Israeli couple forced to marry in U.S. after rabbis reject plea

JERUSALEM — Ruti Florsheim and Yair Cohen are kibbutzniks who want to get married, but they never imagined their marriage would take place before a crowd of 5,500 in Atlanta, Ga., as part of the Reform Movement's campaign to bring civil marriage to Israel.

As his name indicates, Yair is a Kohen, a descendent of the ancient priestly caste. Florsheim is a divorcee, and such a marriage is forbidden by halachah (Jewish law).

They are to be married at the biennial convention of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC) at a ceremony that is intended to bring home to American Reform Jews the problems some Jews have in marrying in Israel.

Both Cohen, 31, and Florsheim, 26, are from Kibbutz Yakum, near Netanya. According to Cohen, the two tried to register to be married at the rabbinate, but their request was rejected.

"I always knew that I was a Kohen," he said. "It manifested itself mainly at some funerals, when I wasn't allowed to go into the cemetery, but it never really seemed to matter. Now it affects me very much."

"It's still not clear to me," said Florsheim, adding that she had imagined that they were just regular Israelis who want to get married. Now, she said, she realizes she and Cohen are just part of a large group of Israelis barred from marrying in the Jewish state.

After being rejected by the rabbinate, the couple went to a Reform rabbi and asked him to marry them, Cohen said. At the same time, he noted, the Reform Movement in the United States was looking for a couple who could not be married in Israel, as part of its campaign to press for equal rights for non-Orthodox Jews here.

Cohen added that even if he and Florsheim had wanted to go to Cyprus for a civil marriage, they simply do not have enough money to do so.

"Just the trip costs thousands of shekels, which we don't have at the moment," he said.

Despite a recent proposal by Religious Affairs Minister Shimon Shetreet to pay for couples such as he and Florsheim to go to Cyprus, he said, no such funds are being disbursed. Cohen believes Shetreet's proposal was more in the nature of a political statement than a serious suggestion.

Florsheim said that it seemed very strange that a couple, both of whom were born and raised here, would have to go abroad to get married.

"I still find it hard to believe that I'm going to America to get married. I could understand going for a trip, but to get married?" she said.

Cohen admitted that it bothers him very much to be married far away from his friends and family, but he added that if by doing so he can help others in a similar situation, he could live with it.

"I'm excited now, and I'll be even more excited in Atlanta," he said.

Rabbi Uri Regev, director of the Reform Movement's Israel Religious Action Center, said that for many years couples in Israel who could not be married have been married overseas.

"We have decided to take the issue out of the closet for world Jewry," Regev said.