Who’s an (Orthodox) oleh?

Chief Rabbinate drawing up new procedures to determine which Orthodox communities are eligible for aliya, since current practice bars many converts.

Rabbi Amar at meeting 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Rabbi Amar at meeting 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The Chief Rabbinate, Interior Ministry and State Attorney’s Office are currently drawing up new procedures to determine the validity of Orthodox conversions for the purpose of aliya, Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar said on Wednesday.
Amar was speaking during a special meeting of the Knesset’s Aliya, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Committee that was summoned in the wake of Orthodox conversions not being recognized for the purpose of aliya by the Interior Ministry, due to the fact that it consults with the Chief Rabbinate on the validity of Orthodox conversions.
The Chief Rabbinate, however, reached an understanding with the Rabbinic Council of America a few years ago according to which it would only recognize conversions conducted in 11 new regional rabbinic courts.
That recognition is for purposes of Judaism according to Orthodox Halacha, and was apparently not intended to determine Israel’s civil policies regarding those individuals, especially at the same time Reform and Conservative conversions in established such communities are recognized by the state for citizenship.
The situation that resulted from the Chief Rabbinate’s halachic decision, which Amar said was motivated by the desire to create order in the diverse world of North American Jewry, as well as isolated incidents of corruption by conversion courts, is that Orthodox converts from established Jewish communities wishing to make aliya, who did not undergo the process in the RCA regional courts, are not only rejected by the Chief Rabbinate as non-Jews, but even by the State of Israel’s Interior Ministry.
There are currently at least six such cases of Orthodox converts wishing to make aliya awaiting the Interior Ministry’s decision on their cases.
In response to what appeared to be a growing problem, the Jewish Agency last month appealed to the Interior Ministry for a more dominant role in identifying established Diaspora communities as such.
A resolution passed by the agency’s board of governors called on the government “to confirm the role of the Jewish Agency as a body directed to ascertain, through inquiry with appropriate parties in the relevant country, that the party confirming the Jewish eligibility of a prospective oleh for the purposes of aliya is qualified to do so.”
Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky said the resolution does not seek to establish the Jewish Agency as the judge of who is a rabbi, nor to sway the rabbinate’s positions on the halachic validity of conversions being conducted abroad. It aims only to address the fact that the Interior Ministry, which according to the Law of Return must give citizenship to converts coming from established Diaspora communities, was, in cases of Orthodox converts, basing its civilian policy on the recommendations of the halachic stances of the Chief Rabbinate.
Despite a High Court decision from several years ago, the Interior Ministry has yet to formulate an official policy on the matter. It currently operates on the basis of an internal memo drafted by its legal department in 2008. In determining if a convert should be eligible for citizenship, the memo refers the ministry to the head of the relevant religious community in Israel.
The legal adviser for the Interior Ministry’s population registrar, Daniel Solomon, said at the Wednesday meeting that they always have turned to the Chief Rabbinate for consultation, when the Jewish Agency couldn’t provide sufficient information on the converting community.
“There is no recent change in policy; maybe in the field there is,” he said. “But the Interior Ministry has always turned to the Chief Rabbinate in the same manner,” he said.
“When we are dealing with recognized conversions, the Jewish Agency does the work for the three Jewish streams. But when we have questions, we turn to the local heads of the religious groups. In the case of Orthodoxy, it is the Chief Rabbinate.”
Committee chairman Danny Danon (Likud), who was the one to decide that the meeting would take place at the Chief Rabbinate, expressed his satisfaction over the dialogue on the matter, and said they would be expecting the new guidelines within 45 days.
“We’d like to see as many olim as possible, and not ones who had their conversions via the Internet, or by mail,” he said.
Other committee members MKs Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz) and Yohanan Plesner (Kadima) protested, with all the due respect to Amar, the fact that the meeting didn’t take place in the Knesset. As for the issue at hand, Horowitz charged that “the Interior Ministry is abusing its role in relation to the Law of Return by letting the Chief Rabbinate decide in relation to Orthodox conversions taking place abroad, while the Rabbinate refuses to recognize nearly all such conversions.
“Haredi wheeler-dealers in Israel are, for political and sectorial reasons, excommunicating the vast majority of the United States’s rabbis, preventing many people from making aliya,” he said. “This is a disgraceful situation, caused by the unacceptable self-deprecation of the state’s authorities before extremist rabbis.”
Head of the Reform Movement in Israel Rabbi Gilad Kariv, who attended the discussion, proposed in a statement a practical line of action to his Orthodox brethren in the Diaspora, one he said has already proven successful: “We suggest that Orthodox leaders in the Diaspora who oppose this haredi takeover [of conversion in the world] learn from the experience of the Reform Movement and exert direct influence on Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.”
The massive pressure applied by Diaspora Jewry on Netanyahu in the summer, including from the American non-Orthodox movements and Jewish Federations, led Netanyahu to put a freeze on the conversion bill MK David Rotem was attempting to pass at the time.
Founder and head of the ITIM organization Rabbi Seth Farber, who is aiding some of the Orthodox converts refused aliya and who exposed the phenomenon to the public, called “The decision to not recognize all of the Orthodox conversions in the Diaspora, because of some local cases of corruption, totally disproportionate.
“Clear criteria should be set according to the Law of Return to determine what a recognized community is, and the local professional bodies should be trusted,” he said.
“The Interior Ministry does not have enough knowledge to determine which community is recognized and which is not; therefore the Jewish Agency should have that authority.
“The current policy creates a paradoxical situation in which those who undergo a Reform or Conservative conversion receive an oleh status without any problems, while people who chose an Orthodox conversion face many difficulties.”