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Meredith and Rabbi Yoni Dahlen seal it with a kiss.
Meredith and Rabbi Yoni Dahlen seal it with a kiss.

Straight From the Heart

A local wedding brims with love — for each other, for family and friends and for the beauty of Judaism

It all began with a bike ride.

The former Meredith Cohen grew up as a congregant at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, where her parents, Linda and Rick, have been active.

Although she’d been raised in a kosher home, “and Judaism had always been central to who I am,” she says, “the way in which I connect to Judaism has been and continues to be a journey. I spent every Friday night with my family for Shabbat dinner, but that was the extent of my Shabbat observance.”

When a brand-new young, cool and undeniably handsome rabbi found his new home at Shaarey Zedek, Meredith’s mom suggested she show him the fun side of living in Michigan.

“I was like, ‘No, he’s a rabbi,’” Meredith says. “’I don’t know what to do with a rabbi.’” Her mother made the point that she wouldn’t think twice if he were a woman. She acquiesced, begrudgingly.

It was late June, and she ended up taking Rabbi Yoni Dahlen on a very long, hot bike ride around Detroit’s Belle Isle.

“I think it’s such an unexpected place,” she says. “You wouldn’t think, living in Southfield, that something like that would be so close. I thought it would be cool to show him there are these fun, unique aspects of Detroit, and that there’s so much nature within the city.”

The day went well. “I wasn’t thinking of it as a date,” Meredith says. “It was a 90-degree day, we both were sweaty. I was not trying to impress him at all.

“That night he asked if I wanted to go to a movie with him. I thought, he’s new in town, he just wants someone to do things with. We had dinner first, and we were both talking about how happy we were being single.”

By the third date, however, things became clearer to her. “But,” she says, “he says it was the first date.”

The pair were inseparable from there although they kept it a secret, even from her parents. “He was the rabbi of our shul,” Meredith says. “And they loved him. We didn’t want people to feel weird. But I do remember being in shul and watching everyone trying to fix him up with women. He’d just smile.”

In February, the couple took a quick trip to Hocking Hills, Ohio — and Yoni was a man with a plan and a ring in his pocket.

“We went for a hike in the woods when we got there,” Meredith says. “He had planned to wait until later in the trip — but we came to this opening with a little wooden swing, so he suggested we sit down there for a few minutes.

“It was organic, humble and perfect,” she says. “It also happened to be Valentine’s Day, but he had no idea!”

The couple knew exactly what they wanted for their wedding. Both are nature lovers who are passionate about helping others and the world around them. Meredith, who was a member of the first graduating class of the Frankel Jewish Academy in West Bloomfield, is a family law attorney with Marie A. Poulte, PC, in Plymouth, where she specializes in alternative dispute resolution, often working with violent situations.

“We really wanted the wedding to be in nature,” Meredith says. “Yoni grew up on a prairie in Iowa. He loved being in New York for school, but he missed being closer to nature. So we decided on Belle Isle for the wedding.”

It was important to the couple that their guests be comfortable — suits were not necessary, dancing was. “And I didn’t want to overpower nature itself with the décor,” Meredith says. “I wanted to

complement it.”

The couple tapped wedding coordinator and florist Erin Schonenan, owner of Sage Green Events in West Bloomfield, to bring it all together.

“She was amazing,” Meredith says. “I knew the feelings I wanted, that I wanted simple and natural, but I didn’t have the wedding lingo and flower names. I showed her a few pictures and she just got it. She goes to farmers’ markets for in-season flowers — I just loved it.”

Because this was Schonenan’s first time working on a Jewish wedding, the couple were slightly nervous about coordinating all the aspects. “But she came to our first meeting with a notebook,” Meredith says. “She had studied everything — she knew more than I did!”

THE WEDDING

“I’m a person who needs to know why I’m doing something,” Meredith says. “I don’t like to do it because I’m required to. I started keeping Shabbat while Yoni and I were engaged — I didn’t want to get married and suddenly have to do these things I didn’t understand. I wanted to know that it would be something that felt meaningful and good to me.”

