Before Shanee Markovitz agreed to be Nathaniel Kay’s girlfriend in 2014, she laid down her ground rules.
“When he asked, I gave him two pieces of feedback,” said Ms. Markovitz, then 14. “First I told him to stop shaking, because he was nervous. And then I told him, I will say yes, but I want you to know there will be no breaks. I don’t want you to have the impression that, just because we’re young, this will be an on-and-off thing.”
Mr. Kay, who had worked up the nerve to pop the girlfriend-boyfriend question at the bar mitzvah of Ms. Markovitz’s younger brother, Ziv Markovitz, agreed on the spot. In the six years they have been together since, Ms. Markovitz’s tendency to speak her mind has intensified. It was evident last year when the couple had a party to celebrate the signing of their prenuptial agreement.
Ms. Markovitz, 21, and Mr. Kay, 22, are Modern Orthodox Jews. They met as high school sophomores at Katz Yeshiva High School of South Florida, in Boca Raton. A friend told Ms. Markovitz she should keep an eye out for Mr. Kay before they found their way to the same geometry classroom. “Before school started that year, a friend reached out and said, ‘I met your future husband,’” she said. “He wasn’t even messing around. He was a friend who knew me really well, and he really believed Tani and I would end up getting married.”
At Katz Yeshiva, a private Modern Orthodox school, such a union wouldn’t have been unheard-of. “The whole school was involved in our relationship the entire time we were there, that’s just the kind of school it was,” Ms. Markovitz said.
Family members were supportive as well. Ms. Markovitz’s mother, Sharon Markovitz, invited Mr. Kay to Ziv’s bar mitzvah after Ms. Markovitz mentioned she had a crush on him. And in 2015, when both were deciding on colleges, it was Mr. Kay’s mother, Sharona Kay, who reassured Ms. Markovitz that the decision to earn degrees in separate states — Ms. Markovitz at Yeshiva University in New York and Mr. Kay at Washington University in St. Louis — wouldn’t rupture their relationship.
“Tani’s mom pulled me out of class one day,” Ms. Markovitz said; Mrs. Kay is a Holocaust studies teacher and administrator at Katz Yeshiva. “She said, ‘If Tani goes to Washington University, there’s such a small Jewish community there that we’re basically signing your marriage document for you.’” Fewer opportunities to meet other Modern Orthodox girls meant fewer opportunities to find a new girlfriend and potential wife, as intermarriage is a violation of religious law.
But in 2016, when Ms. Markovitz and Mr. Kay graduated high school, neither was especially worried that new horizons would mean leaving each other behind. “Nothing was set in stone, and there wasn’t a proposal, but we talked explicitly about getting married before we left high school,” Ms. Markovitz said.
Ms. Markovitz was born in Israel and moved to Hollywood, Fla., as a toddler with her parents, Sharon, a baker, and Ila Markovitz, who works in real estate and construction. In addition to Ziv, she has a younger sister, Noa. Mr. Kay grew up in nearby Boca Raton with Sharona and his father, Dr. David Kay, a pediatric surgeon, and younger brothers, Ty and Zevi.
Ms. Markovitz graduated virtually from Yeshiva University with a political science degree in June and is working as the director of development at H.F. Epstein Hebrew Academy in St. Louis. Mr. Kay expects to graduate from Washington University with a degree in systems engineering and finance in 2021, then enroll in a master’s program in systems engineering. The couple hope to leave St. Louis in 2022, when Ms. Markovitz will begin studying for a law degree at Harvard; she was accepted this spring and deferred.
The encouragement from their families to find a partner and marry young is typical in Orthodox families, both said. But if the love affair that led them to marriage was wrinkle-free — throughout a gap year in Israel for both and then four years of college, they were faithful to each other — their lives post high school and pre-engagement were much less so.
In July 2016, when Ms. Markovitz was 17, her mother committed suicide. “It was incredibly difficult,” Mr. Kay said. For Ms. Markovitz, the difficulty was compounded by silence.
“As you get into tighter religious communities, and not just Jewish communities, we speak about things that are uncomfortable less and less,” Ms. Markovitz said. “Things get hush-hush.”
She decided that needed to change. A few months after her mother’s death, Ms. Markovitz wrote a Facebook post about her suicide that went viral. Soon after, she was speaking publicly and writing articles on the importance of lifting stigmas surrounding mental health. It was a role she took on less than wholeheartedly.
“It’s not like I woke up one day and said, ‘I’m going to be a public speaker,’” she said. “It’s not something I enjoy doing. But I do think it’s a necessary thing to talk about.”
Supporting her emotionally throughout was Mr. Kay. “When my mom passed, Tani helped us through everything,” said Noa Markovitz, 19, who lives in Israel and is preparing to enter the Army there. “It was hard on everybody, but he was there for her every second.” By then, their roles within the relationship had been cemented. “They complement each other so well,” Noa said. “Shanee’s the more dominant one. Tani’s more the lovey, huggy one.”
