Eight years ago I got married in the little town of Wagoner, Oklahoma. It was my first time in the US. My wife Katie and I were living in Israel at the time, young and in love, and were ready to tie the knot. There was one problem - I am Jewish and she isn’t. In Israel a Jew can only get married through the Orthodox Rabbinate, and we weren’t exactly a kosher couple. So we had a wedding party in Jerusalem, and did the paperwork in the US. That’s how a young Israeli Jew like me found himself in a court house in Wagoner, Oklahoma. It was an unusual scene. Even the judge was a bit puzzled when I showed him my passport. Nevertheless, he signed the papers, and Katie and I returned to Israel as Mr. and Mrs.
At the time, I didn’t make much of this experience. That was just how things were. But years later, an article in an Israeli news paper caught my attention. It told the story of a cruise ship to Cyprus with dozens of Israeli couples on board. They were on their way to get married in a mass wedding in Larnaca, because just like us, they couldn’t get married in Israel.
I started studying the issue, and learned that every year thousands of Israeli couples leave the country in order to get married in a civil ceremony. There are many reasons why they do that. Some choose to opt out of the Orthodox process for ideological reasons, some because how difficult and demanding that process is, and some simply because they have no other option. I decided to join the wedding cruise this summer to meet some of the couples and hear their stories.
The wedding cruise takes place once a year, and is organized by Natan Uretsky’s travel agency, an agency that specializes in wedding trips. Over the past two decades, Natan has helped more than 10,000 couples to get married. Ironically, the offices of his agency are located in the same building as the local Rabbinate. “We don’t bother them, they don’t bother us,” Natan says and shrugs his shoulders. “That’s how it is in Israel.”
In the early 90’s Natan, who emigrated from Ukraine, recognized the market in Israel for wedding trips. Back then, hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union came to Israel. They entered the country on the Right of Return. Many of them had Jewish roots, but were not Jewish on paper, which meant they could not get married in Israel. Natan’s agency offered a solution to this problem. They created wedding trip packages, and took care of all the legal process for the couples. The majority of the couples flew to Cyprus for their wedding, mainly due to the short travel distance and relatively easy bureaucratic process.
In 2011, Natan came up with the idea to arrange a cruise that would take dozens of couples to a mass wedding in Cyprus. That year, over 150 couples signed up for the cruise. The mass wedding was one of the largest civil wedding ceremonies in the world. Following the success, Natan’s agency has continued the wedding cruise tradition, sending a ship to Larnaca every summer.
This year 48 couples joined the cruise. Most of them were immigrants from former Soviet Union. Today there are close to 300,000 Israelis that are classified as “irreligious.” Usually, that means they have Jewish roots, but are not Jewish according to the State law. In 2013 a new law was created allowing civil marriage in Israel between two irreligious partners. This law has improved the situation for the community, but didn’t solve the issue of marriage between someone who is Jewish according to the Rabbinate and someone who isn’t.
Another hurdle for many immigrants is how difficult it is to prove your Judaism. Even if you are Jewish from both sides, you have to provide the Rabbinate with all kinds of evidence to being Jewish. If you can’t prove your Judaism, they won’t marry you. It can be an exhausting and often humiliating process. One person on the cruise told me about a case where someone was asked to provide photographs of his grandparents Jewish graves in Russia. It was not the first time I heard about such absurd demands from the Rabbinate.
On the ship I met Lev, a 27 year old immigrant from Russia. Lev came to Israel through the Naale program when he was 15 years old. He learned Hebrew, finished high school in Israel and then joined the IDF and served as a paratrooper. Several of his friends from the Naale program were with him on the cruise. They were all familiar with Lev’s situation, as they had gone through the same thing when they got married.
As the Orthodox Rabbinate has a monopoly on marriage in Israel, even couples who want to have a Jewish wedding are shying away from it. Many couples say that if they could have a Reform or Conservative wedding they would, but those weddings are not recognized by the State. So they opt out. The wedding cruise is an attempt to make something sweet out of a bitter situation. All the couples are literally in the same boat, and together they celebrate their love. Yet witnessing the ceremony was an odd experience that reminded me of my own wedding at the court house in Wagoner. It was that same feeling of something being out of place. Maybe I felt it because I knew that the couples weren’t in Cyprus by choice. Maybe I felt it because I knew they wished they could celebrate the happiest day of their lives in their own country and on their own terms, just like I wished to do 8 years ago.
Videos shot by Ville Nuoraho, directed and edited by Oriel Danielson.
The videos in the article are part of a documentary in production on the topic of civil marriage. For more information about the film follow director Oriel Danielson on Twitter or contact him directly.