Three years ago, when he sought to formalize his relationship with his fiancée, Alex discovered that his military service, volunteerwork and the traditions upon which he was raised simply weren’t good enough. In the end, he and his partner flew to Prague and got married in a civil ceremony.
24 Hours – December 3, 2017
Alex Moisienko, a 30 year old engineering student from Ashdod, became a father three months ago and since then, the state’s cold attitude has felt more painful than ever. He was born in Belarus, immigrated to Israel with his family when he was 8 years old, and served as a combat officer in the Israeli Navy for nine years. During his military service, Alex participated in the “Witnesses in Uniform” trip to the Polish death camps and he is currently an active volunteer in Ashdod working with local Holocaust survivors. But as far as the state is concerned, he isn’t Jewish enough to get married in Israel.
“I was raised and educated, even as a secular citizen, on the virtues of Jewish tradition. Under the Law of Return, I am Jewish enough to live in Israel and fulfill all of my duties as a citizen,” he says. “I have a clear connection to the Jewish nation and Jewish blood courses through my veins, but I do not identify with the religious aspect. Therefore, my conscience will not allow me to undergo an Orthodox conversion, during which I will be required to commit to keeping all of the commandments.”
Three years ago, when he sought to formalize his relationship with his fiancée, Alex discovered that his military service, volunteerwork and the traditions upon which he was raised simply weren’t good enough. In the end, he and his partner flew to Prague and got married in a civil ceremony. “When we returned to Israel, we held a Jewish chuppah and kiddushin ceremony. We have established here a home that is founded upon a love of the land and tradition, and on the words, ‘Love your fellow as you love yourself.’ I believe that many of those who hold the reins in this country have forgotten the meaning of these words.”
Approximately 350,000 Israelis from the FSU and their children have been hit in the face with this absurd reality right when they reached one of the most meaningful events of their entire lives – their weddings. The ring is ready, the parents are emotional, but the state is not participating in the festivities: Israel discriminates, systematically and institutionally, against hundreds of thousands of Israelis who immigrated under the Law of Return, served in the army and pay taxes. When they want to establish a family, they discover that they were Jewish enough to immigrate to Israel, but not Jewish enough to get married in the country. All of this is backed by the state.
Today, Knesset members will be reading in the plenum testimonies from citizens who immigrated to Israel under the Law of Return, suffered from anti-Semitism in their countries of origin, enlisted in the IDF, pay taxes and contribute to the country, and despite all of this were forced to wed overseas because by Jewish law, they are not sufficiently Jewish. This attempt to utilize the power of Knesset members as a mouthpiece for this large segment of the population is part of a campaign led by Be Free Israel and MK Yoel Razvozov (Yesh Atid), who seek to raise awareness of this embarrassing phenomenon of door-slamming that costs 350,000 Israeli citizens their sense of belonging to this country – not to mention large sums of money.
“These are Degrading Procedures”
Tamara Klingon, an actress with the Tziporela theater group, star of the film “Zero Motivation” and the TV sitcom “Sabri Maranan,” immigrated to Israel from Uman when she was 12.
“In the Ukraine, nationality is determined according to the father; there, I was considered a Jew and beaten for it. When I immigrated to Israel, I discovered that here, things are the opposite and it’s determined according to the mother. They told my father that I would have a problem getting married, so he signed me up for a night school for conversion. But they did individual inspections of the homes and wanted to see that there were two sinks, for example. So I failed. Today, I am not converting on principle. I am a Jew, and I see myself as a Jew.”
Klingon had to get married to her soulmate in New York. “I have a friend who is Jewish through and through, but they demanded that she bring her grandmother, who has Alzheimer’s and barely remembers her name, to prove her Jewishness. These are degrading procedures and I don’t understand why anyone needs to undergo them in the year 2017.”
When Tamara and her spouse returned to Israel, they had a special alternative ceremony. From the bride’s side, Dana Ivgy performed the marriage ceremony, and from the groom’s side, Nimrod Dori. Instead of breaking a glass, the couple closed an electrical circuit that lit up dozens of light bulbs in the hall.
Be Free Israel, an organization that fights for the separation of religion and state, has been actively toiling for years to advance legislation that will secure civil solutions to regulate marriages outside the Rabbinate.
“The State of Israel cannot invest resources to encourage immigration while simultaneously granting hundreds of thousands of people limited citizenship and pushing them aside on the most important day of their lives,” says Katya Kupchik, manager of the Russian speakers’ department at Be Free Israel. “The governments that brought them here continue to give in to the Rabbinate’s monopoly that is set in stone.”
Until the status of civil marriages becomes legally regulated, Be Free Israel offers civil marriage ceremonies through “Havaya,” a non-profit center that connects those who perform marriage ceremonies with couples, to arrange personal ceremonies suited to the worldview of those celebrating.
MK Razvozov isn’t waiting for the right conditions to legally regulate civil marriages either.
He understands that with the composition of the current government, there is no chance that laws that harm the Rabbinate’ monopoly over marriages – and divorces, will be passed. Therefore, he is advancing a temporary solution that will obligate the state to at least bear the monetary responsibility for its discrimination against marriage rejects. On Sunday, Razvozov will propose a bill to the Ministerial Committee on Legislation, requesting to monetarily compensate couples who cannot wed in Israel and were forced to get married overseas.
