So You Think You Are Jewish Enough for an Israeli Wedding? Prove It

Young couples tell stories of humiliation at the hand of an obstructive religious establishment on the way to the chuppah.

Alice Katz, 30, from New York, came to Israel five years ago with the Birthright project and has never left. The 10 intensive days touring the country in the program − which aims to connect young Diaspora Jews with Israel − left her wanting more. She moved to Tel Aviv and got a job in a hotel, whose owner adopted her as one of the family.

“After six months, I said, I suppose I live here now,” she relates. “I was just sucked into the life of Tel Aviv.” To implement her rights under the Law of Return, Katz submitted to an interview in which she explained her ties to the Jewish community in New York. She showed an official from the Population Registry a certificate of her parents’ divorce, as well as a letter from the rabbi of the Conservative congregation to which she belonged, confirming that she was Jewish. That was enough for the State of Israel.

Subsequently, Katz decided to be married in Israel. Last July, almost three months before the wedding, she went to the local Rabbinate office, close to where she lives in the center of the country, in order to register for the wedding. But there, she was told that neither her parents’ divorce papers nor the letter from her rabbi constituted proof that she was Jewish.

“They told me I needed a document from someone in the community who is Orthodox,” she recalls. “When I was young, I went to Hebrew school. I had a bat mitzvah. That wasn’t enough for them.”

“We were at our wits’ end,” she continues. “In the United States, someone who is not Orthodox doesn’t usually have any connection with the Orthodox community. For someone to write a letter like that, he would obviously have to know us. By now, it was two and a half weeks before the wedding. My mother was supposed to fly in the next day. There wasn’t even enough time to find someone in the States to write the letter. We ran down the list of everyone we knew. We started to reconcile ourselves to the cancelation of the wedding here, and to getting married in the United States or in Cyprus. The whole thing was one serious, complicated and expensive headache.”

Alice Katz found herself confronting the process of what the Rabbinate terms “clarification of Jewishness.” Fortunately for her, her mother heard from friends in New York about ITIM, an association that helps thousands of people a year “navigate the religious authorities’ bureaucracy in Israel,” according to its website. The organization’s founder, Rabbi Seth Farber, dug through Katz’s family history and on the Ellis Island database found a document from the ship on which her great-grandmother arrived in the United States in 1907. The religion rubric listed her as a “Jewess,” and that was enough for a recognized rabbinical court in the United States to confirm her Jewishness. Katz finally received the coveted confirmation from the local Rabbinate − a week and a half before the wedding.

“There is something so alienating about this process,” she says. “You come to this country and you need to collect so many documents to prove your Jewishness. And then you build a life here and again you’re not enough of a Jew. To be a Jew worked against you in so many countries, in so many periods. But then, when you try to get your Jewishness to work for you, in your country, it doesn’t work again. It’s really despairing. I don’t want to have any more to do with the Rabbinate. They push people to the other extreme.”

Clarifying process

Every Jewish couple that wants to be married in Israel has had, until recently, to register at the local branch of the Rabbinate. For each set of parents they need to bring the ketubah − the religious marriage contract − and the marriage certificate issued by the state. For most couples, this is a short, formal act. However, if either the prospective bride or groom is unable to produce their parents’ ketubah, or if the local rabbi doubts that either or both are Jews, a process of “clarification of Jewishness” is set in motion. According to data supplied by the Rabbinate, 4,500 people underwent this process in 2012, and 98 percent of them emerged with a declaration that they are Jewish.

But what happens on the way to getting the coveted confirmation? People who have made the journey report hazing, insensitivity, rigidity and sometimes absurd requests, all at the behest of the local chief rabbi. Many of these cases involve people who immigrated to Israel at a young age and grew up here as Jews in every respect, or whose family belonged to a Jewish community abroad, observed the precepts and often preserved their Jewish identity at risk to their lives. Immigrants from the former Soviet Union are automatically thrust into the clarification process, although this is contrary to the Rabbinate’s procedures.

According to a report by the State Comptroller’s Office, which was submitted to the Knesset on October 15, many local religious councils “do as they please and violate the existing directives of the Ministry of Religious Services and of the Chief Rabbinate.” The most serious discrimination takes place against immigrants from Ethiopia, the report found. At the same time, the report states, the Rabbinate places unnecessary obstacles in the way of converts to Judaism, refusing to register them for marriage even if they present certificates of conversion (Orthodox only) as demanded. In addition, the clarification often goes on for far longer than the 90 days stipulated in the law.

