TEL AVIV - Like many young couples, when Oded and Dorli Hartel wanted formal recognition of their relationship after four and a half years together, they agonized about the type of wedding ceremony.
Turned off by the traditional ceremonies, the couple searched the Internet for other options.
“I didn’t think that on the happiest day of my life I needed to hear words in Aramaic that I really don’t connect with,” Oded says. “The entire accepted wedding format – reception, embarrassing ceremony, food and dance – seems purposeless for something that’s supposed to symbolize much more. We thought about how to bring content to the wedding that speaks to us.”
“During the ceremony, I felt much more at ease than friends who had religious weddings,” Oded says. “It was a very egalitarian ceremony. I spoke, my partner spoke, Yiftah spoke. Feedback from the guests was also wonderful.”
300 couples wed in secular ceremonies last year
Oded and Dorli are not alone. Last year, about 300 couples wed in secular ceremonies in Israel, according to estimates. Current Israeli law does not recognize these ceremonies. To be recognized as legally married, couples must undergo a religious ceremony or travel abroad – to Cyprus for example - for a civil union.
The Jewish-secualr trend that has grown in Israel over the last decade has also given rise to secular “life ceremonies.” The main group that deals with this area is The Institute of Jewish Secular Rites. The institute, which has been in operation for the past two years, offers about 25 different ceremonies. In 2002, it held weddings for about 200 couples, 20 ‘brits’ (identical ceremonies for boys and girls with circumcision optional), 10 bar mitzvahs and 10 funerals.
Shiloni, a former aide to then-minister Michael Melchior, is the driving force behind the institute. Shiloni, who is 29 and resides in Kiryat Ono, came to his current vocation after serious questions about his identity as a secular Jew.
“The organization’s goal is to awaken Jewish culture so it will fit the needs, beliefs and ideas of secular people,” Shiloni says. “This Jewish cultural content is shared by all of us, but the interpretation is not.”
'The secular public wants to connect'
Shiloni is trying to create a new culture and to sharpen the distinction between the “traditional religious” types in the state.
“I see myself as a very traditional secularist. Maintaining tradition is important to me,” he says. “The secular public in Israel today wants to connect with Jewish belief and traditions. There are also many secularists who believe in God, and they don’t need rabbis to mediate between them and God.”
“Our masters of ceremony learned in places of Torah study and took classes on the history of the Jewish people, Talmud and Biblical verse. These aren’t amateurs, but people who have done, or currently do community work in Israel or abroad. We do 1,001 things connected to community activity. These people are trained to work with people and the community.”
Shiloni says the wedding ceremony is not so different from the religious version. There are blessings, a chupah, kiddush over wine and other similarities.
“The difference is that the ceremony is in a language that the couple agrees to,” he says. “With us, there’s no such thing as the man ‘buying’ the woman. There are reciprocal blessings because in our eyes the woman is equal to the man and a complete partner. She is obligated to the man and he is obligated to her. Another important difference is the person leading the ceremony is someone like you and me, similar in thought and daily life.”
Secular weddings cost just like religious ones
Secular ceremonies, like their religious counterparts, do cost money. Shiloni, for example, charges 1,800 shekels ($410) a wedding.
“I don’t think the sum is exuberant,” Shiloni says. “Every festive or non-festive event has a cost. If people believe it is good, they will to pay for it. We represent the lowest cost component of the wedding and give back the highest value. Some of the money also goes to the association. We aren’t like the Reform Movement that gets money from abroad or the Orthodox that is funded by the state. If we received funds from organizations, we could lower the prices.”
Another body addressing such issues is the Hebrew-language website “Tekasim”
(Hebrew for “ceremonies”). The volunteer-run site lists people who perform secular ceremonies.
“We opened a website to be the place for all alternative wedding ceremonies,” says Yair Rothkovich, a master of ceremony and among the site’s founders.
“This site strives to promote a free Jewish culture and is intended for a public that wants and is interested in adapting Judaism to its life ceremonies. We aren’t rejecting other ways. We offer secular Jews ceremonies that are relevant and authentic. Life ceremonies are the crossroad in which a person meets his cultural and spiritual identity. A person at such a ceremony is faced with the question, ‘Who am I?’”
Rothkovich was raised in a national-religious family and educated in the state religious school system.
“I was in hesder yeshiva and in the last four years, together with my ex-wife, I underwent a process of formulating another Judaism - more alive, more relevant. I decided to work with Yiftah Shiloni. Later I left him, and (now) I lead ceremonies myself.”
'The ceremony is yours, I’m here to help'
Rothkovich says masters of ceremony need a background in Jewish culture, a Jewish identity that fits the ceremony itself and a public interest in performing such ceremonies.
“It’s impossible to be an empty vessel and say you wed people,” he says. “We at the site check who to include and who not to.”
Rothkovitch and the couples meet several times ahead of the ceremony in order to prepare the content.
“I always tell the couple: The ceremony is yours, I’m here to help,” he says. “I give all my professional expertise, all my knowledge of Jewish culture connected to the ceremony.”
He says he sits twice with the couple before the weddings, during which they study the structure of the traditional ceremony and learn about its advantages and disadvantages. The couple, with his guidance, decides what is essential and what isn’t.
“It’s important to me that the couple won’t be a ‘visitor’ during the ceremony, that they will understand the ceremony and why they are there,” he says.
Couples are also offered workbooks that include such materials as Reform ketubah (“wedding contract”) or a secular ketubah from a kibbutz.
“There’s also the ketubah written by Yair Lapid, which is very popular,” Rothkovich says.
Several types of couples come looking for secular wedding ceremonies, he says.
“There are the aware secularists – ‘sabra’ couples who could marry in the Rabbinate without any problem but make a personal decision not to do so. There are also the new immigrants who have problems with the Rabbinate. The Reform Movement won’t marry them without a conversion, so they come to us.”