Tamara Harkavy — How You Help
Freedom of Choice in Marriage: a Love Story
Update March 31: Kim Heiman’s own article on this issue, “Israelis Need Freedom of Choice in Marriage,” was just posted in the Times of Israel.—Danielle
Once upon a time, Kim Heiman found love in Israel.
“What can I say, girl from Nashville meets boy from Cincinnati–in Jerusalem of all places!” she marvels.
Fast forward forty years later, and the former Jewish Federation of Cincinnati president is paying it forward: passionately paving the way for Israelis to write their own love stories in a way that’s personally meaningful for them.
“Right now, if you want to be legitimately married in Israel, it has to be by a rabbi who is sanctioned by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, which is a small group of people who are elected by rabbis who are all Orthodox men on one extreme of the spectrum,” Heiman explains. “They say which rabbis can marry you. And you really don’t have a choice.”
Heiman says she didn’t realize the magnitude of the problem until she attended two “fake” wedding ceremonies in Israel. Both couples had previously traveled to other countries to be officially married. One couple didn’t want an Orthodox wedding. In the other circumstance, the groom was deemed not to be Jewish, even though he had grown up in Israel and served in the Israeli army.
Heiman learned what she witnessed was evidence of a much bigger problem. It’s estimated that between 20-30 percent of Israelis leave the country to have a wedding that reflects their values and lifestyles.
“We have heard so many stories from frustrated Israelis about the alienating effect that the current process of marriage has had on their relationship with Judaism,” Heiman says. “More and more couples are refusing to accept the status quo because it detracts from the spirit of what should the most meaningful and joyous Jewish event of their lives.”
Heiman and Jewish Federation of Greater Washington Past President, Susie Gelman, are leading the push for change as co-chairs of the Israeli Religious Expression Platform (iRep), a new initiative funded by private foundations and a consortium of Jewish Federations. The idea for iRep surfaced several years ago at the Jewish Federations of North America’s Global Planning Table, which convened federation CEOs and lay leaders in an effort to refresh the relationship between the Jewish Federation system and Israel. When Shep Englander, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati, was asked to attend, he chose Heiman as the one lay leader to represent Cincinnati with him.
“There are very few Americans who understand Israeli culture and society as personally and as deeply as Kim does,” says Englander. “She had the very difficult job of bringing the relatively provocative, controversial idea of freedom of choice in marriage to a diverse group of American Jewish community leaders. She was so personal and passionate and candid and open that she really won over this very influential group of national leaders.”
Last year, the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati allocated $50,000 to iRep, and those dollars are already hard at work in the form of iRep grants, which are funding Israeli organizations committed to encouraging Israelis to consider alternative options for marrying outside of the Chief Rabbinate.
“Nothing will change unless the Israeli public demands it. So, we basically need to help give existing grassroots concerns a more effective voice, and that’s where the bulk of iRep’s grant money is going,” said Heiman.
One grant was awarded jointly to Israel Hofsheet and the Reform and Conservative (Masorti) movements in Israel, the leading organizations in Israel in both promoting and implementing marriages outside of the established state framework. A second grant went to Neemanei Torah v’Avodah, an Israeli NGO that works with the religious Zionist community. A third grant was given to Hiddush, the leading advocacy and public educational organization that works to strengthen Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. It will fund a polling and data-gathering project that will establish the baselines of public opinion about marriage freedom issues. Additional smaller grants are supporting fundraising efforts in the Israeli philanthropic community and other smaller NGOs working in alignment with iRep’s goals.
Awarding the first round of grants is a step forward on what Heiman knows will be a long journey.
“It’s not going to be a quick fix,” she says. “The challenge here is having patience and keeping the pedal to the metal. That’s what it’s going to take.”
In recognition of that, the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati has already pledged an allocation of $50,000 in support of iRep’s second round of grant funding. It is the first Federation to do so.
“Cincinnati is leading the nation in the 2016 grant,” Heiman says.
In her mind, that brings hope enough for a happy ending.
“We can bring about change, it’s just a matter of when. Eventually, if enough people get behind it, it’ll happen,” Heiman says. “If Israel is truly going to be the homeland for the Jewish people, then Israel has to be accepting of all Jewish people and that’s the bottom line. They have to give opportunities to all Jews to express Judaism in the way in which they feel is most meaningful to them.”