Jerusalem — Located in the eastern Mediterranean, the island of Cyprus feels very familiar to Israelis, due to its warm climate, its arid stretches of mountainous land filled with olive trees, and its beautiful beaches.
Not a bad place for a wedding, then, right?
In fact, between August 2011 and 2012, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics, about 20,000 Israeli couples got married outside of Israel, many of them in Cyprus. But it wasn’t the dream of a destination wedding, or of getting married in far-flung yet familiar-seeming territory that shaped the decisions.
Many simply felt they had little choice but to marry abroad: Israel’s religious authorities — the only entities authorized to perform weddings in Israel — are prohibited from marrying couples unless both partners share the same religion. To have their marriages recognized by the Ministry of the Interior for the purpose of spousal benefits, mixed-religion couples must have civil marriages abroad.
“Civil union” has been available since 2010, but only for the very small number of couples of which both partners have “no religion” listed on their government I.D. cards. To date, only 80 couples have entered into a civil union, most likely because anyone born into a family with a stated religion isn’t eligible.
Israel actually has a common-law arrangement through New Family, an organization that advocates equality for all families. Partners are issued “Domestic Union Cards” that serve as legal proof of status as common-law spouses in most (though not all) institutions in Israel and many abroad. But they do not have the full-fledged marriage that most Israelis and their parents have long dreamed about.
A growing number of couples (no one knows how many) of the same religion, and who could therefore marry in Israel, also fly abroad for a quick civil marriage ceremony to avoid having to deal with the notoriously bureaucratic Orthodox rabbinate, or its Muslim and Christian equivalents.
An entire industry, most notably on the island of Cyprus and in the Czech Republic, has grown up around the phenomenon of overseas weddings. And it doesn’t just cater to Israelis.
The website of Cyprus Wedding Celebrations, a company based near Limassol, offers information in Russian, Ukrainian, Dutch, Hebrew and Arabic. Dina Martjens, the company’s founder, said in a phone interview that she annually arranges 50 to 80 weddings for overseas couples, many of them from Israel and other Middle Eastern countries.
“I deal with a lot of couples from the Emirates, and also from Israel, where I lived for a while. Civil marriage is non-existent in the Middle East,” which makes it very difficult, and sometimes impossible, for mixed couples to marry, she said.
There are thousands of couples that are eligible to be married in their home countries, “but want to avoid the Big Fat Greek Wedding so common in the Middle East, especially in Lebanon and Israel, where you have to invite the whole kibbutz,” Martjens added, referring to the lavish affairs common in many societies.
Because Cyprus issues a marriage certificate the same day as the wedding, most Israeli couples return home the day of the civil ceremony. A small number stay longer to enjoy a honeymoon by the beach or head for one of the many quaint villages that dot the countryside.
Companies based in both Israel and Cyprus arrange flights and ground transport, book the wedding venue, secure the wedding license and marriage certificate. They can arrange for witnesses, post-wedding fees, and ensure that all the documentation gets to the right clerk.
“Those who come just for the day get married at the municipality. They wait their turn and the actual ceremony takes seven minutes,” Martjens said.
Wedding in Cyprus, an Israeli agency that specializes in weddings on that island and in the Czech city of Prague, serves 1,200 couples a year, roughly 60 percent of them unable to marry through the rabbinate.
“The rest are Jews who don’t want to make a wedding via the rabbinate, and there are also a small number of Arab couples — one Muslim, one Christian,” said Igal Lukianovsky, the agency’s owner.
Eighty percent of Lukianovsky’s clients marry in Cyprus because it takes less than an hour to fly there from Tel Aviv, and it is relatively inexpensive.
Wedding in Cyprus offers a one-day, all-inclusive wedding package starting from 520 Euros ($680) and a two-night package for 570 Euros ($745). A single day in Prague will cost a couple 700 Euros ($915).
Arranging a wedding in Prague is “more complicated,” Lukianovsky said, because Czech authorities require more documents than the Cypriot authorities.
That didn’t deter Roey Tzezan, a Haifa-based scientist, from having a civil ceremony in Prague three years ago, despite the fact that both he and his now-wife, Gali Alon, are both Jewish.
“We don’t like the way the rabbinate has a monopoly over marriage and its attitude toward women and human rights in general,” Tzezan said.
The couple also opted for a Masorti/Conservative wedding in Israel, even though it wasn’t recognized by Israeli authorities.
“We’re extremely connected to the deep roots of Jewish tradition and feel it’s important to remain part of the Jewish world. At the same time, as long as the rabbinate dictates norms to the Israeli nation, we cannot consider ourselves fully part of Israel’s Jewish community.”
Uri Regev, president of Hiddush - Freedom of Religion for Israel, said marrying abroad isn’t a solution to the religious establishment’s “monopoly” on marriage and divorce.
“Many Jewish couples don’t realize that marrying in Cyprus doesn’t exempt them from falling into the rabbinical courts if the marriage ends in divorce. And if they’re not Jewish, dissolving the marriage is even more complicated.”
Regev said that opinion polls show that “a clear majority” Israelis “want freedom of marriage” — the right to an Orthodox, non-Orthodox or civil marriage that will be recognized by the state.
“Israelis want the same rights people enjoy in every normal democracy,” Regev said. ✦