Vlad Melnik and Julie Shavkuta were both born in Odesa, the Ukrainian port city that has become the site of heartbreaking devastation in recent weeks.
They both immigrated to Israel as children, became citizens, served in the army and attended university. Eventually, they met and fell in love. But when they decided to get married, they were forced to fly to Prague to hold the ceremony.
Why? Because according to the state, neither Melnik nor Shavkuta is considered Jewish, since their fathers, not their mothers, are Jews. Judaism is inherited matrilineally under Jewish law, or halacha.
Today, since there is no civil marriage in Israel, the only way couples such as Melnik and Shavkuta can legally wed is to do so abroad. In a holdover from the Ottoman Empire, marriages can only be performed by couples’ relevant religious bodies – Jews through the rabbinate, Muslims through the Islamic courts and Christians through their own denominations. Those who are not registered with any religion have no legal way to wed in Israel.
As millions flee the war in Ukraine following Russia’s invasion, Israeli officials have declared that they will open their arms to any Ukrainians who qualify to immigrate to Israel. Under the Law of Return, any individual with at least one Jewish grandparent, or a Jewish spouse, is eligible for Israeli citizenship.
However, a significant portion of those new immigrants are expected to be in the same category as Melnik and Shavkuta – Jewish enough to obtain citizenship, but not Jewish enough to be married or buried as Jews in the Jewish state.
“I served in the Givati Brigade [an IDF combat unit], and now I work in high-tech, pay taxes, I paid my debt,” Melnik said at a hearing about civil unions in the Knesset Committee on Jewish Religious Services in mid-February. “I don’t see a reason why, if I have duties as a citizen, I have to fly and get married in a foreign country instead of getting married in a legal fashion here.”
“To get married in a foreign country, in a foreign language, disconnects you from the country,” Shavukta said of the couple’s nuptials in Prague. “[The ceremony] wasn’t in Hebrew, and it’s unfortunate.”
Yisrael Beytenu MK Yulia Malinovsky chaired the Knesset hearing examining the issue of civil unions. She said the issue throws a spotlight on the “invisible” citizens of the State of Israel.
“These citizens are invisible. They exist and don’t exist in the eyes of the state,” said Malinovsky. “When they have to pay taxes, they certainly exist. When they have to do reserve duty and enlist in the army, all is good, nobody checks if they’re kosher. But when we have to give them the basic right to establish a family, here we have failed, big time.”
Before the war in Ukraine broke out, there were an estimated 500,000 Israeli citizens in the same boat as Melnik and Shavkuta – officially registered as having “no religion.” Once the fighting has ended and the dust has settled, it is unclear how many more Ukrainian immigrants will have settled in the Jewish state. As of Thursday, approximately 5,000 new immigrants from Ukraine and other former Soviet countries had already arrived in Israel, and thousands more have embarked upon the process, according to the Jewish Agency.
Israeli officials have indicated that they expect a wave of new immigrants from Russia as well, as citizens there face increasingly difficult conditions, cut off by sanctions and afraid to speak out. Tens of thousands — or even hundreds of thousands — have been predicted to join the approximately 1.2 million immigrants from the former Soviet Union already living in Israel.
‘Jewish,’ not Jewish
It is too soon to know how many of the expected new citizens will not be registered as halachically Jewish but rather as “of no religion,” but it could be as many as half. During a briefing to the Jewish People Policy Institute on Tuesday, Prof. Vladimir (Ze’ev) Khanin, a professor at Tel Aviv University and a native of Ukraine, presented statistics showing that, among immigrants to Israel from Ukraine in 2014-2018, 40% had three or four Jewish grandparents, 22% had two Jewish grandparents, 21% had one and 23% had none.
Dr. Anna Prashizky, a native of Russia who teaches at the Western Galilee College and specializes in immigration from the former Soviet Union, said that excluding Russian-speaking immigrants from life-cycle rituals can be very painful.
“It’s a very sad situation because, as an anthropologist, I know that Jewish rituals of weddings and burials have very strong symbolic meaning – I call it ritual belonging,” said Prashizky. “For immigrants, the meaning of ritual belonging is very, very important.”
For immigrants, the meaning of ritual belonging is very, very important
New immigrants “are ‘homecomers,’ they wish to belong. They are full Israeli citizens, they serve in the Israeli army, most of them have higher education — and they are not able to marry in Israel,” said Prashizky.
The issue applies not only to weddings, but also to burials. Israelis who are considered to have no religion are not allowed to be buried among the general Jewish population at most cemeteries across the country. While some cemeteries have areas where they are allowed to be buried, there are not many of these, they may be far from home – and many are roped off from the rest of the burial plots.
