KIBBUTZ HULDA, Israel — There was nothing subversive about it at first glance: The bride wore white; the groom broke a glass under the wedding canopy to a hearty “Mazel Tov!”
But the couple was part of a growing rebellion playing out in tuxedos and lace as Israelis increasingly chafe at the grip of the strictly Orthodox state religious authorities over legal Jewish weddings in Israel.
Married among fig and pomegranate trees at a rural kibbutz on a recent Friday afternoon, Adam Mendelsohn-Lessel and Julia Eizenman replaced the traditional seven blessings with their own vows. Instead of a rabbi, a stage and television actor officiated, opening with a rhyming rap about how they met.
“I didn’t really want a wedding, I just wanted a party,” said Mr. Mendelsohn-Lessel, 36, who works in a factory producing coffee roasters. “I don’t like the establishment and institutions.”
Ms. Eizenman, 29, a graphic designer born in Moldova to a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, would not have qualified as sufficiently Jewish to marry through the official channels without undergoing a conversion, because, legally, Jewishness is matrilineal.
Thousands of Israeli couples a year are now ignoring the legalities, bypassing the state rabbinical authority, known as the Chief Rabbinate, and marrying any way they wish.
According to a study this year, state-sanctioned rabbinical weddings decreased by about 8 percent in the past two years, and by about 15 percent in the largely secular city of Tel Aviv.
There is no civil marriage in Israel. Under a political compromise reached 70 years ago between the nation’s secular Zionist founders and the religious forces whose support they needed, the rabbinical authorities have exclusive control over marriage and divorce. The disproportionate power granted to ultra-Orthodox political parties by Israel’s coalition politics keeps the system in place.
Supporters of the system say it preserves unity by maintaining one standard of Judaism that adheres to strict Jewish law and that it protects future generations from canonical chaos.
“It’s important to continue with the centralized rabbinical marriage registration, an institution that is recognized throughout the Jewish world,” said Eliezer Simcha Weiss, the Rabbinate-affiliated rabbi of a local regional council in central Israel, who noted that the vast majority of couples still marry through the Rabbinate.
But to register with the Rabbinate couples must qualify as Jewish. A bride has to plunge in a ritual bath before the wedding, be veiled and follow the groom to the canopy, where she routinely has a nonspeaking role. The traditional wedding contract is written in Aramaic. And if things do not work out in the end, the wife is dependent on her husband’s agreement to obtain a religious divorce.
Many young Israelis want a more egalitarian ceremony and freedom from the strictures of the rabbinical authorities leading to a surge in alternative weddings.
In a country still legislating its national identity and arguing over equality, the wedding wars also reflect broader dissent against what many here view as religious coercion.
“What we’re seeing in Israel is no less than a quiet revolution driven from the bottom up by organizations and individuals,” said Uri Keidar, executive director of Be Free Israel, an organization that advocates civil rights and pluralism and is one of several offering alternative marriages and unions.
“They have decided they are done with waiting for our politicians or the Chief Rabbinate,” he added. “Israelis, by the thousands, are reclaiming their Judaism and choosing their own path to marriage, while the political system is in stalemate.”
With the summer wedding season in full swing, the revolt against the Rabbinate recently made headlines. First the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs posted a short, promotional video on its Facebook page advertising Israel as a cool venue for alternative weddings, though it failed to mention that such weddings were not legally recognized in Israel.
“The Foreign Ministry accurately showed there is a new trend,” said Uri Regev, an Israeli Reform rabbi and president of Hiddush, an organization promoting religious liberty and freedom of choice in marriage. “But what about truth in advertising?”
Then the police detained a Conservative rabbi for questioning about his role in conducting unregistered weddings, technically a criminal offense punishable by up to two years in prison.
To wed legally, all Israelis — Jews, Muslims and Christians — face a narrow choice of marrying through their respective state religious authorities or leaving the country, often flying to nearby Cyprus for a civil ceremony. Then they register as married on their return at Israel’s Interior Ministry, where weddings performed legally abroad are recognized.
