Op-ed in the Washington Jewish Week: Not an Isolated Tragedy

Rabbi Uri Regev writes about the troubles that the American Jewish community are already facing in Israel as the government severly restricts Israelis and Jews rights to marry in the Jewish state.

Uri Regev launching  Hiddush at the Hall of Independence  in Tel Aviv 14.11.09. Photography: Limor EderyUri Regev launching Hiddush at the Hall of Independence in Tel Aviv 14.11.09. Photography: Limor Edery

Jessica grew up in a Conservative Jewish community in America. She made aliyah to Israel thanks to a strong Jewish education and many positive Zionist experiences from summer camp and Jewish Agency programs. Upon landing in Israel, she quickly fit in. After two years in the Israeli army and further academic studies, Jessica made the next step in a successful absorption to Israel: She met an Israeli young man, and they planned to get married. Jessica was shocked to find out they would not be able to start a family in Israel. Since her mother underwent a non-Orthodox conversion, Jessica would not be able to get married in Israel because Jewish marriages are under the control of the Orthodox Rabbinate.

I cannot imagine a family more Jewishly committed or involved than Jessica's. Her father was president of their synagogue and the Jewish community center. Her mother was a regional Hadassah president. While Jessica could make aliyah and be recognized by Israel's Interior Ministry as Jewish, she and her fiance could not get married in Israel. Jessica strongly resisted pressure to undergo an Orthodox conversion, rightfully maintaining that she was born Jewish and lived her entire life as a Jew. This ultimately brought the marriage plans to an end, and seven years after making aliyah, Jessica returned to the United States, traumatized and hurt.

Jessica's story is not an isolated tragedy. From time to time these heartbreaking stories are featured in the news and social networks by courageous young people who are willing to share their stories and frustration in a public forum. They represent myriads of citizens who keep their anger and pain to themselves. Jessica was deeply hurt by the state of Israel, the country to which she immigrated because of her strong Jewish identity, which told her she is not Jewish enough to start a family there. She also felt betrayed by the American Jewish community, which still does not understand the need to stand by her and other converts, along with their children and families, to ensure their dignity and rights by Israel.

During my travels in the United States, I came to understand that Jessica's story is essentially the story of two-thirds of the next generation of American Jewry. Two-thirds of America's next generation of Jews is comprised of converts, offspring of converts, or interfaith families. While the pressure of the Jewish community initially allows converts to make aliyah, none of them will be able to marry there until Israel revokes the Orthodox Rabbinate's monopoly on Jewish weddings and institutes civil and non-Orthodox marriage.

For Israel's sake and the sake of the Jewish people, there is an urgent need for an Israel-Diaspora partnership to ensure the fulfillment of Israel's founding promise for religious freedom and equality.

The absence of an alternative to Orthodox marriages (and parallel restrictions on non-Jews) makes Israel the only democracy in the world that imposes severe restrictions on their citizens' freedom to marry. This finding emerges from the new innovative project of Hiddush, a nondenominational and nonpartisan advocacy organization that has just launched an interactive map and website that gauges freedom of marriage in 194 countries around the world. The black, grey, and white grading scale visually demonstrate that regarding freedom of marriage, Israel's policies resembles those of its neighbors in the Islamic world. There is no other democracy in the world that imposes religious marriages in a similar fashion. Israel's marriage laws prevent hundreds of thousands of citizens from marrying for one reason alone: religious coercion. The project is not only important for religious freedom and equality advocates in Israel. It is the only available comparative online resource for international freedom of marriage.

Israel's marriage predicament not only applies to American Jewry but to hundreds of thousands of Israelis who cannot marry. Among them are some 350,000 Israeli citizens, 35 percent of the immigrants from the Former Soviet Union, whose mothers or grandmothers are not halachically Jewish. This disparaging reality does not reflect the will of the Israeli public. It is the product of political deals, where the rights and dignity of the public are traded for votes from the Orthodox parties. Every study and poll conducted in Israel whether by NGOs like Hiddush or by the government's Central Bureau of Statistics reveal the majority of the public supports instituting civil marriage as well as non-Orthodox marriages. Polls conducted by the Diaspora Affairs Ministry demonstrate that the majority of the public views Reform or Conservative converts to be Jews. Today, the Jewish community invests great resources in strengthening the future commitment of Jews to Jewish peoplehood, and Israel itself makes every effort to encourage aliyah. These goals cannot be attained if we don't fully realize Israel's Declaration of Independence's promise for "religious freedom and equality."

As long as Israel continues to tell two-thirds of the next generation of American Jews they are not Jewish or not Jewish enough to legally start a family in Israel, can Israel's aliyah enterprise succeed? Can these youth develop a strong and lasting bond to Israel? For Israel's sake and the sake of the Jewish people, there is an urgent need for an Israel-Diaspora partnership to ensure the fulfillment of Israel's founding promise for religious freedom and equality; to ensure freedom of marriage through civil and non-Orthodox marriages. The majority of the Israeli public and world Jewry supports it. It's high time that we stop resembling our fundamentalist Muslim neighbors and draw closer to the family of democratic nations where the right to marry is self-evident.

Click here to read this in the Washington Jewish Week.

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