Converts to Judaism in Petah Tikva refused marriage registration

Lobbying group says policy of rejecting converts is not confined to Ethiopians, but also effects immigrants from former Soviet Union.

Ethiopians celebrating in Jerusalem (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Ethiopians celebrating in Jerusalem
Converts to Judaism seeking to register for marriage in Petah Tikva are frequently rejected by the local rabbinate in the city, it was claimed on Sunday, seemingly due to the policy of Sephardi chief municipal rabbi Binyamin Atias.
There have been a number of complaints in recent months, specifically but not exclusively from the Ethiopian community in Petah Tikva, about converts who have not been allowed to register for marriage because the local rabbinate refuses to recognize their conversion.
Although Ethiopian immigrants from the Beta Israel community are recognized as fully Jewish and did not need to undergo conversion, immigrants from Ethiopia belonging to the Falash Mura community, which converted in the 19th century from Judaism to Christianity, are required to undergo a conversion process by the state after immigrating.
It is members of this community who, despite having converted through the state conversion system, have been rejected by Atias and the Petah Tikva rabbinate.
According to Tachello Abaye, a member of the Ethiopian immigrant community in Petah Tikva, there have been numerous cases in recent years.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, he said that many couples he knew had been rejected, although they were subsequently able to register at a different local rabbinate.
Recent legislation officially abolished requirement to register for marriage in the city of residence of an engaged couple, although this practice has been in place before the legislation was passed as well.
Abaye told the Post that he had no intention of registering for marriage in a different city.
“I am a Jew in every sense and no-one can say otherwise. I am insisting on my right to be recognized as such and be registered for marriage where I chose to do so,” he said.
ITIM, a religious services and lobbying group, says that the policy of rejecting converts is not confined to Ethiopian immigrants and that immigrants from the former Soviet Union who have converted have also been rejected for marriage registration by the Petah Tikva rabbinate.
ITIM filed a petition with the High Court of Justice several years ago against the phenomenon in which chief municipal rabbis would disregard requirements demanded by law that those who converted through the state must be accepted as Jewish for all matters of religious bureaucracy.
As a result, the state and the chief rabbinate said in 2013 they would recognize all converts through the state system and ITIM, in return, withdrew its petition.
“We’re back where we were five years ago when we first filed the petition,” said Rabbi Seth Farber, an Orthodox rabbi and director of ITIM. “Municipal chief rabbis are acting unilaterally without respect for the court or the basic requirements of Jewish law which prohibit discrimination against converts,” he continued.
“I call on Rabbi Attias to resign immediately if this is the way he treats the laws of the state and our people’s traditions.”
Farber said his organization would appeal again to the High Court if the situation does not change.
The chief rabbinate said in response that the law and the regulations of the chief rabbinate mandates that every marriage registrar, which is ultimately the chief municipal rabbi of a given jurisdiction, is obligated to provide service to all Jewish citizens without discrimination, including members of the Ethiopian community.
“If there has been a breach of the law or the regulations, the matter will be thoroughly investigated and dealt with,” the rabbinate said.
Rabbi Atias could not be contacted for comment.
The Knesset's two members who emigrated from Ethiopia came out strongly against the Petah Tikvah rabbi and his policies.
"This abuse has been going on for three decades," MK Pnina Tamano-Shata (Yesh Atid) said. "From time to time someone decides to lash out at the Ehtiopian community and says they are lesser Jews because that person has slightly lighter skin than ours.
Tamano-Shata called for those who discriminate against Ethiopian Jewry to be dismissed from their positions, in order to deter people from behaving similarly in the future.
"We cannot give them a workplace and a salary paid for by taxpayers. I'm sorry, but we are in 2014," she added.
MK Shimon Solomon, also of Yesh Atid said he is sick of hearing rabbis doubt Ethiopians' Judaism.
"Every time another rabbi subjects those of Ethiopian descent to his ridiculous whims, as if Judaism is that rabbi's private company," he stated. "Our Judaism is not doubted. The opposite is true. In order to maintain our Judaism in Ethiopia, we moved to isolated villages to avoid any chance of assimilation." Solomon said Ethiopians are being encouraged by discriminatory practices to look for alternatives to the rabbinate, pointing to the "Tzohar Law," which allows Israelis to register for marriage in any town.
"We and our fathers fought in Ethiopia to preserve our Judaism. Here in Israel, it's being doubted? If rabbis like the chief rabbi of Petah Tikva are not fired, this problem will not be solved," he added.
In a letter to Rabbi Adiel Eilo, a leader of the Ethiopian community in Petah Tikva, Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef said he had spoken with Atias who denied he has a policy of refusing to register members of the Ethiopian community for marriage and that “his instructions are to register all members of the [Ethiopian] community without exception.”
Yosef reiterated that “there is no license in Jewish law for a municipal chief rabbi not to register [people] for marriage or to discriminate against Ethiopian immigrants in anyway connected to Judaism, following rulings in Jewish law that they are totally Jewish,” especially, he said, when they have undergone what is known as “conversion for the sake of the stringent opinion,” which mandates a symbolic conversion process to guarantee someone’s Jewish status in a situation of doubt. 
Yosef said this policy also stands for the Falash Mura who undergo full conversion. He added that he would bring the issue up for discussion at the next meeting of the Council of the Chief Rabbinate to “correct the current situation if the current claims are found to be accurate,” and said the chief rabbinate would not allow discrimination against Ethiopian immigrants under any circumstances and offered his services to anyone requesting help in the matter.