There are also cases in which native-born Israelis suffer from the process. Tomer Gutwirt, a 29-year-old insurance agent and lecturer in the academic track of the College of Management, is a fourth-generation Israeli. He grew up in Israel and did full military service. He does not define himself as religious, but observes kashrut (dietary laws), celebrates the Jewish holidays fully, recites Kiddush every Sabbath eve, and puts on phylacteries and reads Psalms every morning. On a seven-month trip abroad, he says, he was careful to eat only kosher food. So he was certain that his appearance at the office of the Rabbinate in Rishon Letzion in May 2012, four months ahead of his wedding date, would be a mere formality. After all, his brother and sister had already been married through the Rabbinate and had not been asked to present anything other than their parents’ ketubah and marriage certificate.

But on the day he went to the Rabbinate, his mother forgot the certificate at home. No matter, she told the clerk who received the family, because her
daughter − Tomer’s sister − had been married through the Rabbinate just five months earlier. They could check her details in the computer and on that basis open a file for Tomer, too. The suggestion was accepted, and a file was duly opened.

But then a problem cropped up. Tomer’s mother’s grandmother, his great-grandmother, had had two names − a first name and a second (middle) name − as was the custom in many communities in the past. When Tomer’s mother accompanied his sister to the registry office and was asked what her grandmother’s name was, she gave the first name. Now, with Tomer, she gave the second name. Accordingly, the chief rabbi of Rishon Letzion, Yehuda Wolpe, decided to launch a “clarification of Jewishness” for Gutwirt. “He said, ‘I want to start a clarification, I can’t promise when I will have an answer or whether it will be positive or negative,’” Gutwirt recalls. “I wasn’t stressed, for the simple reason that I thought there was no way he wouldn’t give me the [confirmation] certificate.”

About 10 days later, Gutwirt says, they got a call from the Rabbinate. “They said, ‘We want to talk to your grandmother’ − who is 81 and a Holocaust survivor. And one evening they did call her. One of the questions they asked her was how her siblings had been murdered in the Holocaust. She had a hard time falling asleep after that. They also wanted me to photograph my great-grandmother’s grave. I told them I wouldn’t do it. I think it’s humiliating, to take a picture of a grave. It was no problem for them to check where she is buried and to know that she was a Jew.”

A month and a half later, Gutwirt called the Rabbinate to find out where things stood. “The clerk who answered told me that the rabbi would not issue a certificate and that he would take action to annul the marriages of my brother and my sister.” (An act of annulment of this kind would be illegal.)

Did you consider postponing the wedding?

“No, because I said that I was ready to go to the chief rabbi of Israel with this story. I knew it was all because of Rabbi Wolpe, who is considered problematic. No one was about to tell me that I am not a Jew.”

Three weeks before the wedding, when it was still not clear whether the ceremony would take place, the tension in the Gutwirt family was at boiling point. Seeing no alternative, Tomer’s mother and grandmother contacted a cousin of the mother, an ultra-Orthodox man from Bnei Brak, who then met with Rabbi Wolpe. Amazingly, the testimony of a Haredi man was enough to convince the rabbi, and he agreed to register the couple for marriage.

“I started to understand why people get married abroad, why people flee from religion, why people become so extreme in their opposition to religion,” Gutwirt says. “It’s because of the encounter with the religious establishment. But it did not affect my faith.” Says Elad Caplan, the legal adviser of the ITIM association, “People who live in Israel as Jews are forced to undergo a legal procedure and are made to feel that they are being accused. They are told, ‘Bring documents, your documents are forged, prove what you say.’ They are treated like liars only because they want to be married in Israel, according to the halakha,” referring to Jewish religious law.

Orthodox monopoly

Under the Rabbinate’s rules, the obligation of clarification does not apply to those whose parents were married “according to Jewish law.” However, the Rabbinate’s interpretation of this term extends only to those whose parents have an Orthodox ketubah, drawn up by a rabbi who is recognized by the Rabbinate. Absurdly, this categorization excludes the great majority of American Jews, and also, apparently, most Western European Jews.

