Jewish gay rights activists on Wednesday welcomed a landmark decision by the US Supreme Court that promises to improve the lives of countless same-sex married couples, including bi-national American-Israeli ones.

“It can’t be underestimated what a historic moment this is,” said Lavi Soloway, a Jewish immigration attorney who has been fighting for LGBT rights for two decades, about the decision to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act.

In a five to four decision written by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, the court voided DOMA, a federal law originally passed in 1996, during the Clinton Administration, which defined marriage exclusively as a union between a man and a woman. Same-sex couples are now entitled to federal benefits, according to the court’s decision in the United States v. Windsor case. The Court declined to decide a related case, thereby effectively allowing same-sex marriage to take place in California.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. were in the minority. Scalia read from his dissenting opinion from the bench. “In the majority’s telling, this story is black-and-white: Hate your neighbor or come along with us,” he wrote. “The truth is more complicated.”

All of the Jewish justices — Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan — voted with the majority. Many Jewish groups and organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League, the National Council of Jewish Women, and the Reform movement, came out in support of the Court’s decision. Orthodox groups were not in favor of it.

“When the decision was handed down, I stopped breathing for a moment and tears welled up in my eyes,” Soloway said. “The decision striking down DOMA will take its place among other key civil rights decisions like Loving v. Virginia and Brown v. Board of Education.”

Lennie Gerber, who recently stood under the huppah with her lesbian partner of 47 years, told The Times of Israel she had been “uncharacteristically un-optimistic” ahead of the court’s decision on DOMA. Worried that the case would be decided on the basis of federalism, she was thrilled that the majority opinion turned out to be that DOMA was a violation of the guarantee of equal protection under the Fifth Amendment.

Soloway, however, was optimistic all along. “There have been 10 court rulings since [July 2010] deeming DOMA unconstitutional,” he noted. “DOMA made one group unequal to others, and by depriving equal status, equal rights and equal obligations in marriage, it created two categories of citizens.”

Gerber, 77, never thought she and her wife, Pearl Berlin, 88, would live to see the Supreme Court rule in this way. “Pearl and I were sitting in front of the TV at 10 o’clock and I started to scream!” she related. “We are both very happy.”

The couple plans on traveling soon to Washington, D.C. from their home in North Carolina to have a civil marriage ceremony. Doubtful that DOMA would be struck down, they had gone ahead earlier this month only with a Conservative Jewish religious ceremony in their state of residence, where same-sex marriage is not legal.

Things will change dramatically for Soloway’s clients— bi-national same-sex married couples kept apart until now because of DOMA.

“I expect an immediate effect. I expect my first green card case to move forward today,” he said. In a coincidence, one of his clients, who had been denied the right to petition for a green card, had a hearing scheduled for Wednesday. “We’ll be asking for an adjournment, which should now be granted.”

Pearl Berlin (left) and Lennie Gerber rejoice after their marriage ceremony (photo credit: Arlene Gutterman. Courtesy of Pearl Berlin and Lennie Gerber)

Pearl Berlin (left) and Lennie Gerber rejoice after their marriage ceremony (photo credit: Arlene Gutterman. Courtesy of Pearl Berlin and Lennie Gerber)

Because of the decision, Soloway’s clients Ari Amir and Nir Maoz, an American-Israeli gay couple, expect to soon get a positive response to their appeal, which they filed after their residency application for Maoz was denied. “It was simply DOMA that was standing in our way,” Amir said. “Not only are we breathing a sigh of relief, but we’re also tempted to start booking flights to Israel for Hanukkah time.”

“I’m ecstatic!” Maoz exclaimed. “Our life will change dramatically. I’ll finally be able to leave the US to go home to visit my family in Israel, and I’ll finally be able to legally work.”

Maoz has been on the phone non-stop with friends and family in Israel since the Court’s decision came down.

“They are very happy for us. Some said they didn’t think what happened today in the US could happen any time soon in Israel.”