Faces of Israel at Shwayder Camp

posted on july 18, 2011

I just returned from a week of Faces of Israel programming at Shwayder Camp in Idaho Springs CO, and what fun it was!  After maneuvering the RV over the long dirt road up to camp, I was given the opportunity to teach the Gimels and Daleds (12-15 year olds), SITs (16-17 year olds) and staff.

The Faces of Israel programming focused primarily on Jewish identity and what it means to have a Jewish state, and also introduced concepts of religious pluralism and the role of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate.  The program format allowed for exciting conversation in between film segments, led by bunk counselors at each table and facilitated by me as I walked from table to table.

There were ~100 campers and staff in the room, and each age group gained something different from the program. Many of the SITs and staff stayed for follow-up conversations later in the evening, and the camp Rabbi commented that this was the best educational program that Shwayder has had all summer.  Awesome.

Faces of Israel Director Amy Beth Oppenheimer With Campers and Staff at Shwayder

Check out the Faces of Israel photo album for additional, high-quality pictures from the event!

written by amy beth oppenheimer

One Frame Doesn’t Fit All: The Complications of Civil Marriage in the Jewish State

posted on monday, july 11th, 2011

The recent decision to legalize gay marriage in New York represents a milestone in the fight for equality for same-sex couples. In addition to injecting the American gay rights movement with revitalized momentum, it has been said to have broader-reaching effects. To quote Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a crucial advocate in passing the bill, “You’re going to see this message resonate all across the country now. If New York can do it, it’s OK for every other place to do it.” Every other place? Cuomo must have speaking domestically, because the issue of same sex marriage is still a touchy one in many corners of the world, Israel included. The Holy Land, it seems, is still miles away from recognizing civil unions and marriages that breach faith barriers, let alone those of a homosexual nature.

That’s not to say that heterosexual marriage issues in Israel are non-existent. In fact, this very issue has been recently contested. In May 2011, an Israeli organization called Free Marriage released a commercial under the banner statement that “One Frame Does Not Fit All.” The T.V. spot satirizes the marital constraints by featuring gay and straight couples attempting to undergo their nuptials within a black framed box, symbolizing the limits imposed upon Israelis into the narrow “frame” within which marriages are currently conducted.

But while the issue of “free marriage” is gaining traction in the Holy Land, the current reality is that the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate – comprised exclusively of members of the Ultra-Orthodox community – holds the marital reigns. What this means is that not only must the couple seeking nuptials meet the requirements of Orthodox halacha to marry – requirements which include being single, Jewish from matrilineal descent, not engaged in a relationship prohibited by traditional Jewish law, etc. – they must also undergo a preparatory counseling process prior to receiving approval for marriage. This creates copious problems for those who just don’t fit the mold. 

To circumvent these obstacles or when part of a non-sanctioned union, many Israeli interfaith and same-sex couples go outside of the country to marry, as weddings performed abroad have been recognized by Israel since 1962 (as are same sex unions from abroad, thanks to a 2006 Supreme Court ruling).

Nearby Cyprus is the haven for many Israelis seeking a quick, foreign marriage, where their ceremony is performed and videotaped, with the evidence being brought back to Israel, where it recieves legal recognition.

With the recent passing of a bill allowing civil unions for individuals of no religion, Israel is balancing its democratic roots alongside its Jewish ones.

While the Rabbinate has not supported a solution amenable to many Israelis in favor of civil unions, they haven’t fully ignored the issue either. Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, a prominent Israeli religious scholar, recently took the major step of supporting civil unions for non-Jews as defined by Orthodox Jewish courts. The commercial made by Free Marriage may reflect the present, “framed” state of marriage, but the future of the Israeli marital process is up in the air.

writted by elie lichtschein

Jewish Agency Gains Power to Approve Orthodox Converts for Aliyah

posted on tuesday, july 5th, 2011

Big news hit the Jewish world two weeks ago, yet it barely received press coverage outside of Jewish media. After a years-long battle over the Law of Return for Orthodox converts to Judaism, the Interior Ministry of Israel has finally announced a change in the law. Whereas previously only the Chief Rabbinate could determine the legitimacy of Orthodox conversions (effectively making the Rabbinate the “Chief Rabbinate of the world”), now the Jewish Agency will be granted that authority.