“Weddings and burials are like symbolic gates for belonging to the Jewish collective,” said Prashizky. “And if you make this symbolic separation, people feel like they’re not welcomed, that they don’t fully belong.”
Shlomit Ravitzki Tur-Paz, the director of the Israel Democracy Institute’s Center for Religion, Nation, and State, said Israeli immigrants with no religion will be largely treated as Jews – up to a point.
Culturally, said Ravitzki Tur-Paz, “the environment will see them as Jews, everyone will see them as Jews” and they will receive a Jewish education, have vacation on Jewish holidays, be treated in the army as Jewish. “They will be seen by the community as part of the Jewish community. The place that will be different… is mainly in marriage.”
Treated with doubt
Even those who will be registered as Jewish are likely to face an intense level of scrutiny by the rabbinate and the rabbinical courts not applied to native Israelis or immigrants from most other places.
Yisrael Beytenu MK Elina Bardach-Yalov, a native of Moscow, told The Times of Israel that she felt humiliated and degraded when she went to the rabbinate to register for her first marriage, about five years after she moved to Israel as a teenager.
“I arrived ready with every form, and everything possible, saying I was Jewish,” she said of her first meeting at the rabbinate in central Israel’s Rishon Lezion. But for two hours, she said, the rabbi repeatedly questioned her and her family members’ Jewishness, including why her grandmother understood but did not speak Yiddish and why the gravestones of her great-grandparents in Russia were not written in Yiddish, and he insinuated that her mother – who had a traditional Russian name – could be adopted and not the biological daughter of her mother.
“All of this doubt was very offensive,” Bardach-Yalov said. But as an 18-year-old whose parents understood little Hebrew, she felt powerless in the face of the bureaucracy. Eventually, she said, the rabbinate in Rishon Lezion sent her to a branch in Bat Yam where a Russian-speaking rabbi was able to understand and ultimately approve her application.
“But that feeling of indignity, of doubt, of them not believing you and not believing your forms… from the start they assume you are lying, and you have to prove you’re not,” she said. “It was unpleasant, to say the least.”
Rachel Stomel, who works in communications for the Center for Women’s Justice, says Jewish women who hail from the former Soviet Union or Ethiopia often face far greater hurdles in front of the rabbinate. And rabbinic officials have even revoked the Jewish status of some of these immigrants.
“They prove over and over again – a lot of Russian Jews, Ethiopian Jews – they prove over and over again, I am kosher, I am kosher,” Stomel said. “When they come here they get investigated, when they get married they get investigated, when their kids get married they get investigated.”
They prove over and over again, I am kosher, I am kosher
“And at any time, [their Jewishness] can be overturned, even if they have a thing from the state saying… you are Jewish,” she added. “That’s very scary for them on a religious level, and also just on a legal level. Because so many of their civil rights depend on their religious status — their state religious status.”
Many are also compelled to undergo DNA testing to prove their relationship to their families and therefore their Jewish credentials, which many immigrants view as upsetting and offensive.
The IDI’s Ravitzki Tur-Paz said that many Jews from the former Soviet Union are not able to provide the kind of proof of belonging to a Jewish community that is often demanded by the rabbinate.
“Sometimes it’s very inconvenient and sometimes it’s really cruel,” she said. “People feel that outside of Israel they were seen as Jews, and sometimes they experienced antisemitism because they’re Jews, and now they’re here nobody sees them as Jews – they’re good for the army but they’re not good for marriage. It’s a real problem.”
Many observers say the answer is simple: convert. But experts say that’s far from straightforward – and the figures show that most don’t go that route.
“Orthodox conversion is a very, very difficult process, because you have to change your way of life,” said Prashizky. “It’s also a very difficult bureaucratic process, because you have to take an exam, and they ask a lot of questions, so you also have to study a lot of material.”
Anthropologist Prashizky said she herself converted to Judaism when she arrived in Israel, since her father was Jewish but her mother – who also converted after arrival – was not. Today, she said, “keeping Shabbat is very important to me.” But she recognizes that conversion is not for everyone.
“The process is very, very difficult,” she said. “There’s a lot of suspicion accorded to Russian Jews, because many rabbis say that they are not converting for real reasons – which is absolutely right, because there’s a lot of pressure to convert.”
In addition, she said, many immigrants from the former Soviet Union who have only Jewish fathers “feel that they are Jewish” and were treated as Jewish in their home countries. “Then they come to Israel, they immigrate to their historical homeland… and rabbis and Israelis say to them: ‘You are strangers, you are not authentic Jews.’ I think it’s a tragedy.”
Many prominent Israelis from the former Soviet Union have publicly shared their struggles on the issues of marriage, serving to reignite the debate.
