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Surprise wedding thrills attendees at Maccabiah opening

Thousands cheer on-stage proposal and immediate nuptials of Canadian hockey player and his girlfriend; officiating Orthodox rabbi hails openness to converts amid current intra-Jewish disputes

Canadian hockey player Avi Steinberg and his girlfriend of four years, and recent convert to Judaism, Rachel Dixon, get married at the opening ceremony of the Maccabiah 20th Games in Jerusalem, July 6, 2017. (Screenshot)
Canadian hockey player Avi Steinberg and his girlfriend of four years, and recent convert to Judaism, Rachel Dixon, get married at the opening ceremony of the Maccabiah 20th Games in Jerusalem, July 6, 2017. (Screenshot)

An on-stage proposal and immediate wedding thrilled thousands of attendees — and surprised the bride — at the Maccabiah opening ceremony in Jerusalem on Thursday evening. It also underlined Jewish openness to those who convert to the faith, said the rabbi who performed the ceremony, at a time when the Israeli government has been considering legislation that would cement an ultra-Orthodox monopoly on conversions in Israel.

Some 10,000 athletes, their families and other visitors from 80 countries gathered at Teddy Stadium in the capital to launch the 20th Games, that will see them compete over the next two weeks in over 40 sport categories.

During the ceremony, a Canadian hockey player, Avi Steinberg, was called to the stage by Israeli actress Noa Tishby, who was emceeing the event.

“I’m very excited to be here,” said Steinberg. “What makes this even more special for me is that my girlfriend, Rachel Dixon, the love of my life, who just completed her conversion to Judaism, today for the first time landed in Israel,” said Steinberg.

“She’s here? She’s here!” asked Tishby, evidently well-aware of the surprise and playing along, as Dixon’s face appeared on the big screen, before inviting the soon-to-be bride on stage.

“I feel honored to be here,” said Dixon, wearing a long white dress.

Tishby then turned the floor over to Dixon, telling her, “So, Avi has a little something for you, okay?”

Steinberg, wearing shorts and a shirt, told his girlfriend: “I want you to know that with the benefit of time and experience, I’ve come to appreciate how precious and what a gift life is. There’s nothing I want more [than] to spend the rest of my life with you.”

With the crowd cheering, Steinberg got down on one knee and proposed. “Will you marry me?”

Dixon said a delighted yes, the two hugged, and then Tishby took Dixon aside and asked (a number of times) if she was sure she wanted to get married — “Was that a yes?… Are you really serious about that?” — seemingly stalling as final preparations were made for what was to come next.

After a few more awkward minutes, in which it was revealed that Steinberg and Dixon have been together four years, that Dixon was not jet-lagged and that she was indeed very serious about getting married, Tishby asked her to close her eyes as an assistant carrying a wedding dress and a veil appeared onstage.

Tishby asked Dixon to open her eyes (“Oh my God!) and told her it would be “our honor if you guys would actually get married right here, right now. Will you do it?”

Dixon, who appeared very surprised but thoroughly delighted, accepted, and she and her soon-to-be-husband went backstage to get ready for the huppah ceremony, which the couple’s rabbi, Avi Poupko, from Canada, was on hand to officiate.

“She didn’t know about any of this,” Tishby assured the audience. “This is real. What a sport,” she said of Dixon.

One of the musical acts of the night, Israeli singer Avraham Tal, then began his performance as a huppah was set up on stage, complete with flowers, flower girls and a white carpet.

Four friends from the Canadian delegation held up the posts of the huppah and the ceremony began.

Led by Rabbi Poupko, Steinberg, now wearing a blue suit and tie, and Dixon, in a wedding dress and veil, exchanged rings, Steinberg broke the glass with his right foot, and voila!

To the sounds of a jubilant crowd, the two were whisked off the stage as another musician began a performance.

The whole event was recorded and posted on YouTube by a woman who said she is Dixon’s aunt and appeared to confirm that her niece did not expect to get married on the spot.

“Rachel thought they would only be reenacting their engagement, but the event planners surprised her with a surprise wedding on International television!” she wrote.

According to Poupko, Rachel had expected to be married in Israel — but next week.

“We had originally planned a small intimate ceremony at [Jerusalem’s] Haas Promenade on Sunday evening, but when the producers of the opening ceremony heard about the couple, they came up with this crazy idea of making it part of the ceremony and surprising Rachel,” Poupko, who himself now lives in Israel, told The Times of Israel.

“Given the Israeli government’s recent decisions concerning the conversion law, it was a beautiful and reassuring sight to see a new convert be so embraced by tens of thousands of Jews from all across the world,” said Poupko, who is an Orthodox rabbi. Dixon had prepared for a year-and-a-half for her conversion, the crowd was told. (A contentious conversion bill, which would have made the ultra-Orthodox Israeli chief rabbinate the sole authority on conversion in the country, was shelved for six months last week.)

“I think that [this ceremony] expresses the true Jewish spirit as far as how we are to relate to individuals who have chosen to tie their fates with the Jewish people,” said Poupko.

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