In keeping the outward elements of the wedding gorgeously easy-breezy and inherently organic, Meredith and Yoni were able to focus on the things truly important to them — a warm, intimate celebration with family and friends while embracing Jewish tradition and, says Yoni, “its beautiful approach to communal celebration. We wanted to include the full megillah of ritual and tradition, but we wanted that tradition to be inclusive and egalitarian. So we asked ourselves how we could make it respectful of our values while remaining true to the ikar, the essence, of the tradition or ritual.”

The tisch, for example, is a communal celebration that takes place before the actual ceremony. Traditionally, it is reserved for the chatan (groom) and the other men. “But we wanted ours to be for everyone,” Meredith says. “We sat side-by-side as our friends and family offered toasts, gave bits of Torah and sang traditional songs. Our friend led the tisch — and there wasn’t a dry eye around that table.”

“Tradition made the celebration bigger than just us. It connected us with generations of ancestors. And it felt like we were celebrating with all of them.”
– RABBI YONI DAHLEN

The couple also wanted to include the tradition of circling, when the kallah (bride) circles around the groom seven times, symbolizing completion, wholeness and the unity of the relationship. Keeping with the couple’s egalitarian approach, they each circled each other three times, then made one additional circle together, hand in hand.

“It was incredibly important to us, and it felt indescribably special to both of us,” Meredith says. “Our circles presented to our family and friends a small symbol of who we are, as two individuals who commit to the unity and the completion, as equally obligated and responsible in making a partnership of trust and consistent growth.”

The Shevah Brachot, or Seven Blessings, at the end of the ceremony offered an opportunity for friends and family to be active participants in the couple’s wedding, Jewish or not.

“Some friends read to us the traditional blessings in Hebrew, and others presented interpretive English variations of those blessings,” Yoni says. “It’s hard to describe the emotions of that moment. We got to stand a couple of feet away from the people we love as they blessed us with the words of our tradition or with words straight from their heart.”

The couple found a way to extend the traditional aspects of a Jewish wedding in a larger way, too. “We invited family and close friends from around the world to join us for a Shabbaton leading up to our wedding day,” Meredith says. “Starting Friday night with kabbalat Shabbat and Shabbat dinner, we spent a weekend together praying, eating, singing, eating, celebrating — and eating.

“Incorporating the tradition this way made the celebration bigger than just us. It connected us to our roots. It allowed us to celebrate with family who are no longer with us and with generations upon generations of ancestors. Not every Jew in the world was getting married that weekend, but throughout the world, Jews were praying, reading Torah and delighting in Shabbat,” Yoni says. “And in some way, it felt like we were celebrating with all of them.

“Our rabbis of blessed memory knew what they were doing,” he says. “They recognized that ritual is about much more than just looking pretty. It’s about keeping us in the moment, forcing us to focus on the here and now and to just be. In its essence, the wedding ritual of Judaism is a type of radical mindfulness, keeping us in conversation with one another, with our tradition and with God.”

Meredith’s parents hosted family and friends at their home for the entire Shabbaton. “We slept on sofas, and stayed up late talking and laughing,” Meredith says. “We prayed and read Torah on the front lawn and then played lawn games, chatted and took walks. It felt like a family get together, and it was perfect.”

To help make their wedding — and its traditions — comfortable and inclusive for everyone, the couple reached out to guests ahead of time to offer ideas of how to participate — making schtick (entertaining the bride and groom) for the hora, making blessings and adding their own traditions and styles to the day. “Yoni recorded traditional Jewish wedding songs and uploaded them to our website so people could learn them ahead of time,” Meredith says.

“We had four days of celebrating and, on that final day, as Jews, Christians, Muslims and atheists danced and sang together, it felt like one giant beautiful family.”

At the end of it all, Meredith says, every moment represented a blessing they will never forget — and offered a firmly grounded root from which to begin their lives together.

“I think the seed was always there for showing me that the rituals and customs in Judaism help you to stay more present in a relationship,” Meredith says. “Now, it feels complete. We’re really very different people, but I feel we give each other what we didn’t have alone — it feels like completion. We work really hard, but there is this ease to working hard together.

“We’re obviously a new couple still,” she says, “but it just keeps getting better. It’s there and right and good.”

Lynne Konstantin

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