My good friend Agnes, who made aliya several decades ago from Romania and lives in Ramat Gan, is a secular Jew. She believes in God but says organized religion and religious observance aren’t for her. The ritual, she says, “goes against my mentality and my individuality,” and, indeed, she knows little about it.

Though her maternal grandparents lit candles and kept Shabbat, her mother and stepfather were Communists.

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Nonetheless, there is no question in her mind that she is a Jew.

“For me,” she says, “being a Jew is belonging to the Jewish people and being proud of what we have achieved. I look for things in Jewish culture to be proud of. When the Nobel Prizes are announced, I look to see which recipients are Jewish. When I hear something good about Jews, I feel happy; when I hear of a Jew doing something bad, I’m sad. I try to be moral and ethical because I’ve decided to be, not because a religion tells me [to be].

“In Romania, I never hid my identity. When I met someone new, I would immediately tell them I was Jewish so they could see from the start who they were dealing with. And after what the Jewish people have gone through, especially in World War II, I feel more than ever that I must identify as a Jew. Not being religious doesn’t make me any less of one,” she says.

I BEGIN with my friend Agnes because last week, as the result of an appeal, the Supreme Rabbinical Court gave the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court 14 days to provide the reasoning behind its refusal, in 2012, to recognize as Jewish Sarit Azoulay, the daughter of a woman who had converted to Judaism 29 years earlier; a refusal that gave every indication of stemming from the fact that Sarit’s mother had not been leading an observant Jewish life.

If the Supreme Rabbinical Court decides to uphold the earlier ruling, Azoulay has declared herself ready to go outside the religious sphere and appeal her case to the High Court of Justice.

AZOULAY WAS born in Israel, raised Jewish, served in the IDF and studied at university.

It wasn’t until 2012, when she was 28 and went to the Jerusalem Religious Council (Rabbanut) to register for her marriage that the bolt fell out of the blue.

Told she could not register because she was not recognized as being Jewish, she was referred to the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court for clarification of her Jewish status. The hearing took place two weeks later with the participation of three rabbinical judges (dayanim) and two witnesses who knew the family.

“The judges heard the witnesses and then began to ask about me, who I am, what do we do on Shabbat.Then a judge asked me to call my mother, in the middle of the workday. He asked her what the Torah portion [read in synagogue] was for that week, and of course she didn’t know. He then asked if she observed Shabbat and the laws of family purity [niddah].”

Two weeks later, the mother herself was summoned and questioned about her lifestyle; following which the judges declined to recognize her daughter, Sarit Azoulay, as Jewish.

The young couple was subsequently registered by the liberal-leaning Orthodox Tzohar organization, and their marriage is now recognized by the state. But earlier this year, when Azoulay gave birth to a daughter, she decided to appeal the 2012 ruling because “I told myself it wasn’t fair to bring her into a world where someone doubts her Judaism.”

AZOULAY’S MOTHER was converted in 1983 by an Orthodox court under the authority of chief rabbi Shlomo Goren. When Azoulay was a small child her parents were divorced, again in an Orthodox court.

Having gone through an Israeli Orthodox divorce hearing myself, I can testify to how rigorously applicants’ Jewishness is ascertained before the divorce is granted.

However, in a process that apparently contravened internal rabbinical court directives, High Court of Justice rulings and Halacha itself, the 2012 rabbinical court judges took a different tack for the purpose of determining Jewishness: the extent of the convert’s subsequent religious practice.

Azoulay describes her mother as “hurt. She is a Jew who chose Judaism, and they put a knife in her heart.”

ONE HARDLY knows where to begin in deconstructing the outrageous decision to revoke a conversion many years after the fact (and this case is not unique).

It’s common knowledge that an Orthodox conversion can be a long and arduous process for the would-be Jew.

And that stringency is understandable. Why admit to the tribe people whose motives have not been proven sincere beyond all doubt? But once someone “passes the test” and becomes Jewish, our tradition mandates that they be treated like any other Jew, only with greater sensitivity. There isn’t even supposed to be any mention made of the fact that the convert was once not Jewish.

How does this jibe with the extreme insensitivity – dare I say un-Jewishness – of the rabbinical court’s actions in 2012? We Jews are told that we are “following in God’s ways” when we show compassion for others. Where was the compassion of those rabbinical judges when they snatched away the Jewish status from two, possibly three generations of one Jewish family, with all the negative consequences that would ensue? How much is an Orthodox divorce in Israel worth if one of the couple is later pronounced not Jewish? Jews are enjoined not to shame anyone in public.

What about the insult to the memory of a highly respected public figure like the late chief rabbi Goren when a conversion carried out under his auspices is retroactively disdained? What strikes a painful chord is how, via this misconceived 2012 ruling, a bunch of unworldly and unwise clerics likely alienated any number of heretofore uncommitted Jews who had begun to feel the pull and beauty of Jewish tradition and were hovering on the edge of religious observance but then turned away, saying, “This is the Jewish religion? Thanks – but no thanks.”

IT IS a laudable Jewish – and human – aspiration to strive for perfection. And perfection in the eyes of many Jews is a life spent in Torah study and punctilious religious practice.

Thus is the individual brought ever closer to the wishes of God, and, indeed, to God Himself.

But just as there are “70 faces to the Torah,” so are there multiple ways of being Jewish, feeling Jewish and demonstrating that Jewishness. In Israel especially, the argument can be made that by simply living here in the Land, an individual is already fulfilling many of the important mitzvot required of Jews.

It is hardly necessary to point out that among the many Jews who have throughout the years brought honor and succor to their fellow Jews, and aid and comfort to the world at large, only some have been religiously observant.

The rest have related to their heritage in other ways, or only minimally.

Nor, regrettably, has “leading a religious life” stopped many other Jews from bringing shame upon themselves and their fellow Jews. There’s more to being a good Jew, and a good human being, than adherence to religious ritual.

ASK my friend Agnes what the Torah portion for the week is, and she’ll have no idea. She isn’t an observant Jew – but she is a thoughtful, caring and involved one.

I’ve known her for many years, and I’d call her an asset to the Jewish people.
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