The Petah Tikva rabbinate and its Sephardi municipal chief rabbi, Binyamin Attias, are once again at the center of a conversion storm.
Local members of the Ethiopian community have long complained they are unable to register for marriage in the rabbinate since it refuses to accept their conversions through the state conversion authority.
Although Ethiopian immigrants from the Beta Israel community are recognized as fully Jewish and do not need to undergo conversion, immigrants belonging to the Falash Mura community, which converted in the 19th century from Judaism to Christianity, are required to undergo a streamlined conversion process by the state after immigrating.
In secret recordings made by Army Radio and broadcast Monday morning, the marriage registrar of the religious council of Petah Tikva, Aryeh Sapir, allegedly refused to register an Ethiopian couple for marriage based on an “order from on high.”
Sapir was seemingly referring to orders from Attias, the figure responsible for matters related to marriage in the rabbinate.
Similar allegations were made against Attias in September 2014, and again in April 2015.
In the recordings made by Army Radio, Shega Panta explains to the registrar her wish to register for marriage while noting she had undergone the state conversion process, but he requested further confirmation via a signed letter from a rabbi that she is currently religiously observant.
Such requests contravene regulations regarding converts and marriage registration.
Panta, who made aliya in 2004 when she was 13, completed the conversion process in 2006, which officially makes her Jewish in the eyes of the state and the rabbinate.
In a recorded phone conversation, the registrar asks Panta a myriad of questions such as: “When did you immigrate to Israel? Where did you go through the conversion process? Maybe you should go to Rishon Lezion where your boyfriend lives and apply to marry there. They won’t cause you problems.”
Panta said she felt harassed when he asked her if she was pregnant and ultimately she was scarred by the conversation when he told her she would be required to provide a signed letter from a rabbi who observes Shabbat affirming that she is observant of all of the holidays and the commandments.
Panta scheduled her wedding for April but never expected that her happy event would turn into a nightmare.
“The marriage registrar flooded me with questions on the phone. Until it became evident to me that unless I present him with the forms that prove I observe the commandments, he will not register me to be married. According to him, the rabbi requires the additional forms in order to be sure.
“I don’t understand,” she continued, “I presented the forms and approvals from the rabbinate of Jerusalem, and that’s not enough for the rabbi of Petah Tikva, but approval from a rabbi of my ethnicity will satisfy him? They know that my wedding date is imminent and in any event they are trying to make it difficult for me. Would a secular woman have received the same barrage of questions, or is it because of the color of my skin that I am subject to this embarrassing mask of questions?” “It is racism. Here [in Petah Tikva] Ethiopians are discriminated against because of the color of our skin, and it’s prevalent both in the education system and in the Chief Rabbinate. Why should I have to register in Rishon Lezion where my boyfriend lives? Why in Rishon Lezion and Jerusalem am I recognized as Jewish, but not in Petah Tikva?” she asked.
Paltiel Eisenthal, the supervisor of the Petah Tikva religious council responded to the registrar’s “puzzling” questions by saying that, “What is permitted and required in every other city is also permitted and required in Petah Tikva.” He added that the issue would be investigated.
The Tzohar rabbinical organization expressed deep outrage following reports that Ethiopian couples are being denied the right to marry at the rabbinate in Petah Tikva.
“We are truly shocked at this report. There is no way to excuse this disgraceful action aimed against dozens of couples who wanted nothing other than to register for marriage in their hometown,” the group said.
“This is by no means the first time this rabbinate has acted in such a dismissive manner against couples who came to marry according to the local and halachic laws and we have already seen numerous cases where the Petah Tikva rabbinate has rejected conversions performed by the Chief Rabbinate.
“Based on these continued developments, Tzohar will now seriously consider opening an office in Petah Tikva for registering marriages with the specific purpose of ensuring the interests of all residents of the city are being responded to.”
MK Yoel Razbozov (Yesh Atid) asked the chairman of the Knesset Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs to open an urgent discussion on the matter of discrimination against Ethiopian immigrants in Petah Tikva.
“We can not allow discrimination against immigrants,” he said. He went on to remark that everyone who makes aliya must be allowed to enjoy their rights and benefits as a citizen to the fullest extent.
In response to the report, the Religious Services Ministry conceded that there is no room in the law to call into question the conversion of someone who was converted through the state conversion system.
“The legal position is that it is not permitted to invalidate a conversion that was conducted some time ago, even if the convert does not observe the Torah and commandments any more,” explained legal adviser to the ministry Yisrael Pat.
“The moment the rabbinical judges convert someone… and the conversion certificate has been issued, which is an administrative act, it is not possible to challenge the conversion, and this is how all [local] rabbinates should relate to a conversion certificate.
“In any case, there is no room for questions regarding the observance of the Sabbath and the commandments when registering someone for marriage.”