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Press for marriage rights in Israel

North Jersey Board of Rabbis advocates for civil marriage, pluralistic possibilities in the Jewish state

Last week, the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, representing local non-Orthodox clergy, voted unanimously to endorse a resolution to “support a pluralistic approach to marriage in Israel.”

Beginning by saying, simply, clearly, and unequivocally, that “We love the State of Israel. We want it to succeed in every way possible,” the rabbis who signed the document put their names to the call for freedom of religion in Israel.

That would include the chance to have a civil rather than a religious wedding ceremony, or to have a Jewish couple’s wedding officiant belong to a stream of Judaism other than Orthodoxy.

“The North Jersey Board of Rabbis is transdenominational, and we have debated informally for a while if we should be taking stands on public issues,” Rabbi Steven Sirbu of Temple Emeth in Teaneck, its president, said. “This issue is one that non-Orthodox rabbis have grappled with for a long time.”

According to Rabbi Uri Regev, president and CEO of Hiddush, an Israeli nonprofit that works for the separation of religion and state, Israel is alone among the Western nations in not allowing civil marriages, a situation that is a result of the country’s firm melding of synagogue and state. That is shown graphically in the website Hiddush has created specifically about the issue, marriage.hiddush.org. “When you look at the map and analysis and statistics and figures you see there, you realize that there are 45 countries in the world that put restrictions on people’s rights to marry. Most of those countries have Sharia law,” he said.

“It is important to stress that the only people who support keeping things as they are are Israel’s politicians,” he continued. “The public in Israel overwhelmingly support introducing freedom of marriage, and that actually is something you can see on our regular website, www.hiddush.org. We have been continuously polling public opinion.”

Israel’s political system is famously complicated, its absolute, non-geographic parliamentary democracy giving enormous leverage and therefore great power to small parties. It is those small parties on the political and theological right that are enforcing the ban on civil marriage, Rabbi Regev said.

“When we ask ‘Do you support freedom of marriage,’ what we find is ongoing evidence of a consistently large majority that supports it,” Rabbi Regev said.

Say that those numbers are true. Still, do Jews living outside Israel have the right to interfere? Yes, Rabbi Regev said, not only according to him but also to the Israelis Hiddush has polled. “We asked, ‘If there were an initiative where Israeli and diaspora Jewish leaders worked together campaigning for freedom of marriage, would you be supportive or opposed to such an initiative?’

“What you see is that not only is there majority support for freedom of marriage, there is majority support for diaspora Jews and Israelis to work together to achieve this goal.

“Often when you raise an issue, diaspora Jews will say that we don’t have the right to interfere, that Israelis don’t want us to butt in. But the truth is that while Israelis might resent American Jews butting in on security matters, they clearly welcome and are eager to see American Jews working with us in Israel to overcome what is politically opportunistic pressure.

“The fundamentalist religious parties don’t only oppose freedom of marriage, they basically oppose a civil society. Freedom of marriage is not only a pluralistic issue, it is a core civil right. Other than from politicians, you see every other consideration pointing urgently and unequivocally in the direction of the need for change.”

Rabbi Sharon Litwin of Teaneck, who is on the executive board of the Board of Rabbis and is the director of congregational learning at Congregation B’nai Israel in Milburn, said that the rabbinical board discussed whether it was appropriate for them to address an issue in Israel, and decided that it was a clear obligation to do so. “Who are we?” she asked rhetorically. “We are nothing in the grand scheme of the Israeli rabbinate – but on the other hand, we are leaders in the community. We work with Jews across the spectrum of the denominations.”

The issue is not an abstraction to liberal rabbis in the diaspora, she said. “Our congregants sometimes make aliyah and want to get married in Israel.” In order to do that, they have to prove that they are Jewish – and if they have been converted by non-Orthodox rabbis, for example, they may not be able to do so, because the Israeli rabbinate may not – in theory does not – consider their conversions valid. That is true as well for children of converted mothers. Patrilineal descent, which is accepted in the Reform and Reconstructionist movements, makes the problem even harder.

