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On marriage in the State of Israel

If only the Israeli Chief Rabbinate understood that with great power comes the responsibility of great kindness

I have long heard about the problems that many engaged couples face when dealing with the Rabbanut in Israel, but never did I expect that I would have to grapple with those hurdles myself.

I was born and raised in the United States, a classic “Jewish girl from a Jewish family” in New York City. My father is an Orthodox rabbi, and my mother is an Israeli citizen. I myself have spent my whole life dedicated to Jewish studies and Jewish education, and, since making aliyah in 2008, have pursued a career in teaching Bible and Jewish Philosophy in the Israeli secular public school system. My Jewish identity has always strongly guided my actions, and so I never thought that I myself would have a hard time proving its legitimacy when getting married.

But reality rarely matches our expectations, and the surprises that soon came my way arrived in rapid succession. The first surprise was when I was told by the Rabbanut that my proof of Judaism letter was not valid because it was from my father, and had to be from a rabbi who is not a relative. The second came when I was told that my father would have to co-officiate with another rabbi at my wedding. Even though my father is Orthodox-ordained, he is not on the Rabbanut registry of rabbis and would therefore need a rav-melaveh, an “escort rabbi,” to help oversee the ceremony and sign my ketubah instead of him.

Although the requirement of having an escort rabbi at my wedding wasn’t exactly inspiring, I took it in stride, knowing already about the stringent ways of the Rabbanut. The final straw came when I was notified that my father wouldn’t be allowed to officiate at all at my wedding, not even with the presence of an escort rabbi! The reason I was given was that even though he was an Orthodox-ordained rabbi, he had held various pulpits in Conservative synagogues, thereby making it unacceptable for him to officiate even with an escort rabbi under the Rabbanut in Israel.

I was stunned by the news, and had to re-think my game plan. I was not going to be told completely how to run my own wedding. I turned to Tzohar, and with their help, I was able to have my own father conduct my wedding with an escort rabbi from Tzohar. It was a beautiful wedding in which both rabbis were actively involved, and everyone partook in our joy.

עטרה תמונה
Atara’s father happily officiating at her wedding ceremony thanks to Tzohar

My experience with the Rabbanut is, to say the least, one of the many stories that demonstrate the frustration that people feel when going through fundamental Jewish life cycle moments in Israel. It is sad that even a relatively “simple” case such as my own could not run smoothly. There were many bumps in the road, many times in which I felt insulted and degraded for having the complex, interesting and thoroughly Jewish background that I have.

On the contrary, I have always been proud that I don’t come from the stereotypical “Jewish family from New York.” As an Orthodox woman who grew up in Conservative synagogues her whole life, I have always enjoyed the rich variety of different expressions of Judaism that I have been exposed to. I’ve always had the inner muscle to retain my own identity and observances without feeling threatened by how others choose to embrace a Jewish life — whether it is close or not to my own expression.

During these times, when there is still so much heated conversation over who is Jewish and who is not, over who can pray where, and how to legitimately live out the happiest day of your life, I am happy that I have the pluralistic background that I have, and that I cannot neatly label my Jewish identity with a label or a box. Nor would I expect or even encourage others to.

I can only pray that one day it will indeed be different over here — that the Rabbanut will come to understand that with great power comes the responsibility of great kindness. That couples from different denominational backgrounds will be recognized by the state to marry and pray as they want, and that no one will be degraded for possessing the particular Jewish identity that they have.

Perhaps it is a naïve prayer, but it is my prayer for all of Israel, and the world over.

About the Author
Atara Newberger Zafir is a Bible, Jewish Philosophy and English educator and lecturer. She has taught in various schools and educational settings both in the United States and Israel, including SAR Academy (Riverdale, NY), TALI Beit Hinuch (Jerusalem) and the Tel Aviv International Synagogue (Tel Aviv). Atara holds a BA in Psychology, an MA in Bible, and a teaching certificate in Jewish Philosophy and Talmud.
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