Overnight, gymnast Artem Dolgopyat became an Israeli hero when he nabbed a gold medal in the floor exercise at the Tokyo Olympics last year. The 24-year-old native of Dnipro, Ukraine, moved to Israel at age 12, qualifying for citizenship because his father’s mother was Jewish.
But as Israel celebrated his triumph – the country’s second-ever Olympic gold medal – the gymnast’s mother reminded Israelis of his status. “The state does not let him get married,” Dolgopyat’s mother, Angela Bilan, told a radio station after his win. “He has a girlfriend and they have lived together for three years, but he cannot get married.”
His intense gymnastic training and competition schedule, Bilan lamented, meant Dolgopyat did not have the time to travel abroad to get legally wed.
While Dolgopyat’s case served to bring the topic back to the headlines, and prompted a renewed national – and international – discussion of the issue, it remains on the back burner for even those Israeli officials who support the idea of marriage reform. Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana has expressed support for some form of civil union, but no real progress on the issue appears to have been made in the current government, despite Kahana’s unprecedented push for reform in conversion to Judaism and kosher certification.
Years earlier, Israeli actress Ania Bukstein, famous now for her role on “Game of Thrones,” recounted her own humiliating experience with the rabbinate ahead of her wedding. Bukstein, who is registered as halachically Jewish, appeared at the Tel Aviv Rabbinate a few months before her 2013 nuptials, and was told that she had to have her Jewish identity investigated.
Bukstein, a native of Moscow who moved to Israel at age 8, comes from a “family where both sides are Jewish,” she told a Knesset hearing in 2014. Nevertheless, she said, she was subject to the “absurd” practice of submitting to an investigation of her Jewishness before the rabbinate would grant a marriage license.
Bukstein said she and her mother showed up to the meeting with her birth certificate, her mother’s birth certificate and her grandmother’s birth certificate, all listing them as Jewish. “And even so, it wasn’t enough,” she said. “The rabbi asked us to bring my great grandmother’s birth certificate” – something they did not have nor know how to acquire.
While she was tempted to opt out of a rabbinate-sanctioned wedding and marry abroad, Bukstein told the Knesset hearing that she nevertheless persisted: “It was important to us, to my husband, to my mother, to me – because I had a feeling that my children, if I don’t go through this process now, will have to go through it themselves when they want to get married.”
The nonprofit Tzohar-affiliated Shorashim organization aided Bukstein in tracking down the missing document, and after yet another hearing, she was granted a marriage license.
“It was an exhausting experience, very annoying, very hurtful,” she recounted. “I think the rabbinate – which is a body that is supposed to bring people together – is actually creating a lot of antagonism, and acts like a bully in every way.”
For years, right-wing and ultra-Orthodox politicians have expressed a desire to amend the Law of Return to exclude those not considered halachically Jewish – i.e., without a Jewish mother. In 2020, MK Bezalel Smotrich – at the time a member of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party – submitted a bill that would cancel the so-called “grandchild clause,” and thus grant the right to immigrate only to those with at least one Jewish parent.
In 2019, then-interior minister and Shas leader Aryeh Deri expressed his displeasure with the current wording of the Law of Return – which was passed in 1950.
“If I would have legislated it, I would have legislated it entirely differently,” he told an election rally. “To our great regret,” he added, “hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union who immigrated under the Law of Return are not Jewish according to Jewish law, and they are here, unfortunately.”
In Israel today we have problems with immigrants who came 30 years ago, who speak only Hebrew, who are fully Israeli
Western Galilee College’s Prashizky said that the power of such political forces – even if they’re not currently in the government – leaves her less than optimistic about the treatment of many incoming Ukrainian immigrants.
“It’s beautiful and amazing to see a lot of Israeli citizens volunteer to help to accept refugees from Ukraine, Jews and not Jews,” she said.
But on the other hand, “in Israel today we have problems with immigrants who came 30 years ago, who speak only Hebrew, who are fully Israeli, who are fully assimilated here, serve in the army – and [it’s still] a huge problem. So unfortunately I’m not so optimistic about this wave of immigrants, because they will be perceived as strangers, and it’s very sad.”
She added, “The Orthodox have a lot of power in the field of the personal status of all citizens, but especially in the field of marriage and burial.”
IDI’s Ravitzki Tur-Paz suggested that there were dueling motivations among Israelis: demographic concerns versus old-fashioned guilt.
“The situation in Ukraine works in both directions,” she said. “On one hand, people might say we don’t want so many people here who are not Jewish, because there is a danger of mixed marriage becoming bigger and we want this to be the land of the Jewish people.
“But on the other hand, if you are the family of a Jew… and if you’re in danger, we want to be your home,” she said. “Those Jewish people are in danger, so we remember the way our grandparents were in danger 70, 80 years ago.”