“We have to come to our congregants’ defense,” Rabbi Litwin said.

“Somebody at the meeting said that he has been asked to officiate at destination weddings in Israel, and he can’t. He can do it anyplace else – anyplace else anyone would want to go – but he can’t there. Our ketubot are called into question.”

The vote to endorse the resolution was unanimous, she said; the only discussion was whether the language was strong enough.

Rabbi Alberto Zeilicovich of Temple Beth Sholom in Fair Lawn also is strongly in favor of the resolution.

“Every stream of Jewish life in Israel should be able to perform weddings for their congregants,” he said. “The problem is that there is no separation of the rabbinate and the state, and with the rabbinate being from only one stream of Jewish religious life it creates a situation where we cannot talk about Israel being a real democracy. Not when you have people who cannot really exercise their own religion, and the state will not recognize or validate them.

“An example – I am a Conservative rabbi. I have two children. If one of them – if both of them! – falls in love with an Israeli and wants the wedding to take place in Israel, I as a rabbi cannot marry my own child. I cannot ask another Conservative rabbi in Israel to marry my child.

“My children cannot marry other Conservative Jews under the Conservative tradition.

“Isn’t it crazy that I as a Jew have fewer Jewish rights when it comes to religion in my own Jewish country? Isn’t that unbelievable?”

And secular Jews – of whom there are many in Israel – “are forced to have these religious Orthodox weddings, take it or leave it,” he said. “And they do that. Many are leaving the country to marry, not only because of the marriage itself, but because they don’t want to be trapped by the rabbinate in Israel in case of a divorce, because that is even worse.

“We need Hiddush because we need a democratic Israel, an Israel that caters to all the Jewish people, not just to one sector, to one stream of the spectrum.”

Rabbi Zeilicovich grew up in Argentina. Israel, the United States, and Argentina have entirely different systems, he explained. In Israel, of course, there is no civil marriage, but the state controls citizens’ life-cycle events. In the United States, religious leaders are empowered to act as government agents, performing civil weddings during the religious ceremonies (and in fact lay people can get either quickie Internet ordinations from sketchy institutions or straightforward permission from their states to conduct civil marriages, too).

In Argentina, a couple must be married in a civil registry office. They also are free to hold religious ceremonies, which have no standing legally. Getting married, therefore, is a two-event process for anyone who wants a religious as well as a civil wedding.

The issue is starting to gain some traction in the United States, Hiddush’s Rabbi Regev said. “In June the federation system” – that’s the Jewish Federations of North America – “adopted a historic resolution of what they call the global planning table.

“It is the adoption of a priority strategic project that would urge individual federations to join with the JFNA in supporting organizations in Israel that advance marriage freedom, in recognition of the fact that marriage freedom is not only an internal Israeli concern – there are Israelis who are denied the right to marry but not the obligation to serve in the army – but also adversely affects American Jewry and all diaspora Jewry as well.”

(The local federation, the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, “doesn’t have a comment on JFNA’s statement,” a spokesperson said.)

The American Jewish Committee endorsed a similar initiative, Rabbi Regev said.

So far, the campaign to endorse Hiddush with a statement like the one from the North Jersey Board of Rabbis has just begun, Temple Emeth’s Rabbi Sirbu said; so far, it also has been endorsed by similar boards in southern California and southern Nevada, and circulated to individual synagogues by the ones in San Francisco and Kansas City, which as a matter of policy does not endorse statements itself. The process also is underway in San Diego, New York, and Portland, Ore.

“I’m hoping this will be a conversation starter,” Rabbi Sirbu said. “A fundamental institutional change like this one takes a long time – but change always begins by raising awareness and having a discussion, and governmental policies often are instituted for a reason, and change over time only through advocacy.”

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