According to a survey conducted among 70,000 American Jews by the Pew Research Center, whose results were published last month, only 10 percent of them define themselves as Orthodox, compared with 35 percent who describe themselves as Reform, 18 percent who are Conservatives, 6 percent who fall under the “others” category and 30 percent who are unaffiliated. (The survey data can be viewed here

The survey finds that the general trend is toward liberalization: a quarter of those who were raised as Orthodox Jews became Conservative or Reform; 30 percent of those who grew up in the Conservative stream became Reform Jews, while 28 percent formerly affiliated with the Reform movement no longer describe themselves as Jews by religion (though some of them define themselves as Jews by culture and roots). It follows that the majority of American Jews would not meet the criteria of the Israeli Rabbinate in terms of proving Jewishness. The situation of the current generation of young couples in this regard will only be aggravated in the coming generations.

Israel makes great efforts to maintain ties with American Jewry and spends large amounts of money to bring its young people for a visit that will strengthen their attachment to the Jewish state and perhaps induce them to immigrate. (The Israeli government funds the Birthright program to the tune of NIS 100 million, with funds increasing to NIS 200 million over three years, which began in 2011.) However, because most of these young people are not Orthodox, the Israeli religious establishment will not necessarily accept their Jewishness. Rabbi Farber, from ITIM, estimates that 80 to 85 percent of them would have to undergo a clarification of their Jewishness. “According to the Shulhan Arukh,” he says, referring to the authoritative codification of Jewish law, “when someone says he is a Jew, his word is trusted. There are very specific circumstances for casting doubt on a person’s genealogy ... In the course of history there were very good reasons to hide one’s Jewishness. Today there are good reasons to say that you are a Jew. The concept of clarification of Jewishness is a very modern one. There are two schools here, one more open and the other Haredi, which guards the gates and does not want to allow anyone to join its exclusive club, heaven forbid.

“I understand them,” he continues, “but I think they are failing to cope with the reality of the modern era. This is the main problem here. We have to ask what price is being paid by readiness to rely only on a small group of people or on documents of one kind or another. The result is a rift between the Orthodox Rabbinate and the Jewish people, and also between the State of Israel and the Jewish people. We see that over time, the Orthodox Rabbinate continually raises the bar and narrows the list of people who are relied on. This is a catastrophe.”

New immigrants, new problems

Last month, the Knesset passed a law that opens the areas of registration for marriage. Under the new legislation, a couple wishing to marry can register at any branch of the Rabbinate in the country, and not only the branch in its place of residence, as was the case until now. The law was enacted following a growing number of cases in which the marriage registrars operated as they saw fit, contrary to the Rabbinate’s procedures, refused to register converts to Judaism and placed obstacles on the path of Jews by birth. In short, they behaved like Rabbi Wolpe, the chief rabbi of Rishon Letzion.

According to a petition submitted to the High Court of Justice last January, and also according to testimonies made available to Haaretz, Rabbi Wolpe allegedly violated the rules of the Rabbinate, was unnecessarily strict with couples registering for marriage and disdained rulings handed down by other rabbinical courts. The crucial point here is that the authority to clarify a person’s Jewishness rests with the rabbinical courts and not with the marriage registrars (such as Rabbi Wolpe). “Rabbi Wolpe decided not to accept the authority of the rabbinical court − in other words, of the people who employ him,” Rabbi Farber explains. “He relies solely on his people.”

One of Rabbi Wolpe’s “people” is Rabbi Naftali Schreiber, who runs a private office for the clarification of Jewishness called “A People Alone” in Rishon Letzion. Schreiber himself is an immigrant from Ukraine. According to ITIM’s petition to the High Court of Justice, Rabbi Wolpe referred many candidates for marriage, particularly those from the former Soviet Union, to Schreiber. The regulations of the chief rabbis of Israel prohibit reliance on the opinion of a private clarifier of Jewishness. In a telephone conversation, Rabbi Schreiber confirms that he used to work with Rabbi Wolpe. However, he says, referrals from the Rishon Letzion Rabbinate have stopped, as Rabbi Wolpe gave his word to the High Court of Justice that he would refer applicants only to a rabbinical court. He added that he still works with several other religious councils.

My conversation with Schreiber exposed the suspicious approach in practice − if not as official policy − toward new immigrants and their children. Asked whether he thought that every person who arrives from the former Soviet Union should undergo clarification of their Jewishness, Schreiber replied, “I myself, as a private person − I am not an employee of the Rabbinate − maintain that every person who comes from an ethnic community and from a place where there is mixed marriage should undergo clarification of Jewishness when he comes to a different country and claims he is a Jew. The claim has to be verified.”

But the position of the Rabbinate is that no one should have to undergo clarification automatically just because he is from a particular place.

“I did not say because someone is from a particular origin. I said places where mixed marriages exist.”

You are talking about the whole world.