It is an ironic twist in Israel’s religion-and-state profile that for the most part, Orthodox converts have had more difficulty being accepted as citizens than Conservative and Reform converts. Because these conversions are recognized by the state for the purposes of citizenship (marriage is of course a separate story, and that’s what this blog is for!), Israel has relied on the centralized leadership of the Reform and Conservative movements abroad to legitimate conversions. However, the Orthodox world has no such centralized leadership, and so the Rabbinate assumed that mantle, causing great distress to many families.

Consider the case that sparked this change. As reported in an excellent Jewish Telegraphic Agency article, the organization ITIM filed a lawsuit in May on behalf of Tomas Dohlan, a man who converted to Orthodox Judaism in February 2010 and has been denied Israeli citizenship since. He, his wife and four children arrived in Israel in February, and his wife is an Israeli citizen — none of which has helped him in his bid for citizenship.

The article provides some helpful historical background.

The Israeli Supreme Court ruled in 1988 that individuals who underwent conversions in “recognized” communities around the world would be eligible for aliyah under the Law of Return. However, the Interior Ministry consults with Israel’s Chief Rabbinate to determine which Orthodox communities are “recognized.” Previously, only about 50% of Orthodox rabbis in America and Canada have had their conversions recognized by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, a source of great inconvenience to converts seeking to gain citizenship under the Law of Return.

The article quotes Rabbi Seth Farber, director of ITIM and a documentary subject of Faces of Israel:

“This new policy is a victory for the Jewish people and Zionism,” Rabbi Seth Farber, director of ITIM, told JTA. “It re-emphasizes the strong relationship between Diaspora Jewish communities and the State of Israel, and quiets those critics who seek to distance Israel from the Jewish people. We look forward to the new policy being implemented immediately, and to the resolution of the plight of converts who have turned to ITIM, who are being denied their rights.”

Farber told The Jerusalem Post that his organization will not withdraw its lawsuit from the Supreme Court until it sees how the new system is implemented.

Kudos to Rabbi Farber, ITIM, and possibly the Interior Ministry for beginning to tackle this problem! As we’ve always said at Faces of Israel, the Jewish State is just a few decades old, and with each year new steps are taken to deal with the issues that arise in a Jewish and Democratic State. Perhaps this will be one more hurdle out of the way.

written by alex schindler

“Torah Study Is Their Profession” — But Can It Replace Military Service, Too?

posted on sunday, may 15, 2011

Over the past several weeks thousands of yeshiva students in Israel have received exemptions from military service by mail. Those who received exemptions fulfilled new criteria for dismissal thanks to recent reforms in Israel’s draft policy, which were intended to increase Haredi enlistment. The newly exempt include parents of more than three children and students over the age of 28. Moreover, even Haredim over the age of 28 engaged in National Service (social work work for the general good, which current law allows draftees to opt for instead of enlisting) were dismissed in the middle of their terms of service.

An ongoing source of tension between the religious and nonreligious in Israel is the perceived unfairness which pervades the military draft. Every secular Israeli male must serve for three years, and every secular Israeli woman must serve for two. Yet only a minority of Haredi men serve in the military, and most religious women opt out as well. This arrangement owes itself to the vary same Status Quo agreement discussed in the first chapter of Faces of Israel. Essentially, among many other compromises promised to the Haredi community by David Ben-Gurion was the guarantee that full-time Yeshiva students with no profession would be exempt from military service. The policy was called “Torato Omanuto,” or “His Torah Is His Profession.”

New reforms over the past several years have attempted to reduce the growing number of Haredim who avoid any military or national service. Thus, the recent exemptions have been met with a surprised disapproval from activists and leaders who desire a more equitable draft policy, privileging no members of society over any other. Rabbi Uri Regev, who heads the Israeli religious equality organization Hiddush, called the move a “slap in the face” to non-Haredi Israelis forced to sacrifice three years of their life without the option of any lifestyle-based exemption.

This week Israel celebrates its 63rd birthday. Some of the same questions which in 1948 plagued David Ben-Gurion—how to reconcile the state’s Jewish and democratic character, how to run a state comprising Jews of different religious persuasions – continue to rear their heads today. That is why it is important that these issues stay at the forefront of Jewish dialogue, both in Israel and in the Diaspora: because none of us wants intra-Jewish resentment to be in the newspapers in 63 years from today. Let’s all hope that will be history 63 years from today.

written by alex schindler

Fearing Rabbinate, Venues Avoid Same-Sex Wedding Celebrations

posted on monday, may 2, 2011

Though Israeli law does not allow the Rabbinate to deny a venue’s kashrut license on the basis of anything but the food it serves, several cases of abuse have made owners wary of hosting same-sex wedding celebrations.

