Spiritual odyssey turned nightmare

Pregnant Italian convert married to kashrut supervisor not Jewish enough?

conversion illustrative thumb 88 (photo credit: )
conversion illustrative thumb 88
(photo credit: )
Fifteen years ago in Turin, Italy, Rachel - aka Emanuela - began the spiritual odyssey that eventually led to her passionate embrace of Orthodox Judaism. Today, at 35, Rachel is two months pregnant, married to a kashrut supervisor and living in the Jerusalem area. But her personal journey, which has taken a somewhat unpleasant turn, is still not over. Although Rome's Orthodox Rabbinical Court declared Rachel Jewish on July 11, 2006; although the Chief Rabbinate of Israel recognized Rachel's conversion; and although Rachel was joined in wedlock to her devout husband by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel six months ago, the Interior Ministry refuses to recognize Rachel as a Jew. Thanks to a High Court injunction, she is allowed to remain in Israel with her husband until the court rules on her case. Until that happens, however, her citizenship status is in limbo. She has no rights to any state services such as national insurance or health care, and if she leaves the country - to visit her family in Italy, for instance - she will not be allowed to return. "My situation is worse than non-Jews who marry an Israeli," Rachel said on Thursday in a telephone interview. "At least they have rights." Rachel is being helped by ITIM, a nonprofit organization that helps the perplexed navigate Israel's religion-related bureaucracies. ITIM's legal adviser, attorney Shlomit Tur-Paz, is representing Rachel in a petition to the High Court of Justice against the Interior Ministry and its population registry. In principle, anyone who converts to Judaism in a recognized community - Orthodox, Conservative or Reform - is eligible for automatic Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return. Only known criminals or others deemed dangerous to the Jewish state can be disqualified. But Interior Ministry officials fear that opportunists looking to gain entrance to a developed Western country might dishonestly exploit the conversion process. In Rachel's case, the ministry's concern seems to be that she came to Israel almost immediately after converting. Ministry officials see this as a sign that the conversion was performed with the express intention of gaining Israeli citizenship. However, Rachel said she left Italy not because she was unhappy there, but because she wanted to tie her destiny to the Jewish people's. According to Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Reform Movement in Israel, many Interior Ministry officials, especially those in the influential legal department, are Orthodox and very conservative in their outlook. "During the years that the National Religious Party and Shas controlled the ministry, they hired Interior Ministry officials who were openly hostile to liberal Judaism," Kariv said. "The NRP and Shas encouraged these officials to adopt criteria that would prevent non-Orthodox converts from gaining Israeli citizenship. "But now these criteria are also working against Orthodox conversions. The Orthodox establishment's anti-liberal policies are blowing up in its face." Rabbi Andy Sacks, director of the Masorti (Conservative) Movement's Rabbinical Assembly in Israel, said he understood the ministry's concerns. "We also have a vested interest in making sure that no one takes advantage of our conversions to gain Israeli citizenship," Sacks said. "But now we are in an absurd situation in which clerks and bureaucrats are getting involved in halachic decisions, and they are reaching more stringent conclusions than the rabbis." In 2005, then-Supreme Court president Aharon Barak ruled that the Interior Ministry had no business interfering with inherently religious criteria that determine whether a conversion is kosher or not. "We are aware of the need for the state to control recognition of conversions within the framework of the Law of Return," Barak wrote. "We believe that this supervision [of immigration] is maintained when a conversion is performed outside Israel within a recognized Jewish community. In this way, the state supervises immigration while at the same time maintaining connections with Diaspora communities." In the same ruling, Barak concluded that it was unlawful for the Interior Ministry to prevent converts from immigrating to Israel immediately after their conversion. Nevertheless, the ministry has continued to intervene on issues connected directly with the conversion process. Three weeks ago, the ministry's legal department drafted a document titled "Conditions for Giving 'Oleh' Status on the Basis of a Conversion Performed Abroad." This document, leaked on Thursday to The Jerusalem Post, is proof that ministry officials continue to see themselves as arbiters of conversion standards. In the document, ministry officials list various criteria for conversion. For instance, potential converts from all religious streams who seek to make aliya must study Judaism for a minimum of 350 hours in a recognized Jewish community. They must also spend a total of 18 months in the community where they are converting (at least nine months following the conversion), to prove their sincere commitment to Judaism. Converts who do not want to wait the full nine months after conversion will be allowed to come to Israel, but will not be granted citizenship until they can prove they are Jewish - often a long and complicated process with no guarantee of success. The guidelines automatically refuse citizenship to anyone whose visa application to Israel was rejected in the past for any reason. It is unclear whether new Interior Minister Eli Yishai (Shas), who was sworn in this week, intends to revamp these criteria. Yishai's spokesman said on Thursday in response to Rachel's story that the new minister had not yet begun work. A Post inquiry to the Interior Ministry spokeswoman's office in the afternoon was not answered. Meanwhile, Rachel continues to wait for word on a change in her citizenship status. For the time being, she is not considered a Jew by the state. "This whole situation is very frustrating," Rachel said. "I can't work, I have to pay for private medical service. I wanted to visit my family in Italy before I become too pregnant to travel. "But what bothers me most is the uncertainty about my baby. Will my baby be considered a Jew? What is the status of a baby born to someone without any status? I don't know."