While the Law of Return established that every Jew has the right to move to Israel, it did not define the meaning of the term Jew. It was not until 1970 that the law was revised to read that a Jew is a person who was born of a Jewish mother or converted to Judaism.
The religious parties lobbied to have the law amended to include “converted to Judaism by Orthodox practice,” but were unsuccessful. As a result, there are today two different definitions of Judaism applied within the State of Israel according to two governmental agencies, the Interior Ministry and the Chief Rabbinate.
According to the Interior Ministry’s website, those who converted outside Israel and want to move to Israel and receive full rights as Jews must convert within a recognized and active Jewish community. Additionally, the convert needs to have spent a minimum of nine months of study before converting in a recognized program from one of Judaism’s recognized streams – Orthodox, Conservative or Reform. The convert also needs to have been an active member of a Jewish community for an additional nine months following the conversion. Finally, he or she needs an authorized certificate of conversion.
One who has fulfilled these requirements can receive full citizenship rights from the Interior Ministry under the Law of Return, even if the conversion was done under non-Orthodox auspices. Once a person has been approved as a Jew by the ministry, he will be listed as a Jew in the population registry.
However, if the children of an individual who has converted outside Israel under non-Orthodox auspices want to get married, the rabbinate will not recognize the original conversion
and will not allow the marriage. Even some Orthodox conversions may not be recognized for the purposes of marriage, unless the convert went through an “approved” rabbinical court acceptable to the Chief Rabbinate.
Chava, 35, was born in France and was raised in a family that was half Catholic and half Protestant. She became interested in Judaism about 10 years ago and studied in Israel at the Hebrew University. Returning to Europe, she underwent a Conservative conversion in England under the auspices of the Masorati Movement, after which she remained with a Conservative congregation in Paris for two years.
In 2008 she went to the United States and converted again, this time according to Orthodox tradition. After moving back to Israel, she met her future husband and wanted to open a file with the rabbinate to get married.
They told her that the rabbis who had converted her were not on the approved list of Orthodox rabbis, and by their criteria she was not Jewish. She eventually had to go through a third conversion, this time via the Chief Rabbinate.
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While some converts go through the conversion process outside Israel, and arrive with full rights from the Interior Ministry as described above, there are those who come to Israel and want to convert to Judaism even though they are not yet citizens. They may be students or workers in Israel for a period of time under a B-1 work visa.
Would-be converts in Israel who are not citizens must apply to a special Exceptions Committee (Va’adat Harigim) that evaluates their application before they may even begin studying for conversion.
Deborah is a student in one of the country’s leading universities. Born and raised in Europe, she became interested in Judaism and decided to convert. She went for an interview at the Exceptions Committee and was eventually approved to study for conversion.
She has been studying for some time and in a few months will go before the Exceptions Committee for her second interview, which she must pass before going to the rabbinical court. “According to the law,” she says, “one is supposed to be notified within three months of being interviewed if one has been accepted into the program.”
In truth, she says, it takes much longer before notice is given. She knows of candidates who never received an answer. A representative of the Conversion Authority said that “the agency responds to requests and applications in a timely fashion” and they are “unaware of circumstances in which no answer was given.”
While Deborah speaks admiringly of the dedication and sincerity of her teachers, she says that their outlook on Judaism is “super Orthodox.”
“They offer only an interpretation of Judaism,” she says, and never provide alternative opinions of different positions. Deborah explains that the process of going before the committee and the religious court can be intimidating.
“The people who are teaching you are not the people who are testing you, and the people who are testing you don’t know who you are or where you are coming from. They see you only in a situation when you are really frightened, and on that basis they decide your future, whether you become Jewish or not.”
However, she adds that “people – both religious as well as secular – are very welcoming. The families who invite me are emotionally supportive and really welcoming.”
Conversions outside the Conversion Authority While conversions performed by the Conversion Authority are the only approved method of conversion in Israel, there are several additional paths. The rabbinical court of Giyur Ka’Halacha is headed by Rabbi Nahum Rabinovitch of Ma’aleh Adumim, one of the most respected halachic authorities in Israel. To date, more than 20 rabbis are members of the court, which has conducted more than 350 conversions.