At times, rabbis have threatened to revoke kashrut licenses in objection to behaviors deemed “immodest,” such as belly dancing. Now owners fear for their economic wellbeing if they host celebrations of same-sex weddings.

Moreover, Israeli law regarding orientation-based discrimination contains a loophole large enough to render it ineffective. As written in Ha’aretz, “Although it is illegal to deny access to public facilities on the basis of sexual orientation, there is an exception if refusal is required due to the ‘nature or substance of the product, the public service or the public site.” As may be expected, Orthodox views of homosexuality have led to questionable use of this exception.

Though the courts continue to maintain their stance against this form of discrimination, financial pressure takes its toll on venue owners who fear offending religious customers and rabbinical kashrut supervisors. Several gay customers have found themselves turned away from wedding halls:

“Recently Hagar Comay sought out a facility for her wedding celebration with her same-sex partner. She said a restaurant in Nes Harim, Pichonka, put her off repeatedly by saying no dates were available.  She asked a male friend to pose as a potential customer, as she suspected that a same-sex wedding was probably the reason she was being rebuffed. One of the owners later admitted, Comay said, that he could not endanger his kashrut certification over her celebration. However, he later told Haaretz that Comay was not refused over the issue of kashrut certification, and that he had only said there was sensitivity at his establishment over the issue of weddings because of his religious clientele.” –Ha’aretz, linked above

Though in some limited respects the gay community of Israel enjoys more rights than its counterpart in America, stories like this remind us of how much ground remains to be covered before they can be proud members of a fully inclusive society.

written by alex schindler

Civil Unions: No Longer a Dream

posted on tuesday, april 26, 2011

Last week, Svetlana Sadigursky and Gabby Liebeschitz became the first Israeli couple ever to be wed in Israel in a civil union. Israel Beiteinu MK David Rotem, a sponsor of both the Civil Union Bill and last summer’s controversial conversion bill, initially hoped that the law would apply to any Israeli wishing to marry outside of the Chief Rabbinate — but religious parties succeeded in quashing that idea.

In order to obtain a civil marriage in Israel, a couple must be examined by local religious authorities to ensure that they are in fact without state-recognized religion. Svetlana and Gabby were the first of 25 couples to meet the criteria and wed.

One wonders what this means for gay Israeli men and women who are “without religion.” In any event, this is one step forward not only for Israel’s secular and non-Jewish communities, but for any of its citizens who hope someday to marry without interference or involvement from the Chief Rabbinate.

written by alex schindler

Beyond Faces Of Israel: A Look At The Agunah Problem

posted on friday, april 8, 2011

Readers familiar with Faces of Israel may recall that the educational program, while addressing many serious issues of religion and state in Israel, does not focus on the particular question of agunot — women “chained” or “anchored” to marriages to men who refuse to give them a writ of religious divorce, or get. The reason we did not touch this topic is quite simple. Faces deals with many of the major religion and state issues in Israel that have been left previously unexplored. The agunah problem is one that has already inspired several excellent documentaries, educational initiatives, and charitable organizations. We decided it was more urgent to prompt discussion of other matters that have seen less light. With that said, this blog will continue to report on new developments in all issues relating to religion and state in Israel, including the agunah issue.

It is unknown how many women in Israel are agunot. Israeli rabbinical courts have, at times, released numbers which are simply too low to be credible, as has been pointed out by religious women’s rights activist Rivkah Lubitch. In the early 1990s TIME magazine estimated that there were 10,000. The US State Department’s 2009 report on human rights in Israel notes that there are “thousands,” correctly adding that “Jewish women married to Jewish men do not have redress to civil courts; only religious courts can rule on personal status issues.”

We’ll end this blog with some bittersweet news. One of the important messages of Faces of Israel is that these tricky questions of religion and state are being worked out all the time. Progress happens, thanks to people like you who take an interest in it. And so we happily report on the landmark January 31st decision by the Tel Aviv District Court that “recalcitrant husbands,” that is, men who refuse their wives the basic right of divorce, are liable to be sued in civil court. A woman just two months ago had her bid to sue her recalcitrant husband for seven hundred thousand New Israeli Sheqalim upheld. In other words, civil courts are finally giving chained women some reprieve.

