In promoting the legitimacy of diverse religious expression in Israel, the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati first focused on the freedom of marriage choice. At present, the only option for a legal Jewish marriage in Israel is through a ceremony conducted under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate (Rabbanut). Weddings conducted in Israel by many Orthodox and all Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, and Humanistic rabbis are not recognized by the State, and there are no options for civil marriage in place today. It is estimated that, for what many see as the most significant lifecycle event in Jewish life, 20 to 30% of Israelis get married outside of Israel due to the various hurdles and restrictions imposed by the Chief Rabbinate. The situation impacts hundreds of thousands of Israelis who cannot get married through the Rabbinate, and also impacts practices and regulations relating to divorce.
Shep Englander, Jewish Federation CEO, and Kim Heiman, past president of the Jewish Federation, represented Cincinnati on JFNA’s Global Planning Table. In 2015, they were the first to support JFNA’s Israel Religious Expression Platform (iRep), an outgrowth of the Planning Table, specifically focused on Freedom of Marriage. Kim Heiman serves as the national chair of iRep. The mission at the heart of iRep is to increase religious pluralism in Israel and advance meaningful change to the religion-state status quo. Through education and awareness building, support of Israeli civil society organizations, and sustained and systematic communication between North American and Israeli leadership, iRep strengthens Israel’s relationship with North American Jewry based on mutual recognition of and respect for diverse Jewish expression.
Since 2015, the iRep platform has seen real, measurable results.
iRep’s work has strengthened the trend in Israeli society to support alternative marriage options. From 2015 to 2017, the percentage of Jewish citizens who prefer marriage options outside the Rabbinate for themselves or their family members rose from 37% to 55%. In addition, support has grown within the religious-Zionist population; In less than a year (August 2016 to February 2017), a poll showed that the percentage of religious-Zionist citizens who support some form of civil marriage rose from 25% to 49%.
With support from 17 other Federations, we have invested in both a radio and a billboard campaign to promote public awareness and empower Israelis to seek out opportunities to practice Judaism as they see fit. In addition, we have allocated grants to several Israeli Orthodox organizations who are concerned that the status quo serves to distance Israelis from Judaism. They are conducting seminars and working within their constituencies to advance an openness to alternative marriage options. We are also working with the Russian Israeli community, approximately 250,000 of whom are being denied marriage rights by the Rabbinate. And finally, we have convened an advisory board of Israeli thought leaders to promote our agenda and provide valuable insight and advice.
Going forward, we plan to use the iRep process to address other issues relating to religious diversity, and it is our hope that all 157 Federations will invest in this cause. For more information on the background and goals of iRep, click here.