Danielle Isaac, an oleh hadash from Britain, is getting married on June 5. She and her husband-to-be Ofer met in South America. She moved to Israel after graduating Oxford to be closer to him. He proposed on a Tel Aviv beach on their two-year anniversary. A year ago, though, Danielle and Ofer’s marriage would have never happened.
Israel is both a Jewish and democratic state. Marriage and other issues of personal status such as divorce are strictly controlled by the ultra-Orthodox Rabbinate. To marry another Jewish person, you must prove your own Judaism. The definition of who qualifies is restricted to those born to a Jewish mother. If a person, or that person’s mother, converts, the conversion only counts if it is done in a proven Orthodox way. Reform and Conservative conversions are not recognized. The country is peppered by horror stories of native Israelis and olim who must submit to lengthy conversion processes if they cannot prove their status or must marry abroad and have the union recognized by the state. Due to these heavy restrictions, some 20,000 couples marry overseas annually. That’s a shocking number, compared to the 48,000 who married in Israel under Orthodox rabbinical courts in 2012.
The government has finally begun to respond to the flight of Israel’s love birds. In October of last year, the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, passed the Tzohar Law, which now allows Israeli Jews to register their marriages with any rabbinate, instead of the one which serves their city. This means that couples can shop around for a rabbi who may be less stringent in the myriad hurdles the couple must jump to prove their Jewishness, and may even help in gathering the necessary documents for the ceremony.
Danielle is an example of why this law is so important. Her mother had converted in an Orthodox way, but when she approached the rabbinate in Jerusalem to receive the necessary documents to file for marriage to her Israeli-born boyfriend, the officials rejected her application, claiming they didn’t have enough information to convince them that the rabbi in London was doing conversions “properly.” Before the Tzohar law, that would have been the end of her options to marry in-country. A visit to Haifa’s rabbinate, where her husband-to-be works and they plan to move after the wedding, was all it took. Haifa’s rabbinate contacted the London rabbi and approved the papers.
Though Danielle’s story ends happily, many others do not. Sarah Greenburg is among those 20,000 couples who chose to go abroad for their nuptials. She and her husband Tzachi decided to have a destination wedding. On a sunny Saturday on a beach in Cyprus in 2010, the two, who’d known each other since their army service, exchanged vows, surrounded by 80 of their closest friends.
The Greenburgs had no trouble having their marriage recognized once they returned to Israel. The State of Israel will grant marriage rights to gay, intermarried, and most other couples, which helps to explain the huge number who marry abroad. These couples receive all the rights and privileges of other couples; they just lose the opportunity to marry in the place they call home.
Israel is meant to be a home for the world’s Jews, and it is argued that, in order to protect the Jewish people, Israel should be strict about whom it allows to marry. But keeping native Israelis, let alone immigrants, from marrying isn’t what Herzl meant when he referred to a “new blossoming of the Jewish spirit.” Israelis, native-born and olim, should be able to love whomever they wish in the land they love.
Merav Ceren is a contributing writer to JLife Magazine.