Fewer Israelis Marrying Through Rabbinate, Report Shows

The Ministry of Religious Services attributes the drop to general changes in marriage trends however the report is evidence of the growing contempt in Israel toward the Rabbinate and the power it wields

File photo: Alternative wedding ceremony led by members of left-wing Meretz party in front of the Chief Rabbinate of Tel Aviv, January 2013.
Moti Milrod

The number of Israeli Jews marrying through the Orthodox-run Chief Rabbinate dropped in 2018 for the second year running, according to a report published Monday by the Religious Services Ministry.

Only marriages conducted under the auspices of the Rabbinate are recognized in Israel. The decline in the number of couples choosing this path is evidence of the growing contempt in Israel toward the Rabbinate and the power it wields.

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According to the report, 35,163 Jewish couples registered to marry through the Rabbinate in 2018, a drop of 6.2 percent compared with the previous year. That follows a drop of 4.7 percent in 2017.

The Religious Services Ministry attributed the fall to several factors, among them the tendency among young Israelis to put off marriage, a dramatic increase in the number of couples preferring to live together rather than marry, and an increase in the number of Israelis getting married in the country outside the auspices of the Rabbinate.

In many cases, these weddings are officiated by non-Orthodox rabbis or progressive Orthodox rabbis who are not recognized by the Rabbinate.

No official figure exists for the number of marriages performed in Israel outside the Rabbinate, because couples that wed in such ceremonies cannot register as married with the Population Registry at the Interior Ministry. Couples who wed in civil ceremonies abroad, however, are allowed to register as married upon their return.

But a first-of-its-kind study published last June found that at least 2,434 Jewish marriage ceremonies were held in Israel outside the Rabbinate’s authority in 2017 – up 8 percent from the previous year. The study was conducted by Panim, an association of dozens of Israeli nonprofits dedicated to promoting Jewish pluralism in the country.

Among Israelis who boycott the Rabbinate, growing numbers in recent years have been opting to hold their marriage ceremonies in Israel rather than abroad, knowing full well that they will not be recognized. In the past, it was far more common for such couples to wed abroad.

The Religious Services Ministry report cited recently published Central Bureau of Statistics figures showing a drop in the number of Israeli couples marrying in civil ceremonies abroad. According to these figures, in 2016 (the last year for which numbers are available), 1,826 Israeli couples that had wed abroad registered as married with the Population Registry.

But only 982 of them were married in civil ceremonies – a drop of 7.5 percent compared with the previous year, according to the report. The report assumes that only couples that married in Cyprus and the Czech Republic held civil ceremonies while those married in other countries held Jewish ceremonies.

Responding to the report, Uri Keidar, the executive director of Be Free Israel, said: "The drastic drop in the number of Israelis marrying through the Rabbinate shows there is no reason not to pass a law on the first day of the next Knesset legalizing civil marriage in this country. The Israeli public is already there, and it’s about time that the politicians who pretend to represent us stop being afraid and start legislating what is long overdue."

Yizhar Hess, executive director of the Conservative movement in Israel, said the data "reflects a reality that's changing before our eyes and is creating facts on the ground. What the politicians fail to do, the public is doing itself."

In response, Rabbi Seth Farber, the director of ITIM: Resources and Advocacy for Jewish Life, attributed the drop to "strict and difficult Jewish clarification proceedings and a separatist and strict policy of institutions that don't allow couples to choose how to get married."