Israelis find ways to marry outside the rabbinate

jerusalem | The bride circled the groom under the chuppah. The groom stomped a wine glass at the end of the ceremony and was greeted with shouts of “mazel tov.”

Despite these traditional touches, this wedding was not performed by an Orthodox rabbi, and therefore not registered by the Chief Rabbinate, which has sole authority over Jewish marriage in Israel.

Rather, it was officiated by a Conservative rabbi who has no legal standing here. That didn’t deter Shlomit Arbel-Zemer, a 31-year-old pastry chef and Barak Zemer, a 29-year-old university student, from opting for a non-Orthodox wedding.

“The Orthodox ceremony has some pretty things but it didn’t reflect our lives and beliefs,” says Arbel-Zemer, who, like her husband, is Jewish. “We had male and female witnesses on our ketubah. We wanted flexibility.”

So do many other Israeli couples, a small but growing number of whom are opting for non-Orthodox or secular weddings.

The vast majority of Israeli couples continue to choose to be married by rabbinate-approved rabbis, either because they want a traditional Jewish ceremony or feel an alternative wedding doesn’t meet muster. But the number of alternative weddings is definitely growing.

Last year approximately 1,000 “alternative” marriages were performed in Israel, compared to just a few hundred the year before. These included ceremonies performed by Reform and Conservative rabbis as well as secular ceremonies officiated by ordinary citizens.

At least 5,000 Jewish and non-Jewish couples traveled abroad last year for civil ceremonies — including some who’d had an alternative marriage in Israel — which Israel’s Ministry of the Interior recognized upon their return to Israel for the purposes of tax benefits, Social Security and so on.

Another 30,000 couples, all of them Jewish, were married through the rabbinate. Because the rabbinate only permits marriages between two Jews, alternative marriages are an attractive option for couples in which one or both partners claim to be Jewish but cannot prove their Jewishness; who are not Jewish but have no other religion, and therefore cannot marry in a church or mosque; or who were converted by the non-Orthodox streams in Israel, and therefore are not considered Jewish by the rabbinate.

In late March, however, those working for marriage reform earned a decisive victory, courtesy of Israel’s High Court.

The court voted to recognize a new category of conversions: overseas conversions officiated by Reform and Conservative rabbis.

Israel has hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish immigrants, and their inability to marry in Israel has fueled the alternative marriage “industry.” So, too, has disgruntlement with the rabbinate, which is renowned for being bureaucratic, expensive and intrusive.

Rabbi David Stav is a Modern Orthodox rabbi who heads Tzohar, an organization whose members — moderate young Orthodox rabbinate-approved rabbis — preside over secular weddings free of charge. Stav says that the rabbinate’s wedding policies need an overhaul.

Tzohar, which performs 2,500 secular weddings a year, is urging the rabbinate to limit the number of weddings a rabbi can perform on any given evening, on the grounds that some rabbis arrive late for the second ceremony.

“I don’t think there are so many rabbis who are asked to perform two or three weddings, but it happens,” Stav says. “They don’t come on time and the simcha is affected.”

Noting that some regional rabbis demand $1,000 or more to officiate under the chuppah, Stav would also like to see the rabbinate prohibit rabbis who work in a certain community from demanding a fee from couples from that community.

“They already receive a salary to perform religious services from the government,” Stav notes, “so it is therefore unfair to demand money from clients.”

To encourage couples to marry within the Orthodox framework, Tzohar has enlisted the free assistance of hundreds of learned Orthodox women who teach the family-purity class required by the rabbinate prior to marriage.

“Secular women often felt insulted by the way the [rabbinate] classes were run,” Stav says of the courses, which spell out when a woman may have sex with her husband and when she cannot, in accordance with menstrual bleeding.

“Our classes are free, private and intimate,” he says.

While Tzohar’s services assist many couples, they are of no use to the hundreds of thousands of citizens whom the rabbinate refuses to marry.

While several thousand travel abroad to marry, those wishing to have an Israel-based wedding can contact the Institute of Jewish Secular Rites.

Yiftach Shlomy, the institute’s director, says that it has facilitated marriages between gay and lesbian couples and divorcees wishing to marry Kohanim. Jewish law forbids marriage between divorced women and members of the priestly class. It has also performed marriages where one partner is a “mamzer,” the offspring of a married woman who has a child by a man who is not her husband.

The institute has also married many immigrants who have a blood connection to Judaism — often a Jewish father — but who are not halachically Jewish, as well as Jewish couples who for whatever reason do not want to deal with the rabbinate.

“We must change the definition of who is Jewish,” Shlomy insists. “That is our mission.”

The Reform and Masorti (Conservative) movements in Israel, which perform a few hundred weddings a year, have different agendas. They consider themselves to be just as Jewish as the Orthodox and want the marriages they perform to be officially recognized by the government.

Rabbi Ehud Bandel, president of the Masorti movement, says there is “a growing demand for our services. Our weddings are more dignified, they speak to the couple. We offer egalitarianism. The couple does not have to hide the fact that they have been living together and having relations. They don’t have to hide anything.”

Bandel says that his movement’s rabbis meet the couple several times prior to the chuppah. “There is always a personal contact. We discuss everything, such as the mikvah. We say it isn’t mandatory but stress that it can be a special experience.”

The Masorti movement, like the Reform movement, enables Jewish Israeli couples to have a personalized ketubah, a double-ring ceremony, female witnesses or a female rabbi — all things not permitted by the rabbinate.

Eran Dvir, a 29-year-old graphic designer, and his wife, Orly Wolkowiski-Dvir, 31, a photographer, decided to have a Masorti wedding last October because “we felt it provided more equality to the bride and groom,” Dvir says. “It also allowed for more personal freedom during the ceremony, making it more meaningful.”

For this couple, “freedom” meant that Wolkowiski-Dvir was able to present her husband with a necklace while under the chuppah. She was also able to read from the Song of Songs, something most rabbinate rabbis do not permit.

When Dvir broke the glass at the end of the ceremony, he did so not only to recall the destruction of Jerusalem.

“We met in Jerusalem and by breaking the glass we were saying we will never forget the love that began in Jerusalem,” he says. “That and the hope that, despite all the conflict in this city, our dream for peace will not be shattered.