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Irina Plotnikov cannot marry the man she loves, Shmuel Cohen, even though she is Jewish according to halakha (Jewish religious law). A rabbinic court in Jerusalem ruled recently that even though Plotnikov is Jewish, she is not eligible to marry a Cohen since her father is not Jewish. According to Jewish tradition, people with the surname Cohen are descendants of the priests that served in the Temple in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago.

The couple were shocked by the court's verdict. "None of the rabbis had told us there might be a problem," Plotnikov says.

Plotnikov immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union (FSU) in 1992. Last summer she met Cohen, a retired career army man, and they fell in love. A short while after meeting, they decided to wed. "I was prepared to get married without going through the rabbinate, but it's very important to my boyfriend, because he is from a traditional family," Plotnikov says.

When the couple registered at the rabbinate, the marriage registrar referred Plotnikov to a rabbinic court for a process for ascertaining Jewishness. This is a procedure which all immigrants from the FSU are required to undergo if they want to marry.

After presenting documents and hearing testimony from witnesses on Plotnikov's behalf, the rabbinic court confirmed that Plotnikov is Jewish and single and ruled that "she can be married in accordance with Jewish tradition, except to a Cohen."

Since civil marriage and non-Orthodox religious marriage in Israel are not legally recognized, the sole option remaining to the couple is to wed overseas. Cohen says that he's afraid to tell his religious family about the rabbinic court's ruling. "I've never gone abroad, but to marry Irina I will be delighted to go. I respect the religious world, but there's a limit to how far I am willing for our privacy to be invaded."

Alex Tantzer, who heads a campaign to promote civil marriage, says that Plotnikov's case is an extreme example of the treatment that tens of thousands of immigrants from the FSU receive at the hands of the rabbinic establishment.

"I suggest that those same rabbis who ruled there are Jews who are not Jewish enough to marry Cohens be examined themselves. Perhaps they too have, heaven forbid, a non-Jewish father in their past."

Rabbi Shaul Farber, of the Itim institute for advice on the Jewish circle of life, says the ban on Plotnikov and Cohen marrying is enshrined in a halakhic rule that is similar to the rule barring the marriage of a Cohen and a divorcee. However, he believes that if the couple marries in a civil ceremony or if Plotnikov becomes pregnant, the rabbinate may agree to recognize the marriage retroactively.

Rabbi Farber says that girls from religious families in Israel who were born as a result of in vitro fertilization can expect to face a similar problem. The reason for this is that such families made sure to use sperm from non-Jewish donors, to avoid accidental forbidden marriage.