The explanation accompanying the bill states, “In order to prevent discrimination against couples who cannot wed in Israel due to religious considerations, the state must reimburse their monetary expenses for the trip overseas and marriage ceremony there, expenses that they would not have had to spend had they been able to wed in Israel. This shall be done until legislation is set in place to regulate spousal agreements, or alternatively, civil marriages.”
“This bill is logical and just,” says MK Razvozov. “There are citizens who the state treats as second-class citizens, and the time has come to put an end to it. The state doesn’t permit them to wed in Israel and forces them to pay for a basic right. Therefore, there is no doubt that they at least deserve monetary compensation for the expenses that they are forced to spend to actualize their right and their love.”
In the meantime, in Ashdod, Moisienko attempts to suppress his anger. “There is a large group of citizens who have completely integrated into Israeli life and culture, some of whom have lost sons and daughters who fell protecting the country, yet who are discriminated against so shamelessly. We are not asking to changes the rules of Jewish law; we claim that if we were given the right to receive Israeli citizenship and immigrate to Israel, and we faithfully fulfill all of our obligations – we should be given the right to get married in a manner that circumvents the Rabbinate.”
“What do you think of the bill that MK Razvozov plans to propose next week?”
“I hope that it will generate a serious response and serve as a step forward on the path toward our long-awaited equality. There must be a secular, civil option to marry. We won’t be silent any longer. If it was unclear to anyone, we - the second generation of FSU immigrants - are here to stay. We have no intention of being first-class citizens in terms of our obligations but second-class citizens in terms of our rights.”
“They Told Me I Needed to be Religiously Stronger”
Busia Tzelman, age 29 from Lod, immigrated from Moldova when she was five and a half. She always knew that according to Jewish law, she wasn’t considered a Jew, and when she enlisted in the army, she heard about the Netiv course and decided to join and convert.
“I was very naïve at the time. I thought that everyone there wanted to convert and then live the way each person chooses. They asked us to write a letter to explain why we want to undergo the process. I poured my heart out and wrote, in all sincerity, why I feel part of the state, part of the Jewish nation, and that I want to also belong officially, in terms of the state’s official institutions, and not just in my heart. After I submitted the letter, my instructor told me that the letter wouldn’t be appropriate for the Rabbinical court. When I asked why not, he replied: because you need to become religious and maintain a religious lifestyle. In the end, I reached the Rabbinical court, where I felt weak in the knees, blacked out and started crying. I was told that I wasn’t religious enough and that I needed to be religiously stronger and only then come back. That experience shook me.”
When she met her partner, an “official Jew,” she decided to give up the idea of conversion. “At first, we planned to fly to some other country and make it official, but in the meantime, we bought an apartment and gave birth to our daughter, and that seemed enough of a commitment toward one another. When my daughter grows up and asks me if I’m Jewish, I will tell her that we grew up here, we’re Israelis and we deserve to be equals in our own country.”
Do you feel angry?
“It’s definitely aggravating, but I think there are much worse and more enraging things that take place in this country. I would be surprised if something actually changes, because it seems that we are starting to align ourselves with Saudi Arabia. The overall feeling is that this is a problem that affects a small group of people.”
“I was the only Russian in a class full of Israelis,” says Rita Rubinsky, who immigrated to Israel at age 8. “I have harsh memories of Israeli children, who can be cruel to those who are different. When I was in fourth grade, I found out that my mother isn’t Jewish. I didn’t know why this was significant, but that was the first time that I heard the word “goyah” from a boy in class who called me that. My first boyfriend was embarrassed and didn’t tell his mother that I wasn’t a Jew according to Jewish law.”
Then, like many immigrants, Rubinsky enlisted in the army and was offered to join the conversion course. “I was very happy to finally be given the opportunity to do something about it and be like everyone else. I was interested, I studied, I decided to dedicate my energy to the process as much as I could. But I couldn’t seem to connect to the praying and the commandments. I came from a secular home and it felt very mechanical to me. The thought that I was doing all of this just so that they would accept me as an equal in this country simply felt wrong to me. Two and a half years ago, I met my husband. The first thing he said to me when he heard about the whole issue was that to him, I am a Jew and nothing will change that, even if I want to deny it. That was when I started to accept myself, and the feeling has only become stronger. Two months ago, we got married in a civil ceremony in Israel. I am half-Jewish, but I’m not half a person. It doesn’t make sense for such a large population not to be allowed to get married in Israel. We are obviously not registered as a married couple in Israel. I consider myself Jewish. If Jewish law does not include me – the loss is all theirs.”
Do you believe that change is possible?
“A year ago, I met a lovely couple who got married in a Reform ceremony. I asked them if they couldn’t get married in Israel, and they said that they could. They both came from traditional-style families but said that they felt they couldn’t take part in such a corrupt institution that discriminates against citizens using religion. Suddenly, I felt hopeful and appreciative – maybe Israel will finally begin to pass other laws that aren’t bound to religion. Laws of ‘live and let live.’ This is what most of the nation wants, and we simply aren’t represented.”