On Tuesday, March 26, three weddings will be held at Washington Hebrew Congregation (WHC) in Washington, D.C. This in and of itself is not so unusual; Tuesdays are a popular day for Jewish weddings thanks to the double dose of “and it was good” allocated to that day of the week in the story of Creation.
But the convergence of these three marriage ceremonies in one place on the same day is not an accident. Rather, it is intended to make a statement about the Chief Rabbinate of Israel’s current policies regarding who gets to marry whom in the Jewish state.
Billed as “Three Weddings and a Statement,” the event is a partnership between synagogues WHC and Adas Israel, affiliated with the Reform and Conservative movements, respectively; along with the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ), the Masorti Foundation for Conservative Judaism in Israel, and the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC).
The State of Israel does not recognize marriages performed outside the sanctioned Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and Druze religious authorities. Jewish marriages must be performed in accordance with halacha (Jewish law), so the Rabbinate will not marry interfaith couples, same-sex couples, non-Orthodox converts, people whose Jewish status is under question (this includes many immigrants from the former Soviet Union), people who have been divorced but did not obtain a get (writ of divorce) from a beit din (rabbinic court), and people who want a non-Orthodox ceremony. A 2018 Smith Polling Institute survey found that nearly 70 percent of Israelis want the State of Israel to recognize Reform, Conservative, and civil marriages performed there.
“Anat Hoffman, executive director of IRAC — the public and legal advocacy arm of the Reform Movement in Israel — spoke with Washington Hebrew Congregation’s Rabbi M. Bruce Lustig about creating an event in Washington, D.C., that would shine a light on the issue of marriage equality in Israel,” said David Astrove, event co-chair for WHC. IRAC subsequently connected the congregation with Israeli couples who will travel to the U.S. for their March 26 nuptials. Each couple involved in “Three Weddings and a Statement” already had a wedding ceremony in Israel, but these weddings were the equivilant of “commitment ceremonies” that same-sex couples had in the United States before the Supreme Court decision that legalized gay marriage.
Strict Standards Aim to Preserve Halachic Judaism
Rabbi Yaakov Menken, managing director of the Coalition for Jewish Values, an American organization based in Baltimore, provided insight into the perspective of the Chief Rabbinate and its standards.
“The idea that Israel limits religious freedom is false, and plays directly into the hateful narratives of those anxious to demonize the world’s only Jewish-majority country,” Rabbi Menken said. “The Reform movement is not asking for recognition as a distinct group, like the many other religious denominations able to freely follow their own rites. Rather, the movement seeks to impose its standards upon all Israeli Jews, who currently use those found in the traditional legal codes that united Middle Eastern and European Jews long before modern denominations came on the scene.”
“Traditional Halacha would be replaced with what Reform accepts, both today and in the future, and the children of observant and secular Israeli families would no longer be assured that they could marry each other in accordance with Jewish law,” he said. “While interfering in Israel’s religious affairs, Reform leaders would import both America’s fragmentation of Jewish identity and the over 70 percent intermarriage rate outside Orthodoxy. It is hard to imagine why anyone would believe this to be a good thing.”
Matters of Neccesity, Matters of the Heart
The couples — Sahar Malka and Ilia Rabkin, Yeshai Moskovitch and Micha Yehudi, and Shmuel Carmel and Anat Ornik — were not available for advance interviews, but summaries of their personal stories were included on the event website.
According to these summaries, Ilia and Sahar do not have an impediment to marriage in Israel in accordance with Orthodox Jewish practice (and therefore Israeli law) but wish to be married in a Reform ceremony for ideological reasons. Yeshai and Micha, a transgender man, cannot be married in Israel because they are a same-sex couple. Shmuel’s mother’s conversion to Judaism in Romania was not recognized by the Rabbinate, so even though he was born and raised Jewish in Israel he would have to undergo an Orthodox conversion to marry there. According to the website, it was only when Shmuel’s mother passed away and he sought to organize her funeral that he discovered the Rabbinate’s stance that hearing-impaired people cannot convert.
All three weddings will be performed under the auspices of the Reform movement. From the bedeken to the breaking of the glass, the organizers have offered institutions and individuals the opportunity to financially support the event, and sponsors have stepped up. These include The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, the Kurlander Program for GLBTQ Outreach & Engagement (GLOE), and the Elizabeth & Richard Dubin Family Heritage Fund, as well as businesses, indivduals, organizations, and synagogues from across the Greater Washington area (and even one temple in West Bloomfield, Michigan).
“We do not object to the Chief Rabbinate’s authority over marriage,” said Astrove. “However, we are concerned that their power has been used to discriminate against Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, interfaith, and same-sex couples.”
The organizers are encouraging people to support the event and its message by attending in person or watching the livestream online, and by signing the statement on the event website. The statement urges the government to change its laws to permit all Israeli citizens “to marry in their country according to their conscience and religious choice.” It will be sent to the Office of the Prime Minister in Israel following the Israeli elections on April 9.
By Rachel Kohn
Rachel Kohn is editor in chief of Kol HaBirah.