Not Jewish enough to marry in Israel NIF says no way

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It’s not a party if there aren’t selfies.

And selfies there were during a pre-Valentine’s Day celebration in San Francisco hosted by the New Israel Fund’s New Generations Bay Area program. Happy couples took the party to Instagram, posting smiling photos of themselves holding signs reading, “My Love Is Legal.”

The event was titled “Celebrating the Freedom to Love” and it was part of an awareness and social media campaign launched for Valentine’s Day in support of civil marriage in Israel. It’s the first major public campaign for New Generations Bay Area, which is a group of Jews in their 20s and 30s associated with the New Israel Fund who normally meet monthly to discuss current events in Israel.

“Jews who made aliyah from Ethiopia or the former Soviet Union can serve in the army and die for their state, but [many of them] can’t get married in Israel,” said May Pundak, director of the New Generations Bay Area program. “This really disrespectful, discriminating system does not represent us.”

Pundak was referring to the fact that in Israel, unlike in the United States and most other countries, couples who want to marry don’t have the option of having a civil, secular marriage. Marriage is conducted through religious authorities only, and for Jews, the institution is controlled by the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate.

 

A group selfie of May Pundak (left) and friends at “Celebrating the Freedom to Love.”

That means no marriages are allowed between people of different religions, and people who fall outside of rigid religious definitions — such as recent immigrants who can’t verify their mother’s Jewish bona fides — find themselves in a gray zone, unable to marry in the State of Israel at all. On top of that, two weeks after the Feb. 11 NIF event, the Knesset voted against an initiative to legalize civil unions for same-sex couples.

 

For many Bay Area Jews, such policies seem arcane. That’s why New Generations Bay Area, which encourages young Jews to learn about and engage in issues affecting Israel, launched its freedom to marry campaign, which consists of educational events, social media action, a fundraising drive and a petition directed at Knesset members.

“We as Jews don’t agree with that very narrow definition of what is Jewish enough,” Pundak said.

The current marriage policies alienate even Israelis like her who are legally able to marry within the country. Pundak said she herself would not marry in Israel due to its policies. “I’m not going to participate in the system out of solidarity and as an act of civil disobedience,” she said.

A majority of the Israeli public supports the institution of civil marriage, according to a recent survey by Hiddush, an organization that promotes religious pluralism in Israel. Overall, 666,000 people cannot marry in Israel, according to Hiddush; many Israelis thus travel abroad to wed.

Funds raised by the My Love Is Legal campaign will be donated to the Israeli organization Havaya, which organizes marriage ceremonies for Israelis outside of the religious system, even though such ceremonies aren’t recognized by the state. New Generations Bay Area sold about 80 $15 tickets to the Valentine’s Day party, which went to the campaign; direct donations can also be made through the website, www.myloveislegal.org. The site has a link to the petition and information about ways to join the social media campaign using the hashtag #MyloveIsLegal.

“[Havaya is] a young group of activists who are trying to reclaim their Jewish identity, really trying to restructure the game. These are young people who are fighting for public transportation on Shabbat, the freedom to marry and equality,” Pundak said.

On March 6, the campaign will be sponsoring a screening and discussion of the film “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem” at 3 p.m. in the Jewish Film Institute’s screening room at 145 Ninth St. in San Francisco. The Golden Globe-nominated film tells the story of an Israeli woman’s struggle to obtain a divorce under the country’s religious system.

And, in a lighthearted touch, the campaign created a Buzzfeed quiz, “Are you ‘Jewish Enough?’” (www.buzzfeed.com/maynif).

Aimed at American Jews, the quiz asks people about their partner (Jewish?), their conversion if they had one (what kind?) and the gender of their romantic partner (same sex or opposite sex?) in order to determine whether the respondent is “Jewish enough” to marry in Israel.

 “We just decided to say this issue meets us as a Jewish people,” Pundak said. “The campaign connects both to the personal identity and the collective identity as well.”

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.