“Nowadays it is actually the whole world. Maybe with the exception of the Arab states, where mixed marriages were not so common. That is my viewpoint and my private outlook. That is the situation, when there is so much deception. After all, the rabbis are civil servants, and when a rabbi consecrates a mixed couple he is deviating from his powers under the law.”

How does one prove Jewishness?

“We base ourselves on the documentation people provide − part of the profession is to authenticate documents. We have criminological machinery for authenticating documents, and we also carry out a personal inquiry in which we hear their story. We have a way to be in touch with archives abroad, or to refer the applicants themselves to the archives. Sometimes DNA testing is needed, and people agree to that, too.”

It sounds like a great infringement of their privacy.

“They do it willingly.”

They do it under coercion, if they want to be married in Israel.

“Well, do they have to be married according to Jewish law? Is anyone forcing them?”

If they are Jews, they want to be married according to their religion.

“Fine. The moment deceit appears, are we going to believe the claims of the people and force the rabbi to marry a mixed couple? My client is the local chief rabbi. He is the one who receives our opinion.

Schreiber’s approach is contrary to the official position of the Rabbinate, as conveyed to Haaretz Magazine. This states, “Every person whose parents were married according to Jewish religious law does not require a clarification of Jewishness, and it makes no difference whether his parents are from the former Soviet Union, the United States or Ethiopia.” The sweeping obligation of immigrants from the former Soviet Union to undergo clarification of Jewishness is an act of discrimination and a violation of the law. Schreiber maintains, rightly, that he is a private individual and is not obliged to follow the Rabbinate’s rules, not to mention the fact that his livelihood comes from these investigations. The problem lies with the religious councils, which hire his services on behalf of the state.

The petition to the High Court of Justice was erased by the court last June, after Rabbi Wolpe promised not to refer marital applicants to private bodies for clarification of their Jewishness. Explaining their decision to erase the petition, the justices noted that all the petitioners had eventually received authorization to marry. The High Court was apparently hesitant to become involved in the volatile issue of religion and state. The Rabbinate declined to answer my question of why disciplinary measures were not taken against the rabbi after his working methods were exposed.

Breaking point

Others besides immigrants from the former Soviet Union are also subjected to humiliating experiences. Ariel (not his real name), who grew up in Switzerland, is the son of a Jewish woman, a former Israeli. He immigrated to Israel for Zionist reasons, he relates, and also served in the army. But in 2006, when he sought to register for marriage at the Ramat Gan Rabbinate, he discovered that the fact that his mother and father did not have a ketubah obliged him to undergo clarification. A certificate of confirmation of his Jewishness from the rabbi of his mother’s congregation was insufficient. Ariel found himself subjected to a highly detailed interrogation, which he describes as “humiliating,” including threats to summon his grandmother to the Rabbinate to see whether she knows Yiddish. Ariel aborted the proceedings midway, and through an acquaintance got to a rabbi who, after a brief inquiry, signed a confirmation of his Jewishness.

“It was humiliating to the degree that my mother said, ‘Don’t be married by the Rabbinate − why give them a prize?’ My fiancee also wanted to cancel, but I knew it was important for my father, and I, too, wanted a proper Jewish wedding.”

As an immigrant from Denmark, Rabbi Michael Melchior, a former MK and a cabinet minister in the Ehud Barak government, is often asked for assistance by immigrants from Scandinavian countries. “It has to be said that there is a genuine problem today in regard to clarification of Jewishness,” he says. “More and more Jews abroad are completely unaffiliated and do not belong to formal communities. That is the current trend, both in the United States and in Europe. In many places there is no Orthodox community at all. Because the Israeli Rabbinate trusts only Orthodox rabbis, someone who comes to Israel and has to prove his Jewishness has a problem. The Rabbinate will not recognize a document that he brings from the rabbi of his congregation − and that applies to the chief Rabbinate, the local Rabbinate and even the rabbis of Tzohar. So, what is he supposed to do?”

Part of the problem, Melchior says, stems from the “arms race” between rabbis who are afraid to be seen as lenient and therefore go to the other extreme.

Compounding the issue, not every Orthodox rabbi abroad enjoys the Israeli Rabbinate’s recognition. Thus, someone whose parents were married abroad can make his way to the only Orthodox rabbi in the area, only to discover that his testimony is insufficient for him to get the coveted confirmation. Elad Caplan, from ITIM, says he has asked the Rabbinate several times for a list of the rabbis it recognizes, but to no avail. Sources in the Rabbinate explain that they do not have a list, but only criteria to examine each rabbi individually. However, those criteria are also not available anywhere.

