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In the 1980's, Jyrki Kiviranta fell in love with the land of Israel and its people. Last year, he was imprisoned at Ben-Gurion Airport's detention center after expressing his interest during a routine passport check in converting to Judaism. The 49-year-old Finn was expelled from Israel and warned not to return for ten years. Now he is living in Jerusalem and preparing to convert to Judaism. By the end of the year, if all goes smoothly, he will officially join the Jewish people.
The ups and downs of Kiviranta's story are unusual. But many potential converts living in the Diaspora are in a similar situation. Like Kiviranta, these people have a strong desire to become a part of the Jewish people. But, like Kiviranta, who is from Nokia, Finland, they live in places far from an established rabbinic court that can convert them. Also, like Kiviranta, these prospective converts want to live in Israel.
But the Interior Ministry and the Rabbinate are concerned that foreign workers from poverty-stricken countries or other non-residents interested in staying in Israel will exploit conversion to become full-fledged citizens.
That is the reason why Kiviranta, who entered Israel on a tourist visa, was kicked out of the country last year when he told the Interior Ministry official at Ben-Gurion Airport he was coming to convert.
Over the past year, with the help of ITIM - the Jewish Life Information Center, an organization that helps navigate Israeli bureaucracy on religious issues, Kiviranta managed to convince Mazal Cohen, who is in charge of entrance permits in the Interior Ministry, that he was a serious candidate for conversion.
"We presented them with dozens of letters from rabbis and educators in Israel and in Finland testifying to Kiviranta's sincerity," said Rabbi Seth Farber, director of ITIM.
Meanwhile, Rabbi Eli Maimon, administrative head of the Conversions Authority, who was also presented with Kiviranta's recommendation letters, invited Kiviranta to Israel for an interview.
As a result, Cohen rescinded the ten-year expulsion order and Kiviranta arrived in Israel at the beginning of May. He is now studying for conversion at the Rabbinic Council of America's convert training institute in Jerusalem.
If Kiviranta is approved by the Special Exceptions Committee in the Conversion Authority, he will be permitted to convert. According to Farber, there is a paradox in the Conversion Authority's policy toward non-citizens interested in converting to Judaism: In order to receive permission to stay in Israel and prepare for conversion, the prospective convert must prove he or she has intimate knowledge of Judaism and a long-standing relationship with a Jewish community. But the potential convert cannot acquire this knowledge and relationship without being allowed to stay in Israel.
"A distinction ought to be made between studying and undergoing conversion," said Farber. "Current policy does not recognize that there is a wide range of non-Jewish individuals who are not citizens under the Law of Return, but who are sincerely seeking the Jewish way of life," he said.
Kiviranta first came to Israel in the 1980s after completing army service in Finland.
"I had no special interest in Israel when I first came here," said Kiviranta. "I just wanted to see the world. I had heard something about kibbutzim. So I became a volunteer."
After four years he was back again, this time to Moshav Yad Hashmona near Jerusalem.
Eventually, he became interested in the Jewish religion and began studying at Ohr Somayach Yeshiva. Last year he was expelled.
Is Kiviranta angry? "I never got angry. But during the last year I spent in Finland I nearly gave up all hope. But all of a sudden things worked out for the best. When I was told I could return to Israel I cried with joy."