The focus of the Giyur Ka’Halacha court is to convert children to the “acceptance of mitzvot.” While the rabbinate will only convert a child whose parents are fully observant, Giyur Ka’Halacha believes that children not need come from observant homes in order to convert.
More importantly, their “future-looking” approach does not insist that children attend religious schools.
A Jewish education is sufficient.
Yael Belenky is one of the coordinators of the Giyur Ka’Halacha court. She accompanies prospective converts from their first contact with the court until they go to the mikve (ritual bath). Belenky, who was born in Odessa and immigrated to Israel when she was 22, underwent conversion via the Chief Rabbinate.
She contrasts the approach of the rabbinate with that of Giyur Ka’Halacha. The official conversion process, she says, turns the entire process into “an examination.”
Belenky says that the conversion process of Giyur Ka’Halacha is much different.
“Conversion is not a university where students learn, pass a test and forget,” she says. “This is a process that continues after the immersion in the mikve. Everyone has their own way, own pace, and comes from different backgrounds. The rabbis come to listen and understand the place from which the convert came, not to judge and not to examine his cognitive ability to learn x-number of laws. And we, the coordinators, do not behave like KGB employees.”
In response to those who question why someone would convert in a court that is not recognized by the rabbinate ,Belenky says, “People who come to us are searching for the essence of the process, and not just the official, formal side. They want their children to be Jewish, they want them to be married according to the Jewish tradition, and they want to fully realize their Jewish identity, even if at this point they have to give up on the official stamp of the rabbinate.”
She expresses hope that one day the rabbinate will change and that there will be “a pluralism of opinions, instead of the monopoly of a small group that deals with maintaining its control, that does not represent Israeli society at all.”
Rabbi Nissim Karelitz, a leading haredi rabbi in Bnei Brak, is the founder of the haredi rabbinical court and conducts private conversions. Most of the cases his court processed did not involve Russian converts, but rather religious people who were involved in relationships with non-Jewish partners who wanted to convert and marry.
Until 2008, people who converted in Karelitz’s court were approved for marriage by the Chief Rabbinate.
However, in 2008, Rabbi Shlomo Amar, the Sephardi chief rabbi at the time, disallowed the practice.
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, the world-famous talmudic scholar best-known for his translations of the Talmud into modern Hebrew and English, had his own rabbinical court for conducting conversions. This court is no longer active.
Rabbi Chuck Davidson conducts halachic conversions both inside and outside Israel under the auspices of Ahavat Hager, an international rabbinic organization whose member rabbis administer conversions around the world. The Reform and Conservative movements have rabbinical courts here that perform conversions, which are not accepted by the Chief Rabbinate.
In March last year, the High Court ruled that people who converted to Judaism via independent conversion courts, such as the court of Rabbi Karelitz, would be eligible for receiving Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return. The recognition of these conversions for civil purposes also means that someone who is already an Israeli citizen, who made aliya under the Law of Return but was not registered as a Jew in the population registry, could have their religious status changed to “Jewish” in the Interior Ministry’s internal database, if they converted through private Orthodox conversion courts in Israel.
ITIM director Rabbi Seth Farber explains that “this was a dramatic victory, as it demonstrated that, from the Israeli government perspective, the Chief Rabbinate never had a monopoly on Orthodox conversion in Israel. The court’s ruling should enable other Orthodox rabbinical courts to achieve recognition by the state even if the rabbinate won’t certify the conversions.”
Following the High Court’s ruling, ITIM lobbied the court to extend its ruling to conversions performed by the Giyur Ka’Halacha courts as well. However, this past May the haredi parties pushed back by proposing legislation
that would rescind the state’s recognition of citizenship rights for private conversions. The proposed bill would allow the state to recognize conversions performed in Israel by the State Conversion Authority only.
The Activists versus the Conversion Authority Dr. Hanan Mandel, former chairman of Ne’emanei Torah Va’avodah, the religious Zionist movement that, according to its website, “seeks to return religious Zionism to its roots,” says that the solution for the conversion issue “needs to be found within the law, rather than through violation of the laws of the state.”
According to Mandel, a lecturer in law and conflict resolution at Bar-Ilan University and Ono Academic College, “the state needs to permit equal recognition of conversions that are conducted in the country. The rabbinate needs to serve as the regulator for conversions, rather than the service provider.”