Will the Chief Rabbinate fulfill its promise to force the local rabbis to follow its procedures? If so, couples who want to register for marriage will have a better experience, and possibly there will be no more unnecessary clarifications of Jewishness. However, enforcing the procedures will not solve the main problem: the Orthodox Rabbinate’s disconnect from the nation it is supposed to serve. If the Rabbinate sees itself as the “gatekeeper” of Judaism, but interprets “Judaism” in the narrowest and most stringent sense, the only solution would appear to be to break the Rabbinate’s monopoly on the institution of marriage and divorce in Israel. If so, couples could choose either an Orthodox ceremony, according to the Rabbinate’s strict rules; a Reform or Conservative ceremony; or civil marriage.

“At the Rabbinate I actually had a momentary breaking point, where I wanted to leave the country,” Ariel says. “The army didn’t break me as much as 10 minutes of that humiliating interrogation did. And I got off lucky. I saw combat officers from the former Soviet Union who dragged 90-year-old grandmothers to the interrogation. I saw them broken.”

Ariel adds, “My love for Israel is great. I know who I am and what I am. But for those who cannot prove what’s demanded it’s just hell. It’s almost impossible to come out of it.”

‘Ensuring unity of the nation’

Response of the rabbinate: “The Chief Rabbinate of Israel provides services to the whole Jewish nation, in Israel and worldwide. The State of Israel has made the Chief Rabbinate responsible for maintaining personal status according to the halakha [Jewish religious law]. This responsibility is the only element that ensures the prevention of assimilation such as we are witness to in other countries. The halakhic form of the procedures that are set by the Chief Rabbinate − in the realms of marriage, divorce and conversion, and in their recognition − ought to be accepted by the entire Jewish public in the world, from the strictest to those who are farthest from Judaism. This is the only way to ensure the unity of the nation.”

In regard to the criteria for examining a rabbi abroad:

“1. When the Chief Rabbinate is called upon to verify the halakhic validity of a document originating in the Diaspora and referring to confirmation of Jewishness, confirmation of single status, ketubah, divorce and conversion, the following data are examined:

(A) The person who issued the document has rabbinical ordination from a source that is recognized by the Chief Rabbinate.

(B) The person who issued the document and the institutions in the community he leads follow a way of life according to the halakha.

(C) The person who issued the document possesses the knowledge and the tools to carry out the tests required to determine the document’s conclusions. That is, there are cases in which an act such as clarification of Jewishness cannot rely on personal acquaintanceship or on an interview alone − it is necessary to investigate and to examine documents, some of them old and difficult to obtain. The rabbinate also clarifies whether the person who signed the confirmation certificate possesses the knowledge as to which documents need to be looked at, how to obtain them and so on.

“2. These criteria are not secret. Those involved know the criteria and act in accordance with them.”

‘Transparent and open’

Response of the rabbinical courts: “The directorate of the [rabbinical] courts officially employs four individuals to clarify Jewishness. Mr. Schreiber is not employed by the courts, so he alone is responsible for his activity, his conclusions and his opinions. According to the regulations laid down by the chief rabbis of Israel, the opinion of a private clarifier of Jewishness is not to be relied on. The activity of the rabbinical court is transparent and open to those involved. Every person for whom a file is opened receives a personal code through which he can obtain in real time any information contained in the file, without exception. This service is provided through the Internet and without recourse to court clerks.

“We cannot respond to an allegation without details about the case. In general, a discussion about a person cannot be held if he is not present, or at least has been informed of the discussion and invited to it.

“The rabbinical courts’ classifications make no reference to any specific population group. Every person whose parents were married according to Jewish law does not require a clarification of Jewishness, and it makes no difference whether his parents came from the former Soviet Union, the United States or Ethiopia. A person whose parents were not married according to Jewish law requires a clarification of Jewishness, a procedure that is carried out without a fee. It begins through entering the Internet site of the courts’ directorate and concludes on average within 30 days after the file is opened.

“The Interior Ministry operates according to the Law of Return and allows immigration to Israel of people whose father, grandfather or the spouse of their father or grandfather were Jews. According to the halakha, one’s religious identity is determined solely through the mother. Accordingly, the determination of the Interior Ministry is not relevant in regard to marriage and divorce.”

Ilya Melnikov
Amir Meir / Maariv
Ilya Melnikov
Emil Salman
Ofer Vaknin