Orthodox convert fights for recognition

US descendant of anusim turns to High Court of Justice to force Interior Ministry to approve his aliya.

October 5, 2008 00:37
Orthodox convert fights for recognition

jose portuondo-wilson 224 88. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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Twenty-five-year-old Jose Portuondo-Wilson is wondering what it takes to prove to the government that he is Jewish. Eighteen months after his Orthodox conversion in Chicago, he is resorting to a High Court of Justice petition to force Interior Ministry bureaucrats to approve his aliya. Born to a practicing Catholic family of anusim, Jews who took their Judaism underground in the wake of the Spanish Inquisition and 1492 expulsion, Portuondo-Wilson discovered his Jewish roots in 2002, after his first year at the University of Chicago. The discovery explained a lot, such as the heavy silver candlesticks decorated with a Star of David motif that his mother had inherited from her maternal grandmother, or the non-Spanish name Gil among the family's many last names, or the rumor he had heard at age 14 of Jewish blood in the family. But Portuondo-Wilson was not satisfied with merely uncovering his history. He became Jewishly observant in 2003, beginning to keep kosher, observe Shabbat, pray three times daily and lay tefillin each morning. And he began to seriously study Judaism. He joined the Jewish community at the University of Chicago, becoming president of the Orthodox minyan in his last year and working full-time for the campus Hillel the year after. He even majored in Jewish studies. Off-campus, he joined the Orthodox Anshe Sholom B'nai Israel Synagogue in 2005. The synagogue's Rabbi Asher Lopatin, who was a member of the beit din (religious court) that converted Portuondo-Wilson, recalled on Thursday that he was "a frum [observant] guy. He came to shul, not just on Shabbat but also during the week." Then, in April 2007, after four years of an observant lifestyle and nearly two years as a member of a synagogue, Portuondo-Wilson was converted by a rabbinic court of three Chicago Orthodox rabbis, Rabbis Lopatin, Josh Feigelson, the rabbi of Northwestern University, and Barry Wimpfheimer, a Yeshiva University-ordained professor of Jewish studies at Northwestern. In August 2007, Portuondo-Wilson decided to make aliya. "I always had a strong sense of being at home when I was in Israel," he said. After five years of Hebrew study, including five months in Israel and a Hebrew University ulpan, "I felt I could contribute more to the Jewish people from Israel, particularly as someone with good English, good Hebrew and a degree." But instead of making aliya, Portuondo-Wilson's application was the beginning of an 18-month (and running) battle with Israeli bureaucrats to prove his conversion was sincere and his Jewishness legitimate. The Jewish Agency office in Chicago approved his aliya in August 2007. Once in Israel, he was told he should have stayed in the US for another year, an Interior Ministry policy to verify that converts are honest in their conversions and do not seek aliya benefits without genuinely joining the Jewish people. Foreign converts are usually required to live for a year in their communities before making aliya. But Portuondo-Wilson had already lived in his community for years, and knew no other. As a member of the anusim, his conversion was lehumra, a verification of his Jewishness, which according to Jewish law had probably remained intact. This was in accordance with the rulings of Rabbi Aaron Soloveitchik (1917-2001), in his time among the most highly regarded halachic authorities in modern Orthodoxy. It is unlikely Portuondo-Wilson made the move for the aliya benefits. He owns property in Chicago and belongs to a well-to-do family that vacations around the world and owns several homes. With this financial independence and a prestigious degree from the University of Chicago, Portuondo-Wilson's profile is closer to the young, educated olim Israel is eager to attract than to the "welfare aliya" government officials have come to fear. Nevertheless, Portuondo-Wilson waited patiently until April 2008, a year after his conversion, to apply again for aliya. Jewish Agency officials assured him his conversion was approved and there would be no problem with it. They were wrong. Four months after the second application, on August 21, Portuondo-Wilson received official notice that his aliya was denied by the Interior Ministry. The reason: the rabbinical court that performed his conversion was "unrecognized." "I'm not personally offended," Lopatin, reached by phone in Chicago, told The Jerusalem Post, "but that they're preventing him from being accepted is tragic and horrific. Israel can't be a place perceived as not accepting Jews. It's a terrible hilul hashem [desecration of God's name]." "We don't know who made the decision [not to recognize the conversion], or what it even means. What makes a court 'unrecognized?'" asked Itzhak Bam, the lawyer Portuondo-Wilson hired days after learning of the ministry's decision. According to Dr. Amnon Reichman of the University of Haifa Faculty of Law, whose expertise includes legal issues surrounding conversion, Supreme Court precedent has ruled that a rabbinic court is considered "recognized" if its own community accepts it. "Legally, the ministry can only reject courts that are not recognized by the community itself," he explained. "The burden of proof is on the ministry." Due to Chicago Rabbinical Council rules, Lopatin no longer performs conversions in religious courts outside the framework of the council, like Portuondo-Wilson's, but he cannot accept any rationale for denying the conversions already performed. "I don't care whether the Israeli Rabbinate recognizes my conversion or not, but I don't want them to have a monopoly over who can convert," Lopatin said. "We should take the monopoly away from them. Like with [kashrut supervision], there are different supervisions." Portuondo-Wilson's conversion, he insists, "is halachicly valid, and socially recognized." An Interior Ministry spokesman would not comment on the specific case, but said rabbinical courts abroad were recognized only if they appeared on a list kept by the Conversion Authority in the Prime Minister's Office. That list, the spokesman added, was determined through consultation with the leaders of the local communities. But "my conversion predates that list," Portuondo-Wilson notes in response. The Conversion Authority could not be reached by press time. Portuondo-Wilson remains stubbornly cheerful. His next move, he wrote to the ministry through his lawyer, was a petition to the High Court of Justice. In the meantime, he is contemplating rabbinical school. He may become the first Orthodox rabbi in history to be denied aliya, he notes with humor.

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