Cohen, of Charlotte, noting that the bride and groom have not seen each other or spoken to each other for seven days. “It’s like a spiritual moment.”
“Afterward, at the dinner and dancing, that is when the joy bursts out,” Cohen said. “It’s a different kind of intense joy.”
The couple doesn’t leave for a traditional honeymoon. Instead, they will go to Chicago and spend the week in celebration with family and friends.