The Interior Ministry has decided that the Jewish Agency will act as the arbitrator for Jewish communities abroad for recognizing Orthodox converts wishing to make aliya, while leaving the Chief Rabbinate as a potential consultant for the “isolated cases” in which questions regarding the converting rabbis arise.
In recent months, there has been a growing phenomenon of aliya requests by Orthodox converts from North America being rejected by the Interior Ministry. According to law, a person who undergoes a conversion in a recognized Jewish community abroad is eligible for aliya.
Despite a High Court decision several years ago, the Interior Ministry didn’t formulate an official policy on how to recognize a Jewish community, and operated on the basis of an internal memo drafted by its legal department in 2008, which determined that the ministry should consult with the head of the relevant religious community in Israel.
In the case of Orthodox conversions, the ministry consulted with the Chief Rabbinate, which a few years ago reached an understanding with the Rabbinical Council of America that it would only recognize conversions conducted in 11 new regional rabbinic courts.
While that recognition was apparently not intended to determine Israel’s civil policies regarding the definition of a recognized community, the result was that people who underwent a conversion outside the RCA regional courts were not considered members of legitimate Jewish communities to be recognized by the State of Israel for citizenship.
In February, the Jewish Agency appealed to the Interior Ministry for a more dominant role in identifying established Diaspora communities as such, and in March the Knesset’s Aliya, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Committee convened at the Chief Rabbinate’s offices to discuss the problem.
Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar announced that a committee composed of his representatives and those of the Interior Ministry was drawing up new procedures that would be made public within 45 days.
This deadline passed, and in May, ITIM: The Jewish-Life Information Center petitioned the High Court against the Interior Ministry on behalf of Canadian convert Thomas Dohlan, who was refused citizenship under the Law of Return, and whose situation is similar to that of some 10 other Orthodox converts seeking to make aliya.
In a letter on Tuesday to MK Danny Danon (Likud), head of the Knesset committee, Amnon Ben-Ami, director of the Population, Immigration and Border Authority in the Interior Ministry, outlined the Jewish Agency’s new status in advising the ministry on what a Jewish community is.
“In the vast majority of conversions in which the rabbis are [known figures], the Jewish Agency’s recommendation will be relayed to the Israeli consul abroad... and if the convert meets the other conditions for granting the status... the aliya permit will be supplied,” Ben- Ami wrote.
Ben-Ami cited the agency’s ability to deal with such requests and its acquaintance with the Jewish communities abroad, including ties with the rabbis there, and the fact that it will consult with the Chief Rabbinate when necessary.
“In isolated cases in which there arises a doubt regarding the identity of the converting rabbi and his status, the request will be transferred for consultation with the chief rabbi, who will provide a recommendation based on whether he acknowledges the conversion or not,” Ben-Ami wrote.
If the chief rabbi will not recognize the conversion, the letter continues, “the Jewish Agency will then be requested to provide clarifications regarding the community and its institutions.” This will take place “before the Population Authority, which has authority on this issue, makes its decision.”
Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky praised the ministry’s decision, which he called “a very important and welcome product of the close cooperation between the Interior Ministry, Chief Rabbi Amar and the Jewish Agency.
“It is a sign of the commitment of all sides in this discussion. I hope it is also an example of cooperation in the future on other issues related to conversion,” he added.
Danon lauded the conclusions of the joint committee established at the behest of Amar, and expressed satisfaction that the solution to the problem was expedited following the discussions.
“Let’s hope that the team’s recommendations will be fully implemented, and that the bureaucratic barriers that existed until now remain outside the conversion process. I commit to continue to monitor the practical implementation of the recommendations,” Danon said.
“This is an enormous victory for converts,” ITIM director Rabbi Seth
Farber said. “The document makes clear that the Chief Rabbinate has no
jurisdiction over aliya, as the lawsuit claimed.”
Farber noted, however, the clause in the document determining that in case of doubt, the rabbinate will be consulted.
“This last clause worries me a bit,” he said. “It remains unclear who raises the doubt, and what role the chief rabbi plays.”
But Farber added that: “It is my understanding that the Chief Rabbinate
would prefer not to be consulted in these areas, because it puts them in
the predicament regarding the legitimacy of Orthodox communities around
the world, in an area they realize they have no legal jurisdiction.”
Asked if he would withdraw his High Court petition, Farber said, “We’ll
wait to see if, and how, the procedures are implemented, and if Dohlan
and the others receive their Israeli citizenship.”