Be Free Israel highlights efforts for religious pluralism
The Israeli advocacy organization is working to expand options for marriage outside the Rabbinate and public transportation on Shabbat.
Uri Keidar got married in shorts and sandals. But his attire wasn’t the most controversial part of the ceremony.
Performed by a female Orthodox rabbi, Keidar was married through common law, outside the Rabbinate, something that the Israeli government only began recognizing as marriage last month.
He and his wife are one of a growing number of couples choosing to get married outside the Rabbinate, hoping to avoid the strict guidelines and bureaucratic structure.
“As religious institutions become more and more extreme, it drives more and more Israelis away. The support for separation between religion and politics side of it are climbing by the year,” he said, citing a jump from 56 percent support in 2012 to 68 percent in 2017.
As executive director of the religious pluralism group Israel Hofsheet — Be Free Israel, marriage is just one of the issues on which Keidar and his organization are focusing. The group formed in 2009 and has since worked on campaigns to separate religion and politics including expanded public transportation and store openings on Shabbat, kashrut certifications and burial and conversion processes.
On Sunday afternoon, Keidar addressed a group of about 15 people at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, part of a short U.S. visit to engage the American Jewish community.
Maya Haber, who was connected with Keidar through mutual friends, said she hoped conversations like this would connect American and Israeli Jews around issues of pluralism that they all support.
“I call it bridge the gap,” she said. “We want things to happen in Israel, we want it to be a place where we can feel it is ours, and we can help it become that.”
Haber moved to the United States from Israel in 2000 but said a lot has changed already since her time there.
As a teenager, she recalled, her family was told to wait until after Rosh Hashanah to begin the burial proceedings for her grandfather. Haber’s mother was not permitted to say Kaddish over her father when he passed away because she was a woman. Later on, she described the marriage and subsequent divorce process as “medieval.”
As religious institutions become more and more extreme, it drives more and more Israelis away. The support for separation between religion and politics side of it are climbing by the year.
Under Israeli law, couples must get married in a religious ceremony by an Orthodox rabbi under the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. The law prohibits same-sex and interfaith marriage. As an alternative, many Israelis marry abroad, which the government recognizes retroactively.
Havaya, a program of Israel Hofsheet, is encouraging common-law, nondenominational weddings as another option. The Israeli government began recognizing common-law identification cards in January. In 2017, Havaya distributed 400 cards and performed ceremonies for 500 couples.
“We think Israelis should marry at home. I don’t want to be part of telling people they should marry abroad,” Keidar said. “They should marry at home any way they want.”
Israel Hofsheet is also supporting a movement to allow municipalities to decide if stores will be able to open on Shabbat. The Israeli government recently decided that the central government would have control over the decision, angering some local lawmakers and activists who have begun protesting the ruling in Israeli cities.
For Michael Greene, an attendee at the JCC event, the issue of public transportation and store openings on Shabbat in Israel was simple until someone reminded him that some people only have Saturday off from work.
“I think the Rabbinate feels Judaism will be diluted [and] I’m not unsympathetic to what they’re saying,” he said. “At the same time, people who are not religious should be allowed to live.”
Keidar agreed, saying that although Israel Hofsheet does not identify as anti-religion, they have received criticism that they are trying to make “Israel give up its Judaism.”
“People who are making people choose a very specific form [of Judaism] are the ones making Judaism go away,” he argued.
The group is now looking toward the municipal elections in October and the general elections in November to further promote their agenda, from marriage options and transportation on Shabbat to the larger goal of dismantling the “monopoly of the Rabbinate.”
“I don’t want to eliminate the rabbinical court,” he said. “I just want the Reform movement to have acknowledgement of their court. I want the Conservative movement to have acknowledgement of their court and to have other options for people who don’t want to choose either of those.” PJC
Lauren Rosenblatt can be reached at