He is also romantic. When Ms. Markovitz and Mr. Kay decided, with their families, that they would announce their engagement at Zevi Kay’s bar mitzvah in Boca Raton on May 26, 2019, Mr. Kay wanted a private moment with Ms. Markovitz, too. The night before the bar mitzvah, he arranged a scavenger hunt around the local places that gave their romance liftoff. At the end, he was on one knee. “I had rose petals and champagne and the whole thing,” he said. She said yes.
The following night, at the end of the bar mitzvah, Mr. Kay told his brothers he wanted to give them something they didn’t already have: a sister. When the party caught on that the couple was announcing their engagement, “everyone was in tears,” Ms. Markovitz said.
Before they could start planning what they hoped would be a May 2020 wedding for more than 400, they decided they needed a prenuptial agreement. In Jewish law, in order to dissolve a marriage, a document called a “get” is delivered by the husband to the wife. Both parties must participate in its delivery and acceptance.
Having what’s known as a halachic prenup creates incentive, according to its supporters. The recalcitrant party can either cooperate with the divorce proceedings or pay financial support while they’re still legally married.
Ms. Markovitz first started thinking seriously about a religious prenup during her gap year in Israel. “There’s an organization that goes around educating people about halachic prenups, and I’m very interested in the law and in social justice, so it hit all the right spots for me,” she said. She later become a fellow at that nonprofit Organization for the Resolution of Argunot. Its goal is to eliminate abuse from the Jewish divorce process, mostly of women.
In December 2019, Ms. Markovitz and Mr. Kay signed their prenup at the organization’s offices in New York and, later that day, had a party that they shared on social media. “We just thought a celebration was a creative way to show that we really support the process and the organization,” Ms. Markovitz said. News outlets took notice. So did strangers on the internet. “A lot of people reached out to me with questions,” she said. “We heard a lot of words of encouragement.”
In 2019, the Rabbinical Council of America found that 84 percent of Modern Orthodox rabbis in the United States require couples to sign a religious prenup before they will officiate a wedding. However, in the ultra-Orthodox community, according to Mark Dratch, the executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, many Jewish authorities feel it creates coercion. Some are uncomfortable raising the issue of divorce at the time of marriage.
While the prenup celebration gave Ms. Markovitz and Mr. Kay a sense of momentum leading to the wedding they were planning in Pearl River, N.Y., the coronavirus caused them to pump the brakes. In March, they decided on a smaller celebration with social distancing in Palm Beach. They got legally married on March 6 in a Broward County courtroom.
“The civil ceremony wasn’t the part that mattered to us,” Mr. Kay said. That would explain the elaborately planned religious wedding, with 60 guests led by Eli Zians, a rabbi at Boca Raton Synagogue, that took place June 15 at the Colony Hotel in Palm Beach.
Livestream video followed Ms. Markovitz, in a cap-sleeve lace dress from the Palm Beach boutique the White Magnolia, and Mr. Kay, in a black tuxedo with a white yarmulke, through a ceremony featuring a series of Orthodox prewedding traditions. The tish tradition involved Mr. Kay and witnesses signing the ketubah, or traditional marriage contract. The badekin followed with Mr. Kay placing a veil over Ms. Markovitz’s head, a reference to the biblical story of Jacob and Leah.
After those rituals, the couple, with their families and Rabbi Zians, met under an outdoor huppah adorned with cascading red, pink and white flowers. Guests, most wearing masks, sat on a sprawling green lawn. Ms. Markovitz first circled Mr. Tay seven times in a traditional show of dedication. Rabbi Zians then blessed them twice, once with wine, before Mr. Kay placed a ring on Ms. Markovitz’s finger and said, in Hebrew, “By this ring you are consecrated to me.” After those words, they were considered religiously married. But their time under the huppah wasn’t finished yet. After several more blessings, Mrs. Kay and Mr. Markovitz took turns at the microphone.
“Shanee is the daughter I never had,” Mrs. Kay said.
Mr. Markovitz, after praising his new son-in-law’s easygoing nature, offered him some advice. “I recommend you should always insist on having the last word in an argument with Shanee,” he said. Those words? “Yes, dear.” Minutes later, when Mr. Kay stomped on a glass, signaling the end of the ceremony, cheers of “Mazel Tov!” erupted amid the swaying palm trees.
On This Day
When June 15, 2020
Where The Colony Hotel, Palm Beach, Fla.
Mirror, Mirror For the reception, Mr. Kay changed out of his tuxedo and into a suit from Opposuits, called the Discoballer, which is made of mirror patches. The groomsmen wore similar attire for the reception, wearing disco party shirts bought from Amazon.
Alone Together Just after the ceremony, Ms. Markovitz and Mr. Kay were danced out of the huppah by their attendants and ushered into a yichud room, where bride and groom traditionally spend the first few minutes of their marriage.
Double Celebration Ms. Markovitz graduated virtually from Yeshiva University the day before her wedding. She and Mr. Kay celebrated both events during a “minimoon” at a South Florida hotel.