But here is the flip side. Rivkah Lubitch, again, reports on an astounding statement from a Rabbinic Court in Israel:

“A man who refused to give his wife a get for 10 years asked a rabbinic court to determine if he is should be considered a “recalcitrant husband” or not. He hoped to present the determination to the Family Courts where his wife was suing him for damages that had ensued as a result of his behavior.

However, the Rabbinic Court surprisingly turned matters on their head by ruling that the wife was “anchoring herself” to the marriage.

The judges even suggested that “perhaps the woman will wake up from her coma and from her stubbornness and understand that she is the recalcitrant one”-since she refuses to compromise with her husband on division of property.

On this, it appears that the civil courts and rabbinic courts may be at odds in the near term. Let’s call this two steps forward, and one step back. That’s progress, no?

written by alex schindler

Orthodox Conversions In Question For Right Of Return

posted on saturday, april 3, 2011

Last summer,  a bill by Yisrael Beiteinu MK David Rotem sparked outrage in the Jewish Diaspora. The contents of the bill were controversial because, while they made conversion standards within Israel more lenient, allowing conversions to be performed by any city rabbi, they explicitly granted this right to Orthodox rabbis only. Conversions from the Diaspora were not to be recognized by the Rabbinate unless performed by (approved) Orthodox rabbis.

The bill was put on hold indefinitely because of the outcry of Diaspora Jewry. Eventually it became clear that, while it might have caused major annoyances for non-Orthodox converts from America, the bill would not have impacted their ability to make Aliyah and gain Israeli citizenship, as “civic Jewishness” is a matter for the Interior Ministry, whereas “religious Jewishness” is the province of the Rabbinate. Confusing, I know. But the bottom line is, after years of fighting for their rights, Reform and Conservative converts are able to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return that grants all Jews citizenship if they choose it, and this is now enshrined in Israeli law.
Orthodox converts, for their part, have always taken their Aliyah benefits for granted. However, a recent Forward article by Nathan Jeffay highlights a new phenomenon. For a little more than a year now, the Interior Ministry’s policy toward Jewish conversions has shifted. Once, they simply accepted the credentials of converts and allowed their easy acquisition of citizenship. In the event the Rabbinate disagreed, the worst consequences for the new citizen was a choice between reconverting or being unable to marry in Israel (a privilege within the control of the Rabbinate, a major focus of Faces of Israel).
But times have changed. Now, the Interior Ministry defers to the (Orthodox) Chief Rabbinate of Israel in determining whether a convert is kosher enough to gain Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return. And so for the first time, we have Orthodox conversions in the position of Hebrew National hot dogs: kosher according to some Orthodox rabbis, but not the ones in power.
There is an irony here. Under Israeli law, Reform and Conservative conversions, even if the Rabbinate rejects their Jewishness, are eligible for citizenship under the Law of Return. But now, some Orthodox converts are not, because no such law was ever previously necessary.
Interior Minister Eli Yishai, a member of the Ultra-Orthodox and Sephardic party Shas, is primarily responsible for these changes. And Orthodox leaders in America, taking their cues from leaders in the Reform and Conservative movement who have fought these battles before, now find themselves butting heads with the Israel religious-civic complex in a way quite reminiscent of American Jewry’s reaction to the Rotem Bill last summer.
Read the linked article to find out what one “Face of Israel,” Seth Farber of ITIM had to say on the matter!
written by alex schindler

Welcome To The New Faces Of Israel Blog

| March 27th, 2011 · No Comments

Our goal here is to continue an important discussion, interactively and in real time. We will be updating the Faces of Israel blog frequently with news about religion and state issues in Israel, and about the ongoing success of the Faces of Israel educational program. You will see plenty of linked stories and plenty more original content on this blog, and we welcome your input to the conversation.

The questions raised by Faces of Israel are important and ongoing. A state not yet 63 years old and born in crisis is a work in progress. We hope to use this blog to show readers some of that work and some of that progress, and would love to hear from all of you.

Shalom, and if there are topics that you want to read about, let us know at alex@facesthemovie.com.

written by alex schindler


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