Shira Hofesh and  Alexey Kabishcher by the Forward

Israelis say ‘I do’ to virtual Utah marriages. The government says, ‘You don’t.’

When the pandemic scuttled Shira Hofesh’s plans to get married overseas, she did what a growing number of Israelis are opting to do — she got married virtually in the state of Utah.

That seemingly simple act has landed her at the center of a case before the Israeli Supreme Court, one that — if her appeal succeeds — could fundamentally change the options available to Israeli couples unable to get hitched in the Holy Land.

Hofesh’s husband, Alexey Kabishcher, immigrated to Israel from Ukraine as a child but is not recognized as Jewish by the Orthodox Rabbinate. As a result, the couple could not get married in Israel.

Israel does not have a system of civil marriage. Couples seeking to get married in Israel must do so through the religious institution of their faith. Jewish couples can only be married or divorced by the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate, Muslim couples must be married by an imam, and Christians by a priest.

The existing laws make it impossible for intermarriage or same-sex weddings to take place in Israel, or even Jewish weddings performed by non-Orthodox rabbis. These policies— holdovers from Ottoman law —have increasingly alienated a large portion of Israel’s population.

In line with legal precedent stretching back decades, Israel’s Interior Ministry does recognize the validity of legally certified marriages and civil unions performed overseas, however. Cyprus — scarcely a one hour flight from Tel Aviv — is a common destination for Israelis getting hitched without wrangling with the rabbinate.

But with most international trips impractical, the coronavirus pandemic has closed off almost all avenues for Israeli couples seeking those alternatives.

Hofesh started searching online for alternatives when she stumbled upon Utah.

Last year, the Beehive State approved wedding ceremonies over the internet in which only the officiating party is located in Utah proper, and which doesn’t require any of the parties to be residents of the state. Israelis like Hofesh started flocking — virtually — to Utah, prompting Israel’s interior minister to institute a freeze on marriages performed in Utah.

By November, several Israeli couples were married online by a justice of the peace in Utah, then submitted the paperwork to Israel’s Population and Immigration Authority for a change in legal status. Hofesh said that she and her husband handed their marriage license to the Interior Ministry on Nov. 1.

They awaited approval while the authorities conducted their review of the documentation. But in the meantime, the Hebrew press reported on Israelis marrying online in Utah.

Once word was out, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri — a politician from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party —ordered all weddings performed online in Utah frozen until further notice.

Hofesh said the Interior Ministry informed her not to bother coming to pick up her paperwork because it had been returned to evaluation.

“We brought them a document from abroad that we obtained legally,” Hofesh said. “To me, it seems like they’re demanding that as a bureaucratic step, I get on a plane.”

A religious minister thwarts Israelis trying to marry via Utah

Eventually, she and a handful of other couples filed a petition to Israel’s High Court of Justice to overturn the interior minister’s order to freeze registration of marriages performed over the Internet.

The suit is titled Hofesh vs. Interior Minister. In Hebrew, Hofesh’s surname means “freedom.”

Deri’s office said in a statement to The Forward that because the ministry has yet to address the matter of an online wedding ceremony, “it’s appropriate that the minister and senior [population and immigration] authority officials understand the principle and the way to treat it.”

“Until the subject is examined and studied, Deri asked to evaluate the requests,” the interior minister’s office said.

Vlad Finkelstein, the attorney representing Hofesh et al., said the court mandated the state respond to the petition no later than Feb. 10.

A religious minister thwarts Israelis trying to marry via Utah

“We are not going into issues of human rights, we are not going into the matter of civil marriage in Israel,” Finkelstein said. All they seek, he added, is the registration of official U.S. documentation in line with decades of Israeli legal precedence.

Utah state officials did not reply to requests for comment about the matter.

Marriage rights groups have joined in the fight. On Jan. 18 Hiddush, an Israeli religious equality organization, wrote a letter to Israel’s attorney general and interior minister appealing them to reverse course.

Hiddush Director Uri Regev said that Deri’s decision was “a reflection of a fundamentalist religious urge to turn Israel into a theocracy, into a Torah state.”

The Utah loophole “is a way of getting around the unacceptable state of affairs in Israel with regard to marriage,” but did not solve the underlying problem that Israeli citizens must “go overseas in order to carry out the basic civil liberty of marriage,” Regev said.

“The real solution would only be if Israel acknowledges the universally recognized right to family, respected by every other democracy in the world except Israel,” Regev said.

For Hofesh, if Israel rejects her marriage in Utah, she believes it will “create a bizarre situation that everywhere else we’re married, but here we aren’t.”

A religious minister thwarts Israelis trying to marry via Utah

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Israel thwarts Israelis trying to marry via Utah

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