Lilia Itzkovich, a volunteer with NIF grantee Association for the Protection of Mixed Family Rights, was born to a Jewish father and Russian mother. “I am typical of hundreds of thousands who are not halachically Jewish but came to Israel because we feel part of the Jewish people.”
“In Russia I felt like a Jew, a foreigner,” she recalls. “At school they told me ‘Lilia you are a good girl, it’s just a shame that you are a Jew’. For Russian anti-Semites it made no difference if you were a Jew halachically. So we came to Israel and here I am told ‘Lilia you are a good woman, it’s a shame that you are a goy.”
Lilia Itzkovich fielded questions non-stop during the first session answering calls on the hotline.
In Israel, the Orthodox rabbinate holds a monopoly over Jewish marriage. There are 300,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not considered halachically Jewish due to lack of documentation, or who are only Jewish on their father’s sides and are therefore unable to have a legally recognized marriage in the country. In order to assist these immigrants like Lilia, NIF and SHATIL launched an information hotline this week.
“The State of Israel prevents many couples from expressing their love in a formal way by not recognizing civil weddings,” explains Yuval Yavneh, Director of the Hotline and NIF's Jewish Pluralism Program. “There is a lack of information regarding the options available and this is where we come in and help.”
With assistance in Russian and Hebrew, the hotline provides information about the wide range of alternative wedding ceremonies available in Israel including Reform, Conservative, Secular Humanist and more. Many of these organizations are NIF grantees including Havaya, New Family and the Masorati (Conservative) Movement, which offer a range of custom made wedding ceremonies.
Activists from a range of NIF supported organizations undergo a final training session in how to manage calls to the hotline.
However, the State does not recognize these ceremonies and couples are still required to travel abroad for a civil ceremony in order to be recognized as legally married. For this reason, the NIF family continues to lobby for legislative change that will allow for civil marriage, in addition to fighting for legal recognition of non-Orthodox ceremonies.
Rabbi Kobi Winner, a Secular Humanist rabbi who recently attended a training session for the new hotline said, “Our ceremonies give the new couples a sense of Jewish legitimacy and the feeling that they are part of Jewish culture. These people don’t need to change their identity or undergo Orthodox conversion to feel part of the Jewish people.”
After answering phone calls on the hotline during its inaugural session on Sunday, Itzkovich said, “I was busy answering questions the entire time. There was enormous interest in the alternative wedding options available.”