Israelis wed in U.S. to protest strict laws back home

"We did it for us first of all," said Yair Cohen, who as a descendant of the ancient priestly tribe Kohen is forbidden by religious law to marry his wife, a divorcee. "It's the principle that each person has the right to decide who and how they're going to get married."

Like the estimated 150,000 Israelis who for various reasons are restricted by religious law from marrying, Cohen and his wife Ruti Florsheim must bypass Orthodox law by marrying in a civil ceremony overseas. Such marriages are recognized by secular authorities in Israel.

The nearby island nation of Cyprus is a favorite destination for Israelis sharing Cohen and Florsheim's quandary. Others pay for mail-order marriages from Paraguay; relatively few can afford trips to Europe or America.

By agreeing to join the Reform movement's protest of religious law by marrying at the biennial convention of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Cohen and Florsheim had their travel expenses paid. It was their first trip to this country.

Though their decision to exchange vows before some 4,000 biennial attendees was primarily a statement of personal protest, the couple says they want to represent others like them.

For that reason, they agreed to be interviewed while honeymooning in San Francisco last week, as well as to be introduced at Friday night services at Reform San Francisco Congregations Emanu-El and Sha'ar Zahav, and Saturday morning at Reform Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo.

"If this protest is going to help other couples, then we will be very, very happy," Cohen said.

Of course, for the 31-year-old groom and his 26-year-old bride, the protest marks an end to their previously quiet life on Kibbutz Yakum near Tel Aviv. Their wedding was covered by national media, including CNN and the Chicago Tribune, and by Israeli television.

"We came from such a simple life," said the unassuming Cohen. "Now we are in the middle of a storm."

The half-hour wedding at a downtown Atlanta hotel was sponsored by the New York-based Association of Reform Zionists of America, which represents the 1.5-million-member American Jewish Reform movement.

The ceremony was ARZA's first step in protesting what its executive director, Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, calls Orthodox Judaism's "monopoly" over Israeli marriages.

To do that, ARZA has initiated Operation Equality, a two-year, $2 million campaign for the right of non-Orthodox rabbis to officiate at Jewish life-cycle ceremonies and participate equally in religious life.

The campaign will also support a new marriage bill that would give all Israelis the right to marry in a ceremony of their choice.

That right is particularly relevant today, given that thousands of recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union are considered to be of questionable Jewish lineage.

Marsha Felton, regional director of ARZA, said the Reform movement is fairly optimistic that legislation such as that proposed by Operation Equality could pass. She cited as a major victory in that direction the recent Israeli Supreme Court decision to strike down the requirement that conversions to Judaism in Israel must be authorized by the Orthodox rabbinate.

She also pointed to a growth in Israeli awareness of Reform Judaism as an option to Orthodoxy — a development, she said, evidenced by the increasing number of Israelis flocking to Israel's few Reform synagogues and centers.

"I think there's been so much groundwork laid already," Felton said.

Meanwhile, Cohen and Florsheim's wedding — which was co-led by Hirsch, UAHC president Alexander M. Schindler, and Rabbi Eric Yoffie, UAHC president-elect — proved to be a bittersweet affair for the couple.

"I wanted all my family to share this moment and they cannot," the bride said at the wedding. But at the same time, she reflected later in San Francisco, "it was so warm, and the hospitality we got was so wonderful."