Jewish marriages performed by rabbis of the more liberal streams of Reform and Conservative Judaism, though popular in the United States, are not officially recognized in Israel. Still, some Israelis are opting for the more flexible, egalitarian ceremonies offered by Reform and Conservative rabbis. Other Israelis get a friend to marry them, or they sign a civil union agreement with a lawyer, or they register as common law spouses or simply live together.
Even a small but growing number of observant Orthodox couples are rejecting the Rabbinate and marrying according to strict Jewish law, but in private, more egalitarian ceremonies performed by maverick Orthodox rabbis.
The alternative marriage wave also caters to gay couples who cannot legally marry in Israel.
There are few legal drawbacks in not having a state-sanctioned wedding since common law couples receive similar rights and benefits in Israel. And should an unregistered marriage break down, no religious divorce is required through the Rabbinate since the state did not recognize the couple as married in the first place.
Rabbi Weiss, of the Rabbinate, dismissed the reports of a surge in alternative weddings as a promotional campaign by the organizations advocating them. He described the Foreign Ministry video as “fake news.”
Some couples, he noted, have a big, alternative wedding and then marry a second time in a small Rabbinate ceremony, if only to satisfy more conservative relatives.
The 2018 study on wedding trends, by Panim, a network of Jewish and Israeli organizations, indicated that more than half the couples who married alternatively met the Jewish legal requirements for a Rabbinate wedding but opted against one because of their convictions.
Gal Nitsan, 30, recently married Oz Shorer, also 30, in a ceremony led by a female Reform rabbi one Friday at sunset on a beach in northern Israel.
“It was clear to both of us that neither of us wanted any connection with the Rabbinate,” said Ms. Nitsan, who is a speech therapist. “Marrying through the Rabbinate means agreeing to inequality.”
“But I said to myself my great-grandparents, grandparents and parents married under the chuppa with the seven blessings,” she added. “I wanted to continue that tradition.”
So with the rabbi’s help they drafted their own vows and a version of the marriage contract in modern Hebrew. “We built a new interpretation of it,” Ms. Nitsan said, “according to the rules we wanted to live by together.”
More than 400,000 Israelis, mostly from families who emigrated from the former Soviet Union, are not considered legally Jewish and cannot marry through the Rabbinate without undergoing conversion. Other couples are required to undergo special background checks to prove their Jewish credentials.
Liliya and Alexander Vilenchik, whose families came from Moscow and St. Petersburg, were married in the Jerusalem hills in July by Nardy Grun, a secular rabbi or humanistic spiritual leader.
“Both of us are Jewish from the ‘wrong’ side,” said Ms. Vilenchik, 25, meaning their fathers are Jewish but not their mothers.
The couple rewrote their seven blessings “to be more secular, without God, God, God all the time,” Ms. Vilenchik said. Some secular brides also break a glass, a ritual traditionally performed by the groom. Ms. Vilenchik chose not to because she was in heels.
Pola Barkan, 28, director of the Cultural Brigade, a group that promotes Russian culture in Israel, married Mark Barkan, 29, in an Orthodox Rabbinate ceremony. After his family had fought to remain Jewish in the Soviet Union, Mr. Barkan said he would not give up on it so easily. Still, Ms. Barkan insisted on adding an eighth blessing, praying for all her friends to be able to marry without exception or exclusion.
Rabbi David Stav, the chairman of Tzohar, an Orthodox organization that helps couples navigate the Rabbinate bureaucracy, said, “Every monopoly needs competition. I think the competition will be good for the Rabbinate and improve it.”
Batya Kahana-Dror, the director of Mavoi Satum, a group that helps women who have been refused a Jewish divorce by their husbands, also facilitates private, unregistered Orthodox weddings.
“It’s a civil revolution,” Ms. Kahana-Dror said. “The young religious public is very critical of the Rabbinate. Today there are options. People are voting with their feet.”
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