New Campaign Urges Israelis Under the Chuppah to Boycott the Chief Rabbinate

In protest against Orthodox stranglehold on marriage, initiative aims to convince families that it's OK for the younger generation to tie the knot outside the Rabbinate.

Wedding in Hadera forest, planned by Naomi Tabor – Imagine Events.
Liron Erel

Have the Jewish wedding of your dreams – but keep the Chief Rabbinate away.

That’s the message of a new campaign out to persuade Israelis to boycott the one and only institution in the country with the power to authorize Jewish marriages. 

Those being urged to embrace this initiative are not young couples, but rather, their parents and grandparents. “We’ve discovered there are big generational gaps in Israel when it comes to attitudes toward marriage,” explains Mickey Gitzin, the executive director of Be Free Israel, an organization that promotes religious freedom and Jewish pluralism. “Young people are increasingly willing to tie the knot outside the Rabbinate. It’s the older generation that is much more conservative and needs to be convinced.”

Precisely for that reason, a radio commercial released this week to mark the launch of the new campaign features three not-so-young folks – a grandfather and two mothers – gushing about the benefits of marrying off their progeny at a wedding not officiated by the Orthodox-run Chief Rabbinate. The commercial is being broadcast on the Voice of Israel, a station that targets older listeners.

A first-of-its-kind collaboration between the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel with Havaya (the ceremonies department of Be Free Israel), the campaign is titled “Chatuna Shava.” In English, it translates into “Egalitarian Wedding,” but in Hebrew, the phrase assumes a double meaning, as “Shava” also means “worthwhile.”

As Gitzin notes, the idea is not to promote one type of ceremony over another but simply to make young couples and their families aware of the various possibilities for holding a Jewish wedding in Israel – traditional or alternative – outside the Rabbinate.

There’s one big catch, and neither Gitzin nor his partners in the Conservative and Reform movements can avoid it: Any Jewish couple wed in Israel by someone not sanctioned by the Rabbinate cannot register as married in the Population Registry. Not only is their status then not officially recognized, but they also risk losing certain financial benefits, such as special mortgage subsidies granted to newlyweds. The only way such couples who evade the Rabbinate can gain official recognition of their status is by holding a second wedding overseas and returning to Israel with their civil or religious marriage certification as proof.

“Our recommendation is that they sign a legal agreement here in Israel providing them with almost all the same rights as married couples, and such agreements exist,” says Gitzin.  "If that’s not good enough for them, then as a last resort, we recommend they go abroad.”

The campaign to boycott the Rabbinate is the latest sign of an ongoing revolt in Israel against an institution that wields enormous control over marriage and divorce. Representatives of the Rabbinate will not marry same-sex couples or mixed-faith couples. Nor, in a growing number of cases, will they marry Jewish Israelis who cannot provide documented proof of their religious ancestry. 

According to Be Free Israel, one in every five Jewish couples in Israel today marries outside the Rabbinate, and that includes a growing number of more progressively-minded Orthodox Jews. While no long-term statistics exist, the number of such weddings is estimated to have grown dramatically over the past few decades.

In the past, Jewish couples who married outside the Rabbinate almost always held a second ceremony abroad so that their status would be recognized in Israel. Today, according to rabbis who officiate at such weddings, that practice is becoming less common, with Israelis apparently not as concerned as they once were about their official status. 

Havaya, the ceremonies department of Be Free Israel, has already performed 500 marriages this year outside the Rabbinate. One of the organization’s key missions is training laymen and laywomen to officiate at such ceremonies. Conservative rabbis officiate at about 200 to 300 weddings a year, and Reform rabbis at roughly another 1,000, according to figures provided by the movements. 

Many of these weddings involve individuals whom the Rabbinate will not marry, such as Jews converted by Reform and Conservative rabbis. Such conversions are not recognized by the Rabbinate. But the majority, according to those who officiate at such weddings, are Jewish-Israelis who could marry through the Rabbinate but, as an act of protest, choose not to. 

The immediate goal of the new campaign, says Gitzin, is to drive up the number of Israeli couples participating in this rebellion. “Ultimately, though, our goal is to force a change in the law so that people can get married as they wish in the country and have their marriages recognized,” he says. 

According to Yizhar Hess, executive director of the Conservative movement in Israel, the campaign addresses a trend that has been gaining momentum in recent years. “Young couples are done with declarations and demonstrations,” he said. “They are simply voting with their rings, so to speak, and their message for the Rabbinate and the politicians in this country is this: ‘You are completely detached.’”

Hess described the boycott as a “grassroots rebellion of men and women fed up with Orthodoxy’s monopoly.”