Jerusalem – In November 2009, exactly three months before the day they were planning to get married, Maxim and Alina Surdikov went to the marriage registry in the coastal town of Ashkelon, their hometown, just as the laws requires.
The registrar pleasantly told them that before the young couple could open a file (known as a "teek"), they would have to receive permission from the town’s rabbi, Haim Blau.
The reason: Alina Surdikov, 24, who immigrated to Israel from Siberia 15 years ago, is a convert.
After reviewing Surdikov’s paperwork, which said she had been converted by a state- and Chief Rabbinate-sanctioned conversion court, the rabbi told the couple to go to a rabbi in another city, according to Surdikov.
Realizing a rabbi from another municipality probably wouldn’t register them, because, by law, only a local rabbi is authorized to register, Maxim contacted the organization ITIM-The Jewish Life Information Center, which has recently tackled several similar cases. ITIM instructed them to return to the registrar "because we had every right to marry."
It didn’t help. Rabbi Blau again refused to grant the Surdikovs a marriage license.
It took until a week before their nuptials, and only with ITIM’s help, to receive a license from another rabbi. "It was an experience we hope no other couple will have to endure," Surdikov said with determination. "That’s why we decided to petition the High Court."
In the latest skirmish in the ongoing "who is a Jew" debate, on Sunday the Surdikovs and three other parties sued the Chief Rabbinate and four of the rabbis it employs for refusing to provide marriage certificates to converts who became Jewish in state-sanctioned conversion courts.
Rabbi Seth Farber, director of ITIM, which is one of the petitioners and which helps converts to Judaism navigate the Israeli legal system, said that during the past six months his organization has helped "more than 30" couples register in alternative registries after their local registrars had refused to issue licenses.
"According to the law this can’t be done, but some registrars have been willing to look the other way," Rabbi Farber said.
Rabbi Farber said he and the other petitioners felt they had "no choice’ but to sue the Rabbinate.
"Imagine receiving your drivers’ license in Tel Aviv, only to be told in Ashkelon or Ashdod that you can’t drive because your license isn’t recognized there. The same is happening with conversion certificates."
Rabbi Farber said that Rabbi Blau and the three other rabbis (from Ashdod, Holon and Rishon Lezion) are employing ultra-stringent (haredi) religious standards in a state-funded office that serves the entire public.
In effect, Farber said, these rabbis recognize the authority of haredi rabbis, not the Rabbinate that employs them.
"These four rabbis are brutalizing genuine converts in order to achieve their own political aspirations," Rabbi Farber charged. "They’re trying to show how haredi they are and are doing so on the backs of the converts. It gives them credibility in ultra-Orthodox circles, which seek to undermine the validity of the conversions performed in the state Conversion Authority.
This is not the first time Rabbinate employees have tried to undermine the Rabbinate from within. In 1998, Rabbi Avraham Sherman, head of the High Rabbinical Court in Israel, ruled that thousands of conversions performed by the Authority would no longer be automatically recognized as "kosher."
Rabbi Amar’s ruling that the conversions are indeed kosher is not being heeded, Rabbi Farber says.
Reached by phone just hours before the start of the Passover holiday, Rabbi Blau, the chief rabbi of Ashkelon, stood by his decision not to recognize Alina Surdikov’s conversion.
"I asked her to bring in two witnesses to attest that she keeps Shabbat. One told me that she doesn’t keep Shabbat. If a convert doesn’t keep Shabbat, the basis for Jewish law and life, then it’s not a real conversion."
Rabbi Blau insisted he does not reject all Conversion Authority converts.
"A couple weeks ago a couple came to me and I issued their marriage license on the spot. It was clear that they are a religious couple and are sincere in their commitment to a Jewish lifestyle."
Surdikov said she and her husband do maintain a Jewish home, but did not elaborate.
"I’ve always felt Jewish," she said. "My parents divorced in 1995 and I was raised by my father, who is Jewish, and grandmother, who is Jewish. I studied Judaism intensively for six months, from morning till night, to be true to who I am. We could have married without my converting. That was never the issue," Surdikov said.
"We’re going to court so that others in my position don’t have to suffer," Surdikov said.