The case of the Lebanese born man who found himself at the center of a scandal in Brooklyn’s Syrian Jewish community has made its way into the Tel Aviv court system.
In October 2021, Eliya Hawila married a young Syrian-Jewish woman in Brooklyn, New York in an Orthodox Jewish ceremony – despite having been raised in a Shi’ite Muslim family in southern Lebanon.
Shortly thereafter, Hawila’s bride and her family discovered his background, with the couple separating and news of the ‘Lebanese groom’ sending shockwaves through the Orthodox community.
Hawila later apologized for the deception, but insisted he is sincere in his desire to live as an Orthodox Jew, and said he hopes to reconcile with his estranged wife.
In early April 2022, however, a Brooklyn rabbi who investigates questions regarding Jewish ancestry found that Hawila was in fact born Jewish.
Hawila later underwent an Orthodox conversion le’chumra (as a precautionary measure) to remove any doubts of his Jewishness – a practice employed when the last four generations of a person’s most recent Jewish ancestors were not religiously observant. He arrived in Israel in late April 2022.
The doubts about his halakhic status as a Jew have placed his wife in a precarious position. If he is to be considered fully non-Jewish before his conversion, then their wedding was null and void. However, if there is even a doubt about his Jewish status at that time, then the wedding will go into effect and his wife will require a halakhic divorce in order to marry someone else.
The woman’s family opened a case at the rabbinical court in Tel Aviv and presented to the court a letter from the rabbis of Brooklyn’s Syrian Jewish community stating that Hawila was a Muslim through and through at the time of the wedding and not Jewish at all, and asked the court to declare the marriage null and void.
Rabbi Zvadya Cohen, the head of the Rabbinical Court of Tel Aviv, contacted Hawila’s great-grandmother, who lives in Lebanon, and who informed him that although she is a practicing Muslim, her own great-grandmother, a woman named Sarah Devik, was a Jewish woman who married a Muslim man.
Rabbi Cohen informed the family that as a result of the doubts regarding Hawila’s Jewish status, the marriage cannot be annulled without a divorce. The court placed a restraining order on Awila to prevent him from leaving Israel until he provided his wife with the divorce she required.
After many months, the court succeeded in obtaining the valid divorce, allowing the restraining order to be lifted and bringing the entire affair to an end.