The recent legislative initiative to permit conversions conducted only by the State is “problematic,” he says. “The number of Reform and Conservative conversions being done in Israel today is very small.
Instead, it is a struggle against the modern religious movement in Israel.”
The bill that is being proposed in favor of state conversion only is primarily directed against modern religious Zionist conversion initiatives, such as those of Rabbi Nahum Rabinovitch of Ma’aleh Adumim and Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat.
“Once again,” Mandel says, “the haredim are using their power and influence in the Chief Rabbinate and other state religious institutions to harm Modern Orthodoxy.”
Farber adds that “potential converts bring letters that attest to their Shabbat and kashrut observance, but the rabbinate wants more before it will allow the conversion.
“They want them to have a study partner, or buy certain books, or learn certain things,” he adds. “If someone is committed to mitzvot, the goal is not to make observance miserable.”
Farber says that the number of judges licensed to perform conversions is far too small and that they don’t reflect diversity. “They don’t understand the world that converts are coming from. They don’t understand the dramatic steps that people have taken to get to this point. “If there are halachic opinions that enable us to perform more conversions, we should be using those tools now instead of keeping people out,” he declares.
“The whole conversion environment is one of suspicion and fear. The judges are guardians of the gate instead of welcomers,” he says, adding that “There are no goals for the Conversion Authority to solve the problem, no long-term plan where they want to be.”
Davidson is even more outspoken. “Conversion,” he says, “was always decentralized. There is no such thing as a standard convert, a standard family into which many converts will marry, or a standard community. It is for this reason that traditional halachic conversion has no standards beyond a few very broad strokes.”
Rabbi Chaim Iram, chief rabbi of Elazar in Gush Etzion, was a rabbinical court judge and taught a conversion preparatory course at the IDF’s Institute for Jewish Studies. Iram says, “I am sad that it has come to that – that a solution has to be found from outside the state rabbinate. I can understand [those who act against the rabbinate on this subject] and I identify with them. Those who do so, do so with great pain and out of a sense of responsibility to the Jewish people.”
On the other side of the divide stands the Government Conversion Authority, a division of the Prime Minister’s Office that is responsible for the overall services provided to conversion applicants. It is primarily an administrative body that issues certificates of conversion, pays the salaries of the rabbinic court judges, and arranges the visits to the mikve for the actual conversion.
This past year, the division processed approximately 2,600 conversions, of which 829 were from the IDF’s Nativ program.
The current head of the Israeli Conversion Authority is Rabbi Itzhak Perez. Perez has been head of the authority since October 2014. Previously, he worked with the Tel Aviv Rabbinical Court under Rabbi Shlomo Dichovsky, known as one of the more progressive and open-minded rabbinic judges.
Perez says that he learned a great deal from Dichovsky, “particularly the need to love converts and relate to them respectfully.” In his youth, Perez studied under Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who was also renowned for his lenient halachic rulings on conversion. “It is possible to solve problems quietly,” he insists. “When there is noise, everything gets broken.”
Perez has worked with Farber on difficult conversion cases and maintains good relations with both sides.
“We are attacked from the Left, and attacked from the Right. If both sides are attacking us, this means we must be doing a good job.
“It is in the best interests of the Jewish people to love the convert, to bring him closer, and to help him as much as possible.”
Nevertheless, he believes that the only rabbinical courts that should operate are those of the Conversion Authority.
“Imagine if someone were not happy with the Knesset – would they start another Knesset? We have a governmental conversion organization. Why make something else?” Outside the door of the Conversion Authority hangs a colorful, welcoming sticker which quotes the Hebrew verse from Deuteronomy that reads, “And you shall love the convert.”
A slew of questions remains open. Can, or should, anything be done to hasten the conversion of the hundreds of thousands of immigrants who have not converted? Should the rabbinate take a more lenient approach to prospective converts? Does it treat the issue fairly? Will the efforts of organizations such as Giyur Ka’Halacha lead to a critical mass of converts that will eventually be accepted by the official religious establishment? Can Nativ continue to attract large numbers of prospective converts to its official conversion courses?
Regardless of the outcome, it is clear that the approach of the State of Israel to conversion has indeed come a long way since the time of David Ben-Gurion, from a clear opposition to governmental role in conversion to an active, participatory role in conversion.
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