Jerusalem — Thomas Dohlan, who converted to Judaism in an Orthodox Canadian beit din, never anticipated that Israel’s Interior Ministry might question his Jewishness and block his bid to make aliyah.
But that’s exactly what’s happening, thanks to what appears to be a new policy that gives Israel’s Orthodox Chief Rabbinate, and not the Interior Ministry, the ultimate authority to decide which Orthodox converts are kosher enough for immigration purposes.
The new policy is another sign of the Rabbinate’s strengthening power over diaspora Jewish affairs, according to Rabbi Seth Farber, the director of ITIM, an organization that helps people deal with citizenship and religious issues in Israel.
“We’d heard that the Interior Ministry has been handing over some converts’ paperwork to the Rabbinate on an ad-hoc basis, but until last week this wasn’t a written policy,” Rabbi Farber told The Jewish Week. “Now we have proof.”
While the Rabbinate already has the authority to determine whether a convert who underwent an Orthodox conversion abroad may marry in Israel (it refuses to marry Reform and Conservative Jews altogether), it has never before been authorized to decide who can immigrate, because aliyah is governed by civil law.
In the past, all immigrants were required to bring documentation to the Interior Ministry showing that they were eligible to immigrate under the Law of Return. With few exceptions, that law permits anyone who can prove he/she had at least one Jewish grandparent to make aliyah.
Traditionally, converts from all religious streams have been expected to provide their conversion certificates and endorsement letters from their community rabbis, “and they were virtually always approved,” Rabbi Farber said. This policy continues for Reform and Conservative converts, but not Orthodox ones.
Rabbi Farber said “a reliable senior official” read the new policy to him over the phone, but he declined to identify the official for fear of endangering the source’s job. The official said the policy was put into place during a meeting between the Rabbinate, the Interior Ministry and the Jewish Agency. Officials at the Rabbinate and ministry declined to comment.
(According to a story in Haaretz Tuesday, the Interior Ministry announced explicitly for the first time that while there are no established criteria or regulations about the matter, the Chief Rabbinate is “the authorized decision making party with regard to Orthodox conversions undergone abroad.”)
Rabbi Farber shared with The Jewish Week two letters written on Interior Ministry stationery stating that two Orthodox converts — Dohlan and a convert from New York whose name was concealed for privacy reasons — are not Jewish for the purposes of immigration.
Both letters said, “after consulting with the Chief Rabbinate, it was determined that the converts are not eligible for aliyah.” They were signed by Interior Ministry official Mazal Cohen.
Asked if the policy was official, Rabbi Farber said, “It’s not a consultation, it’s the policy.”
The New Yorker “was converted in an Orthodox beit din that everyone in New York knows and trusts,” Rabbi Farber said emphatically, but noted that it is not one of the handful of special conversion courts authorized by the Chief Rabbinate for marriage purposes.
(In 2006 the Rabbinate stopped automatically recognizing Orthodox conversions performed abroad, which prompted the establishment in North America of two dozen special regional conversion courts manned only by rabbis the Rabbinate endorses.)
Dohlan studied for his conversion with Rabbi Daniel Elkin, the rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel in Kingston, Ontario. The rabbi was unavailable for an interview due to illness. The synagogue’s website said it is located between Toronto and Montreal, follows “the rituals of contemporary Orthodox Judaism” and has a Talmud Torah and mikveh.
Rabbi Farber said the American Orthodox establishment’s grudging acceptance of the Rabbinate’s authority over diaspora conversions “is now being applied outside of the religious sphere, into immigration, to the civil rights of Jews around the world.”
The irony, Rabbi Farber said, is that the Rabbinate would not be scrutinizing these converts if they had undergone a non-Orthodox conversion.
“Thomas Dohlan would be an Israeli citizen by now,” Rabbi Farber noted. “Instead, he’s in limbo.”
Not receiving citizenship is problematic from both a practical and emotional perspective. Neither the Israeli government nor the aliyah organization Nefesh B’Nefesh gives grants or other benefits to non-immigrants, though Dohlan’s wife, Ortal, will have some rights as a returning Israeli.
Their four young children are Israeli citizens.
It is also unknown whether the Israel Defense Forces would accept Dohlan, who is wrapping up six years of service with the Canadian military and is considering a career with the Israeli army, unless he is not an Israeli citizen.
Dohlan said he and his wife began to consider aliyah not long after he began his conversion process two years ago (he just celebrated his first year as a Jew).
“Ortal’s sister became sick with cancer in Israel and her sister-in-law lost a baby the week before her due date. Then our baby daughter needed open heart surgery. We wanted to be with family.”
Dohlan, who is 24 and was raised in a non-religious Christian home, said he discovered Judaism after meeting Ortal and her Israeli friends in Canada.
“I was very eager to learn about her, and the more I explored Judaism, the more I related to it. I realized, this is who I am, what I believe in,” he said.
He studied two to three times a week with Rabbi Elkin and every day at home.
“The more I learned, the more I became observant, to the point where the Canadian Forces refused to give me Shabbat and Jewish holidays off.”
Dohlan was told to choose between his military career and Orthodox Judaism, “and I chose Judaism,” he said.
Being Jewish, Dohlan said, “is in my soul.” He believes that Israel, which he has never visited, “is a country I identify with, where the Jewish people belong.”
About to lose his military housing as his departure from the military nears, Dohlan said he feels “overwhelmed” by the uncertainty. He and his family are scheduled to fly to Israel on Feb. 20.
ITIM’s Rabbi Farber, who has fought for countless converts, cannot hide his outrage at the Rabbinate’s newfound authority in the immigration sphere.
“The State of Israel expects local communities to support Israel, but they don’t recognize their authority to determine who is a member of the Jewish people.
“It’s incredible and unacceptable that a few rabbinic clerks who know nothing of the dimensions of Orthodoxy around the world can determine who is a Jew for the purposes of aliyah,” Rabbi Farber said.
A version of this story was first published on The Jewish Week website, www.thejewishweek.com, last Friday.