But when the pandemic closed even that window, it also opened another: Zoom weddings, administered 7,000 miles away — in Utah.
At least 150 Israeli couples have already tied the knot through this technological loophole, spurring a new battle in a national culture war that has long pitted Israel’s non-Orthodox Jewish majority against the politically entrenched Orthodox Jewish minority.
Aware of the threat to their outsize influence, ultra-Orthodox politicians who control the Interior Ministry have already moved to dismiss the Zoom weddings, which both sides agree have the potential to forge a legacy that would far outlive the pandemic.
Under an Ottoman-era law extended by Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, marriage in Israel is governed by the state’s religious authorities. For Jews, it is the chief rabbinate that is tasked with validating the bride and groom as Jewish, meaning that they must prove descent from an uninterrupted line of Jewish mothers. (Christian and Muslim citizens of Israel, similarly, must marry through their respective religious authorities.)
But last year, Utah County debuted its online marriage-licensing portal, which did not require couples to be present in the state or even in the country. “We didn’t realize there would be such interest from Israel, but, you know, it’s neat,” said Burt Harvey, the director of Utah County’s marriage-licensing department. “We didn’t necessarily intend that, and it was definitely a shock and a surprise, but we’re happy to provide the service to help people get married.”
Anna Stubrin and Ricardo Huttner, a Jewish couple who object to the rabbis’ monopoly, got hitched through Utah’s online portal and, along with at least two LGBTQ couples holding Utah-issued marriage licenses, updated their status with the Interior Ministry in late November.
But a few couples turned into a few dozen, then into about 150 by late January, according to Utah County figures, and Israel’s Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, an ultra-Orthodox politician, instructed his office to stop recognizing the Utah Zoom marriages. The decision left hundreds of people in legal limbo, considered married abroad but single at home.
The lack of options for Israelis to marry as they see fit “is a blatant breach of basic human rights,” said Stubrin.
Though both are recognized as Jewish by Israeli authorities, Stubrin, a Russian immigrant, and her husband, an Uruguayan immigrant, couldn’t reconcile themselves to marrying under the aegis of a religious institution whose values so differed from their own, Stubrin said.
“To bring that system into one of the most significant events in our life, a system which considers us good enough to pay taxes, to send our children to fight in military combat units, but then checks us to see if we are Jewish enough — my conscience wouldn’t allow it,” she said.
Advocates for religious pluralism see the advent of Zoom weddings as one of several modest signs that the status quo is breaking.
Last week, the Supreme Court announced a landmark decision granting those converted to Reform or Conservative Judaism the right to claim Israeli citizenship, which for decades had been reserved for those deemed Jewish by the Orthodox rabbinate. The ruling “was wrong, extremely unfortunate, and will lead to controversy and a severe rupture within the nation,” Deri said on Twitter, adding that he will work to amend the law.
As the result of another Supreme Court decision, a law is being considered to grant same-sex couples the right to have a baby in Israel through surrogacy.
According to the Israel Democracy Institute, almost 60 percent of Israeli Jews support civil marriage, and a majority of Israeli Jews favor a change in the rabbinate’s monopoly over personal-status issues.
A permanent fix?
The hope among the Zoom newlyweds is that as legal battles advance Israeli pluralism in the courts, online weddings could serve as a permanent fix for many non-Orthodox Jews.
“This is a revolutionary and historic step,” said Uri Regev, a rabbi, lawyer and president of Hiddush, a religious equality organization based in Jerusalem. “For the first time, there will be access, for a minimal cost for Israelis, who won’t need to travel overseas, who can legally and quickly get married or at least obtain a registration of marriage through this new avenue.”
Regev is petitioning the courts to intervene and order that the online marriages be recognized, through a case known as Hofesh v. the Interior Ministry. It is named after Shira Hofesh, whose Utah marriage certificate was dismissed by the government. Hofesh, whose name happens to mean “freedom” in Hebrew, said that as coronavirus cases soared, she and her partner had wanted to be formally recognized as married in case of a medical emergency.
“At one point we joked about getting married online, and then when we went to search, we actually found it,” she said.
Two weeks later, they were gazing into their computer camera as four squares on the screen displayed their guests, signing in from across the world, and a fifth their officiant, signing in from Utah. To the Zoom after-party, the bride said she wore a white wedding gown and the groom a suit. (Both, she said, forgot to wear shoes.)
The event, arranged through a company, ran around $1,500, though the couple later learned that Utah County also directly accepts marriage certificate applications, for about $200. The price included shipment of a marriage certificate bearing an apostil, a stamp that Israel is required to recognize under international law but which, following Deri’s freeze, has been deemed invalid.
Centuries-old legal code
Deri is a member of the council of the chief rabbinate, which controls marriage, divorce, burials and other aspects of family law. The regulations are based on a centuries-old Jewish legal code, which some hard-line rabbis interpret as encouraging gender segregation in public; proscribing women from declaring divorce unilaterally, even in cases of known domestic abuse; and rejecting homosexuality.
The rabbinate has also challenged the Jewish identity of hundreds of thousands of immigrants who fled to Israel after the 1989 collapse of the Soviet Union. They include Jews who, enduring generations of antisemitism, disposed of religious documents in the effort to conceal their Jewish identity, as well as an unknown number of non-Jews who slipped into Israel through its then-lax immigration policies.
That Israelis who want to circumvent the rabbinate must bear an extra expense and then are still rejected by the government “is humiliating almost,” said Maria Verbova, a Jewish immigrant from Russia who last month married her non-Jewish British boyfriend, Tom Mason. Their Utah-issued online marriage certificate was rejected by the ministry.
Verbova, a biologist who is developing a treatment for the coronavirus, and Mason, a biophysicist who researches Alzheimer’s disease at the Weizmann Institute of Science in central Israel, had felt that flying abroad to marry and then quarantining for two weeks upon return was impossible because of their time-sensitive work.
“This whole thing put us in a really bad position,” she said. “I don’t think anyone deserves it.”
Research by the Israel Democracy Institute finds that while most Israelis resent the state-funded chief rabbinate, they also value many of the Jewish traditions it represents. An overwhelming majority of Israelis express a strong desire to get married in a Jewish ceremony under a chuppah, or Jewish wedding canopy.
Throughout history, even Israel’s virulently anti-Orthodox politicians “have always realized the importance and the great role that religious Jewish laws had in the diaspora,” said Shuki Friedman, director of the Center for Religion, Nation and State at the Israel Democracy Institute.
Verbova, the Russian-Israeli newlywed, said that the government’s rejection of her marriage particularly stings because she identifies so strongly as Jewish.
“I love Israel and I have respect for Judaism,” she said. “But this is completely against the basis that the country was built on, as a place where Jews can live freely.”