“Israel is the only democracy that doesn’t give all Jews the freedom to marry,” marveled Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the head of the Reform movement, which is the largest Jewish denomination in the United States but is marginalized in Israel.
To protest Israel’s strict marital law, a policy that some candidates in the country’s upcoming election have pledged to overhaul, more than two dozen American rabbis and hundreds of congregants gathered at Washington Hebrew Congregation in Northwest on Tuesday night for a very unusual sort of political demonstration. A demonstration with a six-tiered white cake, a hora, a first dance, and six brides and grooms.
Israel does not have any option for civil marriage, explained one of the organizers of this wedding, Anat Hoffman, who served 14 years on Jerusalem’s City Council and now leads the Israel Religious Action Center, a Reform organization fighting for civil rights in Israel.
That means that every couple who marries in the country must go through religious institutions. Pastors for Christians. Imams for Muslims. And for the country’s Jewish majority, whether religious or secular, Orthodox rabbis.
The Israeli government has granted authority over marriage only to the Orthodox rabbinate, not Reform, Conservative or any other more liberal denomination. And the Orthodox rabbinate’s strict rules bar many secular and Reform Jews from getting married at all.
Hoffman said polling shows that Israelis strongly desire an option for civil marriage, and she thinks that taking this fight to the United States will exert pressure on Israeli leaders. “I don’t know how any Jew can be asked to leave the table when Jewish values are discussed,” she said.
Aviad and Tsion Raz, one couple who married Tuesday at Washington Hebrew Congregation cannot marry in Israel because they are gay men. Although Reform and Conservative Judaism have long approved of same-sex marriage, homosexuality is condemned in Orthodoxy.
Sahar Malka-Rabkin and Ilia Rabkin are Reform Jews who believe strongly in gender equality, and refused to participate in an Orthodox ceremony in which Sahar would have been forbidden from speaking under the marriage canopy and their marriage contract would have treated her like her husband’s property. Although they married in a Reform ceremony in Israel, the nation did not recognize their marriage as legal. (Foreign marriages, like the ones performed Tuesday in Washington, are recognized by the state of Israel. Cyprus has a booming industry performing weddings for Israeli couples who can’t marry at home.)
And Anat and Shmuel Carmel, who met as middle schoolers and have been a couple for nearly 10 years, expected they could marry legally. Shmuel’s mother converted to Judaism as a young woman in Romania and immigrated to Israel, where she lived an observant Jewish life and raised her son Jewish. Only when she died did Shmuel learn that the Orthodox rabbinate did not consider her Jewish — because she was deaf, a rabbi told him, she could not properly observe the commandment to “hear” the words of Torah, so her conversion was invalid. That meant Shmuel was not Jewish either and did not qualify for marriage.
On Tuesday, all three couples were blessed by American Reform and Conservative rabbis, then spoke under three adjacent chuppahs, bringing to tears many Washingtonians who packed the sanctuary to witness the weddings of six strangers.
Aviad said to Tsion, “For a long time, when I was figuring out who I was and what I was, I believed this kind of happiness could never be mine. But here I am before you, the happiest man alive.”
Sahar said to Ilia, “I am thankful for the mazel, the luck, that you walked into my life. I know with all my heart and soul I’ve found my other half.” She beamed, her wedding gown glittering, as he replied, “Your wisdom, the way you see life and your beauty does not stop to amaze me.”
And Shmuel told Anat, who blushed beneath her veil, “You are the greatest adventure of my life. It will make me so proud to call you my wife and to call myself your husband.”
More than 20 synagogues helped fund the wedding, along with a long list of individual contributors. Businesses offered discounted or free wedding services, including the elaborate cake topped with six bride and groom figurines, the dresses and suits that the couples chose mere hours after getting off the plane from Israel last week, and the customized wedding contracts that each couple signed.
And Washington Hebrew congregants flocked to help bake challahs, to host the couples in their homes and to adjust the brides’ long trains.
Toasts at the reception were given by Israeli and American politicians. Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.) said, “I want to thank you for bringing so much joy to Washington, D.C., because that’s something we’re in desperate need of here. … We are looking forward to a day when everybody on Earth can marry the person they love."
Merav Michaeli, a member of the Knesset, said, “Since we’re all going back home in a short while to Israel, I want to toast to equality, justice and peace in the state of Israel. …To next year in an equal Jerusalem!”
The timing of the wedding, coming at the conclusion of the AIPAC policy conference that brought many rabbis to Washington to discuss their support for Israel, was not a coincidence, Jacobs said. "We care about Israel’s security and well-being, and we also care about the integrity of her democracy.”
Rabbi Bruce Lustig, who leads Washington Hebrew Congregation and was one of six clergy members officiating the wedding, described himself as a “passionate Zionist” and said his decision to host this protest was borne out of desire for a better Israel. “We love Israel and we want people to be able to love in Israel," he said. "The same issues we struggle with here today — issues of inequality, issues of injustice — they resonate equally deeply for us wherever they take place in the world. Certainly in a place you want to call your homeland.”
He heard hope for a better homeland on Tuesday night in the winsome strains of a klezmer band, and the breaking of a glass.