(JTA) — Aaron Davidson has never been to Israel. He isn’t Jewish. He began serving in his position, Utah County clerk, just two months ago.
But the policies he oversees in his office in Provo, Utah, could have an impact more than 7,000 miles away — in the halls of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, in Jerusalem.
That’s because Davidson is the top local official in a county that has, improbably, caused a seismic shift in the way marriages are legally recognized in the Jewish state. An ensuing court battle over the issue — which the Israeli government just lost — could provide added motivation for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to pass controversial judicial reform that has already thrown the country into crisis.
Let’s take a step back and break this down.
How does marriage work in Israel?
Although a large chunk of Israeli Jews are secular, legal marriage in the country is controlled by the Chief Rabbinate, which is haredi Orthodox. In other words, within Israel, the only way for a Jew to get legally married is through an Orthodox ceremony.
That means same-sex marriage, interfaith marriage and non-Orthodox weddings performed in Israel are not recognized by the Israeli government. Also left in limbo are hundreds of thousands of largely Russian-speaking Israelis, who are not Jewish according to traditional Jewish law and are therefore unable to get married in Israel.
But there’s a loophole of sorts: Marriages performed and recognized abroad also get recognized in Israel. So for decades, non-Orthodox Israelis have found a workaround to those restrictions by taking a short flight to Cyprus to tie the knot, or traveling farther afield for their weddings. They then bring their marriage certificate to Israel complete with a stamp of authentication (called an apostille), and voila: legally married.
What does that have to do with Utah?
Starting in 2020, Utah County, Utah, began recognizing marriages performed entirely via videoconference, as long as the officiant or one of the parties was in the county. The county encompasses the area surrounding Provo, which is home to Brigham Young University and has a tech scene. Officials saw the new remote marriage system as a way to make it easier to “execute a permission slip from the government for two consenting adults to get married,” as former County Clerk Amelia Powers Gardner told The New York Times,
The innovation coincided with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and beginning later that year, Israelis realized they could now get legally married in Utah without having to leave Israel — in fact, without having to leave their living rooms. Since 2020, Davidson estimates that more than 1,000 Israelis have taken advantage of the remote weddings. The fees for the remote wedding total a maximum of $155.
“The technology now opens a window of opportunity for thousands of Israeli couples every year to quickly, simply, cheaply gain civil marriage without leaving their homes,” said Rabbi Uri Regev, CEO of Hiddush, an Israeli organization that advocates for religious pluralism. “That in and of itself is a real breakthrough.”
(Israelis aren’t the only foreign nationals to use the county’s remote wedding option. It has also been a boon for gay couples from China.)
How have Israeli officials responded?
They are not happy about it. The acting Israeli interior minister, Michael Malchieli, is a member of the haredi Orthodox Shas party, and had refused to recognize the Utah marriage certificates, as did a predecessor of his, arguing that the marriages took place in Israel. A predecessor of his had also refused to recognize the certificates, but last year, a court ruled that the government must recognize the Utah marriages.
That decision made its way to Israel’s Supreme Court which, on Tuesday, ruled unanimously in favor of the married couples. Henceforth, their marriages will officially be seen as valid in Israel. The court made a similar decision in 2006 that compelled the state to recognize same-sex marriages performed abroad.
“It is the duty of the [Israeli] registrar to refrain from making decisions regarding the validity or invalidity of the marriages themselves,” the court wrote in a summary of its decision on Tuesday. “When the registrar is presented with a proper public document, he must, as a rule, register it accordingly and refrain from making decisions regarding complicated legal matters.”
How is this related to Israel’s current crisis?
Israel is currently in the throes of a raucous national debate over legislation being pushed by Netanyahu’s government that would effectively sap the Supreme Court of much of its power. One bill would allow a simple majority of Israeli lawmakers to override court decisions, meaning they could negate decisions like the one handed down this week.
Proponents of the court reform say the legislation will allow Israeli law to more effectively represent the will of the country’s right-wing majority. Another Shas lawmaker, Moshe Arbel, cited Tuesday’s decision as a reason why the court reform is urgent.
“The high court, in another political step, proved once again how necessary the judicial reform is,” Arbel said, according to the Israeli publication Ynet. The decision, he said, works to “erase the Jewish identity of the state.”
How do officials in Utah feel?
Initially, it seemed Davidson, the county clerk, might do away with the virtual marriages. His campaign website said that “This online option devalues the union of a marriage and Utah County should not be the entity that facilitates the marginalization of marriage.”
But since taking office, he told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, he has changed his mind. His concern, he said, was that abusers could take advantage of the virtual weddings to facilitate underage marriage and human trafficking. Now he realizes that that has not been an issue, and he is working on upgrading the county’s facial recognition software to forestall that possibility.
“It doesn’t seem like there’s any controversial marriages that want to happen in Israel, so I’m totally open in keeping that open and alive,” he said. “We’re trying to avoid any hint of child marriages or forced marriages or trafficking. We want to make sure that we know who it is that’s getting married before we perform the marriage online.”
Alex Shapiro, the executive director of the United Jewish Federation of Utah, is likewise happy about the Supreme Court decision. “[I] fully stand behind the decision to make civil marriage available to all citizens,” Shapiro told JTA. “I’m further pleased that the state of Utah can play a role in these unions without the challenge of couples needing to travel out of the county to be married.”
Davidson’s county, however, has few Jews and a politically conservative population. It is the home of the flagship school of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which opposes same-sex marriage.
Davidson, who is a member of the LDS church, said that he has heard a few objections from residents about facilitating same-sex marriages abroad. But he told JTA that he feels the virtual marriages uphold another core conservative tenet: limited government.
“Government restricts who can live where, in what country, and I kind of feel the same thing about marriage,” he said. “Why do I feel like I have the power to prevent a couple — whether same-sex or traditional — [from] being able to be happy with their life, and do what they want? That’s kind of been a guiding principle: Why should I have the power to control the happiness of somebody else?”
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Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.
Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary
By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”
Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)
Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station
This is a developing story.
(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.
An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.
Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.
The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.
The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.
Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.
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