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Civil marriages performed online in Utah recognized as valid by Israeli court – for now

“This is a breakthrough that enjoys the clear support of the majority of the Jewish public in Israel,” says head of Hiddush

An Israeli couple in an online civil marriage ceremony officiated in the State of Utah. (Photo: WedinSea/Facebook)

You may be willing to lay down your life as you serve in the Israeli army, but ironically, you can’t get married in your homeland if your mother is not Jewish or if you or your prospective spouse is a non-Jew. Such has been the conundrum in which the majority of Israeli interfaith couples have found themselves.

For many, the answer has been to fly to neighboring Cyprus, tie the knot in a civil ceremony and then have a wedding party in their place of birth in the presence of friends and family.

However, a new alternative appears to have emerged, affording these Jewish Israeli couples the option to becoming legally married in the comfort of their own home, avoiding the hassle, expense and demoralization of needing to leave their country in order to experience one of the most basic events of one’s life – a wedding ceremony.

Until the day comes when Israel – controlled by the Chief Rabbinate, the highest Orthodox religious authority – changes its  policy toward a one-size-fits-all wedding, a quick visit to Utah Online Weddings will allow Israelis to enjoy the simplicity of a fast and easy civil ceremony, removing the hurdles and hardships which have allowed the rabbinic monopoly to continue its exclusive stronghold on those who want to be united in matrimony.

How did this come about? The phenomenon began during the COVID pandemic in 2020, when people in Israel couldn’t fly abroad to have a civil wedding due to travel restrictions, but also were not able to have a marriage performed legally in Israel.

At that time, the state of Utah reformed its marriage process, allowing ceremonies to be performed via video conferencing software like Zoom and began issuing marriage licenses for online ceremonies as long as the person officiating was located in the state of Utah.

That decision had an unintended outcome, with more than 500 Israeli couples tying the knot over Zoom.

This ‘Utah’ marriage system was not only possible during COVID, but cheaper and more convenient than traveling abroad; the cost was approximately 2,000 shekels (approx. $550 USD) including the paperwork and various fees.

A few weeks ago, an Israeli court ruled that eight couples who opted to marry online had to have their unions legally validated. This, in fact, reflected a giant leap for civil marriage in a country where up until now, the only way to have your marriage in Israel officially and legally recognized was to have the ceremony performed through an ‘approved’ Orthodox rabbi.

A legal battle was then initiated by a religious freedom and equality rights group called Hiddush, which subsequently necessitated a class-action court proceeding involving eight separate unions.

As of Sept. 30, Israel’s Interior Ministry has been ordered to recognize these marriages which were performed online in the state of Utah.

This novel loophole has changed everything for many disenfranchised Israelis who, for one reason or another, didn’t ‘make the cut’ to be eligible to marry in Israel; the land that they love but the place which would not accommodate them.

And it turns out that not only "problematic" couples have opted out of the Israeli rabbinate system. The reason is, once married by an Orthodox rabbi, it is only this ruling body which can subsequently grant you a divorce, often after a long and protracted process which is designed to make the end of a marriage feel next to impossible. Consequently, with that potential fear of having to endure all of the many complications and hardships accompanied with seeking a divorce, many young Israelis actually prefer the ease of a civil marriage, which they believe will make life so much simpler in the event that a blissful marriage is not the anticipated outcome.

Despite the positive ruling of this lower court, an appeal could still be forthcoming by the State of Israel, which would then take the case to Israel’s Supreme Court. Such a move, although possible, is not widely anticipated inasmuch as a prior, similar case also recognized this type of marriage, so the precedent only serves to strengthen the case which has just prevailed.

Yet, Israel’s notorious bureaucracy, which is often weaponized, has been known to slow-walk the rights of citizens when they want to discourage more such cases from becoming commonplace.

Although the Interior Ministry has not indicated which way they will roll – whether toward recognition or hard-nosed refusal – legal acceptance of these marriages is crucial to the couples, given that such a legal registry will grant them a number of financial and social benefits which they will not otherwise enjoy.

One member of Yesh Atid, the centrist political party – whose leader, Yair Lapid, is presently Israel’s interim prime minister, stated, “We won’t stop fighting for civil marriages in the State of Israel. Until we succeed, this ruling opens an important channel for those who can’t or don’t want to marry on the religious track.”

Uri Regev, head of Hiddush, proclaimed the court ruling as a victory for those who are in favor of civil marriage – stating, “This is a breakthrough that enjoys the clear support of the majority of the Jewish public in Israel which wants free marriage and equal recognition by the state for all types of marriage, as part of the promise made in the declaration of independence regarding freedom of religion and equality.

Israeli Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman also applauded the ruling, stating that “it’s a step toward a liberal country built on the value of ‘live and let live.’”

Sadly, many of these couples might have chosen to have a meaningful religious wedding had it only been an option, but given the stringent conditions placed upon Israeli citizens, and for lack of a better alternative, the online Utah marriage substitute has given them a way to live in the land they love but according to terms which are less oppressive and much more welcoming.

ALL ISRAEL NEWS is committed to fair and balanced coverage and analysis, and honored to publish a wide-range of opinions. That said, views expressed by guest columnists may not necessarily reflect the views of our staff.

A former Jerusalem elementary and middle-school principal and the granddaughter of European Jews who arrived in the US before the Holocaust. Making Aliyah in 1993, she is retired and now lives in the center of the country with her husband.

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