When becoming a Jew depends on knowing the right bureaucrat

The recent conversion of a South African highlights inconsistent policies at the Conversion Authority.

conversion class 248.88 (photo credit: Hilary Leila Krieger [file])
conversion class 248.88
(photo credit: Hilary Leila Krieger [file])
A conversion case that ended happily on Thursday highlighted the sad fact that, due to inconsistent policies at the Conversion Authority, knowing the right bureaucrat can mean the difference between joining the Jewish people and being turned away. Helen Maister, 34, a South African citizen who immersed herself in a mikve Thursday - thus completing her conversion - discovered that knowing who to turn to was essential to becoming a Jew in Israel. Indeed, choosing the wrong person almost got Maister snagged in a bureaucratic web of contradictory directives and administrative approaches. Her savior was Rabbi Seth Farber, director of ITIM, an organization that helps hapless prospective converts and other seekers of religious services find their way through the bureaucratic labyrinth that is the Chief Rabbinate. Troubles began even before Maister completed a 10-month conversion course on Kibbutz Yavne. Instead of being referred directly to a rabbinic court for an interview before conversion, Maister, who is not an Israeli citizen - although she is eligible for Israeli citizenship because her father is Jewish - was told that she would have to go through a Va'adat Harigim (Special Cases Committee). This committee is composed of representatives from the Interior Ministry, the Prime Minister's Office and the rabbinic courts. However, it quickly became clear that Rabbi Rafi Dayan, who represents the rabbinate in the Special Cases Committee, is personally opposed to converting people, like Maister, who come to Israel to convert but plan to return to their country of origin (in her case South Africa) immediately afterwards. Dayan made clear that he felt that the State of Israel's Conversion Authority should not serve Maister. She should, rather, go back to South Africa, which has its own recognized conversion court, and convert there. "We are not responsible for converting people who are not Israeli citizens," Dayan elaborated in a telephone interview. "Only in places where there is no recognized conversion court do we get involved." Maister's time in Israel was running out: A medical condition required her to get back to South Africa to receive an experimental drug that is unavailable here. Then Farber found a solution, utilizing connections in the Jewish Agency, the Interior Ministry and the rabbinical courts who disagree with Dayan's interpretation of policy. They felt that since Maister is eligible for Israeli citizenship, she could bypass the Special Cases Committee and go straight to the conversion courts. Farber's connections reasoned that Maister was plainly not seeking to convert in order to facilitate Israeli citizenship, but was, rather, acting out of sincere religious motivation. Therefore, they decided, it was up to the rabbinic court, not the special cases committee, to decide whether to accept her as a full-fledged member of the Jewish people. "For my entire life I've gone to Jewish schools and belonged to the Jewish community," said Maister. "But without a conversion I would always feel as though I was split between two worlds." Maister is not considered Jewish according to Orthodox criteria since her mother converted to Reform Judaism. Judaism is determined by matrilineal descent. Rabbi Eliyahu Maimon, the administrative head of the conversion courts, accepted Maister with open arms. Maimon's only concern was that Maister prove she was part of an Orthodox community in South Africa. Rabbi Lawrence Perez, an Orthodox South African rabbi, vouched for that. Perez also said he had no opposition to Maister's conversion. Maister's situation is similar to that of many potential Diaspora converts who are eligible for Israeli citizenship because their father or grandparents are Jewish but are not defined as Jews according to halacha. Many of them would like to convert in Israel even though they have no intention of becoming Israeli. Among the reasons to convert here is that the process takes no longer than a year, whereas it can take two or more years abroad. Second, many such potential converts visit Israel and get interested in Judaism here. Incorporating their preparation for conversion with their general studies can save time and makes a lot of sense. Finally, there is a real fear that conversions performed abroad will not be recognized by the Israeli rabbinate. It is considered safer to simply convert in Israel. Farber said that ITIM is handling more than 50 cases similar to Maister's in which sincere prospective converts are unjustifiably blocked from appearing before the rabbinical courts because they are forced to wait for the Special Cases Committee to consider their case. Farber said this can take as long as six months.