A leader of Reform Judaism in Israel brought discomfiting news to a Princeton Junction synagogue this month about the state of religious freedom in the Jewish state.
“Israel,” said Rabbi Uri Regev, “is the one and only democracy in the world that denies its citizens the freedom to marry.”
Speaking Feb. 11 at a Congregation Beth Chaim “Lunch and Learn,” Regev added that the Orthodox rabbinate’s control of life-cycle matters makes Israel one of 45 countries, mostly Islamic, that impose severe restrictions on marriage.
As founder of the Israel Religious Action Center of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, Regev said he hopes American Jews will join him in efforts to change the status quo.
Among his initiatives is Hiddush, an Israel-Diaspora partnership that supports religious pluralism, equal treatment of religious groups, and equitable allocation of resources by the Israeli government.
Israel lacks civil marriage, and Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist rabbis do not have the right to officiate at weddings. Couples unable to marry in Israel include those in which one of the partners has a mother who had a Reform or a Conservative conversion, or where one partner was adopted but did not have an Orthodox conversion. And many of the 300,000 Russians in Israel can’t get married unless they convert according to the rules of the Chief Rabbinate, said Regev.
“Statistically more than half of the children growing up as Jewish children in America would not be accepted in Israel and would be told ‘You ain’t Jewish’ or ‘You ain’t Jewish enough,’” said Regev.
Regev’s own daughter was married last August in “a Reform wedding ceremony [that] had no legal validity in Israel.” The ceremony was held in New York, where Regev officiated and signed their marriage licenses. “The irony is that they came back to Israel and registered as a married couple based on a certificate I could sign in New York but couldn’t sign in Israel,” he said.
Attendee Margie Wexler said the situation is something she would expect in a Muslim country, but not in Israel. “I had no idea that rabbis of the ultra-Orthodox are in control of marriage,” she said.
Caroline Sherbin expressed similar feelings: “I knew the Orthodox run the show, but I didn’t know the impact it has on the public. An Israeli rabbi that can’t marry his daughter in Israel — it opened my eyes.”
Hiddush has also been advocating to mandate that yeshiva students of draftable age be enlisted into the Israeli army. Hiddush representative Gordon Silverman, joining Regev at the synagogue, told NJJN that yeshiva students accept government assistance but are not part of the social and economic fabric of Israel and do not educate their children in secular subjects like mathematics that would enable them to join the workforce. “Our claim is that the state should not be continuing to supply stipends to those who should be serving in the army like everyone else,” he said.
“I am proud of Israeli high tech and ingenuity,” said Regev, “but there is a real threat for the Israeli economy to slip into the Third World economy because of nonparticipation of a sector so large in Israeli society.”
Speaking to NJJN after Regev’s talk, Harry Jacobi expressed concern about religious affairs in Israel.
“In Israel, which prides itself on being a democracy, there should be allowance for an individual to decide if he wants to be ultra-Orthodox for marriage or not ultra-Orthodox,” he said. “That would be a real democracy — when we can decide to what depth of religious we want to be.”
For Helen Lubin, Regev’s talk raised the specter of religious extremism. She said, “We’re not religious. For us, this is a rude awakening. It shows the extremists control a good part of what goes on — in this country as well as there.”
Noting that much of American Jews’ relationship with Israel is driven by crisis mode — rockets falling, the challenge of resettling Soviet and Ethiopian Jewry, the Women of the Wall controversy — Regev suggested it is time to understand the need to engage with Israel beyond crisis.
“It is important to us if we care about the future of the Jewish people…. The high-tech industry is great, the army is in good shape, but what is not in good shape is the Jewish and democratic soul of Israel,” he said.