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If You Want to Marry in Israel, Author Asks, “How Do You Prove You’re a Jew?”

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
May - June 2008

If you want to marry in Israel, writes Gershom Gorenberg in The New York Times Magazine (March 2, 2008) “the ultra-Orthodox rabbis are going to ask a lot of questions. For those with American roots, getting the answers may mean serious detective work — and, increasingly a sense of outrage.”  
Gorenberg, author of the book “The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977,” tells the story of a young Israeli woman named Sharon who went with her fiance to the Tel Aviv Rabbinate to register to marry.  
“They are not religious,” he writes, “but there is no civil marriage in Israel. The rabbinate, a government bureaucracy, has a monopoly on tying the knot between Jews. The last thing Sharon expected to be told that morning was that she would have to prove — before a rabbinic court, no less — that she was Jewish.”  
Sharon’s family immigrated to Israel from the U.S. She grew up on a kibbutz and has two brothers who served in Israeli combat units. Gorenberg notes that, “Proving you are Jewish to Israel’s state rabbinate can be difficult, it turns out, especially if you came to Israel from the U.S. — or, as in Sharon’s case, if your mother did ... The Israeli government seeks the political and financial support of American Jewry. It welcomes American Jewish immigrants. Yet the rabbinate, one arm of the state, increasingly treats American Jews as doubtful cases: not Jewish until proved so.”  
In the past, Gorenberg points out, “the casus belli was conversion. Would the Law of Return, which grants automatic citizenship to any Jew coming to Israel, apply to those converted to Judaism by non-Orthodox rabbis? Now, as Sharon’s experience indicates, the status of Jews by birth is in question.”  
Seth Farber is an American-born Orthodox rabbi whose organization — Itim, the Jewish Life Information Center — helps Israelis navigate the rabbinic bureaucracy. He explained to Gorenberg that the rabbinate’s standards of proof are now stricter than ever. Referring to American Jewish federations, the central communal and philanthropic organizations of American Jews, he said: “Eighty percent of federation leaders probably wouldn’t be able to reach the bar.” To assist people like Sharon, Farber has become a genealogical sleuth.  
The rabbinic courts are an arm of the Israeli judicial system. Gorenberg reports that, “Formally, the judges — rabbis with special training — are appointed on professional grounds. In practice, positions in the courts and in the state rabbinate are parceled out as patronage by political parties. ... The leading ultra-Orthodox rabbi in Israel in the years before and after the state was established, Avrahazn Yeshayahu Kurlitz held the classical position. If someone arrived from another country claiming to be Jewish, he should be allowed to marry another Jew, ‘even if nothing is known of his family,’ Kurlitz wrote.”  
Now, Gorenberg points out, “In an era of intermarriage, denominational disputes and secularization, Jews have ceased agreeing on who belongs in the family, or on what the word ‘Jew’ means. Ultra-Orthodox Jews increasingly question the Jewishness of those outside their own intensely religious communities.”  
The number of people in America “recognized by some movements as Jewish but not by others,” is “certainly in six figures,” according to Jonathan B. Sarna, a Brandeis University professor and author of “American Judaism: A History.”  
Arnold M. Eisen, chancellor of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, stresses the damage to Israel-Diaspora relations of these policies: “All the data shows a growing rift between American Jews and Israeli Jews, and the younger you are as an American Jew, the less you care about the state of Israel. ... And one of the reasons for it ... is this kind of insulting treatment of the majority of American Jews by the Israeli rabbinate.”  
In the case of Sharon, Rabbi Farber discovered her mother’s birth certificate in Wisconsin. A cousin visited a Jewish cemetery in Minneapolis where Sharon’s grandparents were buried and took a picture of the gravestone with its Hebrew inscription. Sharon was finally able to marry.  
“Thirty years ago,” writes Gorenberg, “ultra-Orthodox parties held 5 of the 120 seats in the Knesset. Today, they hold 18. Secular politicians need their support to build a stable coalition government. One way to gain it is to back ultra-Orthodox candidates for rabbinic posts...”

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