‘Where Do We Sign Up? We Want To Convert With You’

‘Where Do We Sign Up? We Want To Convert With You’

Israelis flock to independent conversion court in wake of ‘important ruling.’

Rabbi Seth Farber, right, head of Itim, with an Israeli Supreme Court conversion petitioner, Martina Ragacova, in 2015. Courtesy of Itim
Rabbi Seth Farber, right, head of Itim, with an Israeli Supreme Court conversion petitioner, Martina Ragacova, in 2015. Courtesy of Itim

After weathering one setback after another in their quest for pluralism in Israel, the Conservative and Reform movements won a major victory last week when an Israeli court for the first time recognized an Orthodox conversion performed by a body other than the country’s ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate.

The decision is seen by some as opening the door to state recognition of conversions performed in Israel by the Conservative and Reform movements, which are not recognized.

“It is a very important ruling,” said Rabbi Steven Wernick, chief executive officer of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. “This decision validates a multiplicity approach to becoming Jewish.”

The stage for such a ruling was set in March 2016 when the country’s High Court of Justice ruled that non-Israelis who were converted in Israel by Orthodox rabbinical courts apart from the Chief Rabbinate could seek Israeli citizenship. Miriam Naor, the court’s president, ruled that for secular civil purposes, the Chief Rabbinate does not have exclusive authority over all conversions.

Rabbi Seth Farber, director of ITIM, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of an unidentified woman in her 20s, said that within hours of the ruling last Thursday, the Ministry of Interior changed the woman’s status on Israel’s National Registry from “no religion” to “Jewish.” Founded in 2002, ITIM is a nonprofit that advocates for the religious rights of non-charedi Israelis. In 2015 it established a network of independent conversion courts called Giyur K’Halacha.

He said the ministry refused for 18 months to comply with the woman’s request to change her status before “capitulating” last August and agreeing to allow a court to decide.

“The court has now instructed them to do it; they have no choice,” Rabbi Farber said.

Until Giyur K’Halacha was established with the help of funding from UJA-Federation of New York, the Chief Rabbinate was the only Orthodox body permitted to perform conversions, and until this court ruling, only its converts were recognized as Jewish by law. Among the more than 60 prominent Orthodox rabbis who serve as judges are Shlomo Riskin and David Stav.

In his ruling last Thursday, Jerusalem District Court Judge Aaron Farkash wrote: “I hereby give a declaratory judgment that in light of the conversion process that the applicant has undergone, she is Jewish for the purpose of registration as a Jew by religion and nationality in the population registry.”

Rabbi Farber said that in the hours after the ruling was announced, “we had 10 times the number of people entering our website, and hundreds have called in the last few days asking, ‘Where do we sign up? We want to convert with you.’”

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, said in an email: “The decision is an important step forward for the many people who want to join the Jewish community, but can’t or won’t do so under the auspices of the ultra-Orthodox government monopoly. The Orthodox conversion authority has been only a hindrance to the paths to piety and peoplehood that would enrich not only the personal lives of Jews by choice, but would also strengthen the Jewish people.”

Echoing that sentiment was Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, who said in a statement, “The court made the right decision in instructing the Ministry of Interior to register as Jews those who recently converted in a private Orthodox conversion. But, these people are still prohibited from marrying through the Rabbinate monopoly, as are hundreds of thousands of Israelis. We will continue to convert Israelis, and accompany them on their Jewish journey without asking them to lie about their way of life.”

The Chief Rabbinate requires converts to adhere to a strict Orthodox lifestyle.

Both the Conservative and Reform movements have their own conversion courts in Israel, but their conversions are not recognized by the state, Rabbi Wernick pointed out. He said the decision of Judge Farkash “should now theoretically open the door for both of us as well.”

“What the secular court did was diminish the authority of the Chief Rabbinate when it comes to conversions,” he said. “According to the ruling, the Ministry of Interior has to register [the Giyur K’Halacha] conversions as Jewish and the Chief Rabbinate should have to perform the weddings [of these converts] as though they were [born] Jewish. But it might not and it might continue to be obstructionist. That is why leaving all authority regarding matters of personal status in the hands of a fundamentalist Chief Rabbinate is detrimental to the Jewish people and the Jewish state.”

The Reform and Conservative movements have been fighting the ultra-Orthodox in Israel for years. As far back as 1998, the Conservative and Reform movements began hitting one roadblock after another in their bid for Jewish unity in Israel. That year, the Chief Rabbinate rejected any discussion or cooperation with the Reform and Conservative movements. More recently, months of negotiations that resulted in an agreement to build a long-sought pluralistic prayer space at the Western Wall were scuttled by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the behest of his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners.   

Rabbi Wernick said he believes it is likely Israel’s ultra-Orthodox political parties “will formulate new legislation that will nullify the court’s decision.” But Rabbi Farber said that might not happen.

“Yes, there is a possibility of a backlash by the ultra-Orthodox lawmakers, but I think they are relatively muted today because they understand there would be major political consequences for them if they were to fight this,” he explained. “They want to fight the draft bill and it is not in their political interests right now to challenge this.”

Since the Giyur K’Halacha conversions began, Rabbi Farber said 7,500 people have called inquiring about the program. But because until now the organization could not guarantee that its conversions would be recognized by the state, only about 600 conversions have taken place — which represents about 19 percent of all conversions performed during that time.

When he was establishing the program, Rabbi Farber said, he “had to get a consensus from Knesset members to recognize our conversions. We focused [on converting] people who had made aliyah and who are fully Jewish in terms of identity and going to Jewish schools but whose mothers were not Jewish. They had been told by the state to come to Israel and they served in the army but were still registered as ‘no religion’ by the Interior Ministry. That is a moral stain on the State of Israel.”

He added that the more than 60 rabbis who serve as conversion judges have said “they want them to be able to convert in a user-friendly way that won’t strip them of their identity. There is a halachic [Jewish law] tradition that enables children who are pre-bar and bat mitzvah to convert even if they are not 100 percent observant. This enables us to reach the immigrant community that is mostly non-observant. The woman in this case is in her 20s” and converted many years ago after making aliyah as a child.

Rabbi Farber said he now has “another case ready to go” and that he is considering filing it after the holidays before a district court judge in Tel Aviv. He said despite the fact that a judge in Jerusalem declared a Giyur K’Halacha conversion valid and directed that it be recognized by the state, the same court declaration must be sought for each of the organization’s other conversions to get the state to recognize them as Jewish.

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