I’ve been to two fake weddings in Israel — fake for two reasons. First, the couples had already travelled to other countries to be officially married. Second, the legal authority on marriages, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, would not have legally recognized the ceremonies I attended.
In one instance, the couple didn’t want to be married by an Orthodox rabbi — the only type of rabbi in Israel whose officiation is acceptable to the Chief Rabbinate. In the other circumstance, the groom was deemed not to be Jewish, even though he had grown up in Israel and served in the Israeli army.
It’s estimated that 20-30 percent of Israelis leave the country to have a wedding that reflects their values and lifestyles — or because the Chief Rabbinate does not recognize one in the couple as Jewish.
I have heard so many stories from frustrated Israelis about the alienating effect that this process of marriage has had on their relationship with Judaism. More and more couples are refusing to accept the status quo because it detracts from the spirit of what should the most meaningful and joyous Jewish event of their lives.
The status quo is also alienating Diaspora Jews who are becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the Chief Rabbinate’s control of personal status matters.
Those Jewish Israelis who identify with the Chief Rabbinate’s interpretation of Halacha (Jewish law), should, of course feel free to follow its rulings. Orthodox marriages would not be diminished in any way if the love between two people can also be affirmed in other contexts, whether that takes place in a Conservative, Reform or even a Jewish but secular context. The risk to the Jewish future is that as more non-Orthodox Jews find fewer of their values reflected in how the Jewish state treats their fellow Jews, they may become even more disenfranchised.
But the Chief Rabbinate will not simply volunteer to give up its monopoly to decide what marriages are fake and what marriages are real. Nothing will change unless the Israeli public demands it. That’s where the Israeli Religious Expression Platform (iRep), a new initiative funded by private foundations and a consortium of Jewish Federations, including Jewish Federation of Cincinnati, comes in. We’re here to help give existing Israeli grassroots a more effective voice by funding Israeli organizations committed to encouraging Israelis to consider alternative options for marrying outside of the Chief Rabbinate.
One grant was awarded jointly to Israel Hofsheet and the Reform and Conservative (Masorti) movements in Israel, the leading organizations in Israel in both promoting and implementing marriages outside of the established state framework.
A second grant went to Neemanei Torah v’Avodah, an Israeli NGO that works with the religious Zionist community.
A third grant was given to Hiddush, the leading advocacy and public educational organization that works to strengthen Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. It will fund a polling and data-gathering project that will establish the baselines of public opinion about marriage freedom issues.
Additional smaller grants are supporting fundraising efforts in the Israeli philanthropic community and other smaller NGOs working in alignment with iRep’s goals. The Cincinnati Federation is the first to support a second round of grants.
The bottom line is that if Israel is truly going to be the homeland for the Jewish people, then Israel has to be accepting of all Jewish people – or, at the very least, not actively alienate them. It has to give opportunities to all Jews to express Judaism in the way in which they feel is most meaningful to them.
Many times throughout our people’s history we were prohibited from practicing our religion, but we found a way to continue carrying on our traditions – even under the threat of death. That we now live in a time of a strong, Jewish state in Israel is a miracle, but it would be a tragedy if this same state prohibited Jews from practicing their Jewish traditions when it comes to one of life’s greatest simchas – a real, Jewish wedding.