Using virtual ‘Utah marriages,’ Project Kesher helps Russian, Ukrainian same-sex couples make aliyah

Unable to get married in their birth countries, LGBTQ couples rely on virtual weddings through Utah in order to be recognized as a couple by Israel

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 prompted a mass migration from both countries, with millions of Ukrainians and hundreds of thousands of Russians fleeing their respective countries.

Those from Ukraine were overwhelmingly women and children as the country barred military-aged men from leaving, while whole families often managed to leave Russia. Tens of thousands of these Russian and Ukrainian emigres made their way to Israel.

As the immigrants began to arrive, the Israel women’s organization Project Kesher Israel, which works primarily with Russian speakers, began to prepare for the influx through various avenues of humanitarian aid and emotional support, said Rabbi Olya Weinstein, CEO of Project Kesher Israel.

Weinstein said the organization quickly realized that there was a vulnerable subgroup among the refugees from Russia and Ukraine: same-sex couples.

Israel’s Law of Return offers citizenship to nearly anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent, as well as their immediate family, namely spouses and children under the age of 18, regardless of their religion. Along with the citizenship, comes a “basket” of benefits for new immigrants — tax breaks, subsidized housing, discounted Hebrew language instruction, etc.

Though Israel does not have same-sex civil marriage, it does recognize same-sex marriages performed abroad, so the legal spouse of a person eligible for Israeli citizenship can immigrate with them and receive Israeli citizenship as well. But Russia and Ukraine also do not recognize same-sex marriages, meaning that for the Israeli government, an LGBTQ couple was not, legally speaking, a couple at all.

“They didn’t have this right stamp on their documents [indicating] that they were legally married…[so] they were treated as if they each came individually to Israel,” Weinstein told eJewishPhilanthropy.

Prior to the war, same-sex couples from both Ukraine and Russia would travel to Denmark or another European country that recognizes same-sex marriage to get married. Israel’s Interior Ministry would accept those marriages for the purposes of immigration, as long as they had documents proving that both partners were single prior to the marriage.

But after the war, when Russians were not able to travel abroad as easily, the only solution left for same-sex couples in Russia and Ukraine wanting to make aliyah and be recognized as married in Israel, was a solution that — as it happens — many Israelis were already familiar with: so-called Utah marriages.

In January 2020, as part of an initiative by a relatively low-level official, the state of Utah began accepting virtual wedding ceremonies, provided at least one person involved was physically based in the state (this was generally the officiant, while the couple could be located anywhere in the world). 

In Israel, which only has religious marriage, those interested in marriage outside of the state-recognized religious institutions used to have to travel abroad, often to Cyprus. The advent of these virtual weddings through Utah offered an easier — and far cheaper — alternative.

While at first Israel recognized these Utah marriages, the Interior Ministry quickly backtracked on its decision as it allowed Jewish Israeli couples to circumvent the Chief Rabbinate. The rejection of Utah marriages was successfully challenged in court several times, on behalf of both heterosexual and LGBTQ couples, and the government was forced by the Supreme Court to recognize them.

Nicole Maor, director of the Legal Aid Center for Olim (LACO) of the Israeli Reform Movement, spearheaded one of these legal challenges on behalf of a same-sex Russian couple through Project Kesher Israel.

“Since we won that judgment, other cases have succeeded,” Maor told eJP. “But there is a feeling that [the Interior Ministry] is still hesitant and are looking for any possible loopholes they can find. They are demanding more proof of the seriousness of the relationship, proof they want to live in Israel.”

Instead of reviewing each case individually to determine whether they were a couple, the clerks at the Interior Ministry were issuing a blanket rejection of all cases, giving the non-Jewish spouse a three-month tourist visa, denying the non-Jewish spouse of any benefits in Israel and subjecting them to possible deportation after three months, Weinstein said.

“In the best-case scenario, they could go back to the Interior Ministry again and ask for them to review their files and probably an additional three months would be added. But this is not a [normal] life,” said Weinstein.

With the non-Jewish spouse not able to work, receive free Hebrew language-instruction or be eligible for national health insurance, these same-sex couples — fleeing a dangerous situation in their birth country — were facing compounded difficulties in Israel, Weinstein said. 

As the war progressed, Russia also cracked down on LGBTQ rights, designating what it called the “international LGBT movement” as an “extremist organization” and arresting LGBTQ activists.

As more same-sex Russian couples began turning to them for help, Project Kesher Israel turned to LACO for legal assistance with their cases. Project Kesher Israel is now funding the legal cases of dozens of such couples through LACO legal representation, Weinstein said.

She noted that just opening a file costs approximately $1,000, adding that the organization is hoping to raise funds to be able to provide legal assistance to more couples.

Less than a year ago, Sonya and Nika, an LGBTQ activist couple, fled to Israel fearing that they would be jailed after the police showed up unexpectedly at their home in Moscow and conducted a search for “LGBTQ propaganda” as evidence of their “terrorist actions in violation of Russian law.” (The couples mentioned in the article asked that their last names not be used to protect their families in Russia who can also be prosecuted for disseminating gay propaganda if it is known they have contact with their openly LGBTQ family members.)

But in Israel only Sonya — who has Jewish ancestry — was granted citizenship despite the couple having participated in an online marriage ceremony through Utah. With the legal assistance provided by Project Kesher Israel via LACO, they were able to remain in Israel legally.

“Now Nika is at least legal in Israel and no one will try to send her back to Putin — and this is a good [change], but it will take some time,” said Weinstein.

Ari, 27, and her wife, who asked not to be named, came to Israel from Russia two years ago after they got married virtually through Utah in 2021 (they couldn’t travel abroad for a wedding in a European country because of the COVID-19 pandemic).

Soon after the Russia-Ukraine war broke out they realized they would need to leave Russia, Ari said.

“We were both in the political opposition, and it was very dangerous to speak out against all these military actions,” said Ari. “We were also a queer couple, and we understood that the further the war goes on, the worse it will be to be queer in Russia.”

Though her wife was able to receive immediate citizenship because of her Jewish ancestry, Ari was given only a tourist visa as the court did not recognize their Utah marriage. She was only able to receive her citizenship last September with the help of Project Kesher Israel through legal intervention by LACO.  

“We are not the only same sex couple from the former USSR making aliyah who married this way because it is the most convenient option to get married. We know of several couples with a very similar story. We were just the first couple to get to the end of this process and to win in court with that,” Ari said.

Today, the couple lives in Haifa. She recalled their arrival to Israel two years ago in June during Pride month, seeing rainbow flags on the streets. It has been “a breath of fresh air” getting used to being able to be open about their relationship, she said.