No Solution in Sight for Those Who Want Civil Marriages or Non-religious Burial

In his maiden speech to the Knesset after his election in 2001, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon declared that it was unacceptable for Israel to have citizens who could not marry in their home country.

In his maiden speech to the Knesset after his election in 2001, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon declared that it was unacceptable for Israel to have citizens who could not marry in their home country. He was referring mainly to the masses of immigrants from the former Soviet Union who despite getting here by virtue of the Law of Return, were not Jews according to Halakha (Jewish law). Still, for some 300,000 people who cannot marry in Israel or bury their loved ones, a solution has yet to be found.

With the prime minister's encouragement, conversion was made easier. A parliamentary committee headed by MK Roni Bar-On (Likud) almost reached an arrangement for couples that could serve as an alternative to the Orthodox ceremony; various proposals for civil marriage came and went. So far, nothing has come of the solutions proposed for one of the most serious problems facing the immigrant community.

Getting married? Fly to Cyprus

Olga Streicher has been searching for two years for an alternative that will allow her to get married in Israel. Streicher, 26, who came to live in Israel 14 years ago, is the daughter of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother. "Nobody prepared us for this," she says bitterly. Her Jewish partner, Ilya Petrov, came to Israel alone and served in the Israel Defense Forces as a sharpshooter. Now they want to marry and they cannot.

"I found the Forum for Free Choice in Marriage on the Internet," Streicher says. "Conversion is unacceptable to me on principle. I don't think it will make me more Jewish than I already feel." The alternative for Streicher and Petrov is marriage abroad. Every few days they make the decision to go to Cyprus, then they change their mind. Sometimes they consider leaving Israel.

But those doors are closing fast. The popular destinations for civil marriage recognized in Israel until recently were Cyprus, Bulgaria, Italy and the Czech Republic. But Italy and Bulgaria have changed their laws, and condition the marriage on authorization from the Israeli consulate. The Foreign Ministry does not believe its job includes handing out certificates of suitability for marriage, and thus the Bulgarian and Italian options are gone.

The new immigrants had great hopes when Shinui conditioned its joining Sharon's government on finding a solution to the problem. Shinui sat for nine months with representatives from the National Religious Party and the National Union on a committee headed by Bar-On. After consultation with Orthodox rabbis, they formulated a kind of union that would have all the rights and obligations of a marriage without calling it that. Rabbinic divorce would be replaced by a "breach of the union."

The legislation got bogged down over a procedural crisis that developed between Shinui faction head MK Yosef Lapid and Bar-On. The breakup of the coalition over disengagement stopped it entirely, although Lapid said this week that in talks with Sharon last week he conditioned his support for him on completing the legislation. MK Roman Bronfman (Meretz) submitted a bill to the Knesset for civil marriage alongside Orthodox, Conservative and Reform marriage.

Another option for "uncategorized" couples is Conservative or Reform conversion and marriage in these frameworks, which in Israel do not perform marriage ceremonies of non-Jews. These marriages are not recognized in Israel, but do provide a ritual and emotional solution. The Reform movement in any case requires the couple to be married abroad to register as a married couple in Israel.

In 2002, the High Court of Justice ruled that "any conversion in a recognized Jewish community in Israel or abroad requires the convert be registered as a Jew in the Population Registry." Since that time, 400 Reform and Conservative converts have been so registered. While this is an easy solution relative to Orthodox conversion, it is of limited value in its present form. The child of a female Reform convert will be registered as Jewish, but will not be able to marry in an Orthodox ceremony. "This type of conversion is part of the concept of `sociological conversion,' based on the self-definition of the immigrant's community, a kind of conversion that always existed in Judaism," says Rabbi Gilad Kariv, deputy director of the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC).

Burial next to your husband? Impossible

The elderly husband of Marina (not her real name) died about a year ago. The couple had a special relationship. Her husband, a non-Jew, saved Marina's life during the Holocaust. Eventually, they raised a family and moved to Israel. Marina's husband was buried in the non-Jewish section of a cemetery in the south. When Marina sought a plot next to his, she was told it was impossible. She, after all, is Jewish.

The problem of the burial of non-Jews is one of the most painful facing the immigrants. Only 13 cemeteries out of hundreds in the country have sections for non-Jews. The plots are sometimes poorly maintained relative to Jewish cemeteries, according to Kariv. Moreover "transporting the deceased long distances is an emotional and financial burden for families," says Morris Chalfon, the head of the Menucha Nechona Association, which runs the civil cemetery established six years ago near Be'er Sheva. Civil cemeteries are supposed to provide the solution to this problem. Here, mixed couples can be buried side-by-side. About half of the 2,000 burials there are new immigrants. Promises have been made to allocate more land for civil cemeteries, but they remain unfulfilled so far. "Nothing is moving because of the pressure of the Orthodox," Chalfon says.

Children without status

Non-Jewish children born from a first marriage to a couple who came to lsrael by virtue of the Law of Return, have difficulty obtaining Israeli citizenship. At a recent meeting of the Immigration and Absorption Committee, an argument ensued over the extent of the problem, the numbers ranging from a few hundred to tens of thousands.

In many cases, the children's cases are addressed as "humanitarian issues" with less clear definitions.

The Population Registrar also determines fates in what is known as "elderly parent procedures." Many immigrants left behind elderly, non-Jewish parents who are not entitled to rights under the Law of Return. As long as both parents are alive, it is impossible to bring them to Israel. When one parent passes away, the widow or widower can be brought to Israel under this procedure.

The elderly parent coming to live in Israel with his or her Israeli children is granted a four-year visa that allowing the parent to work. At the end of this period, the parent receives a one-year temporary residence permit. Only then, can they become a permanent resident. For the first four years, the elderly parent is essentially a foreign worker, with an irrelevant work permit and no health insurance.

Katya Beizer's grandmother raised the 25-year-old Be'er Sheva resident in Moldavia. Beizer immigrated to Israel with her family in 2000, leaving her maternal grandparents in Moldavia. One year ago, her grandfather was killed in traffic accident there, leaving the frail grandmother alone. She is now hospitalized, and the family is financing a caretaker for her.

Beizer appeared before the Knesset Absorption Committee, but no solution was found. She was asked to produce witnesses who knew her grandparents and could testify that her grandmother is Jewish, but Katya found no 90- to 100-year-old witnesses. The family is now considering returning to Moldavia to care for the grandmother.