Israel Slower To Welcome Converts

New Jews Find Legal Roadblocks on Road to Citizenship

Wedding Woes: Rabbi Seth Farber (right) presides over the wedding of a man who is a convert to Judaism. Some rabbis will not marry converts, who are also facing roadblocks on the path to Israeli citizenship.
courtesy of seth farber
Wedding Woes: Rabbi Seth Farber (right) presides over the wedding of a man who is a convert to Judaism. Some rabbis will not marry converts, who are also facing roadblocks on the path to Israeli citizenship.

By Nathan Jeffay

Published April 25, 2012, issue of May 04, 2012.
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Bikus lays claim to not one but two Orthodox conversions. She converted with a Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, conversion panel, or beit din, several years ago, during a six-year stint living in the Israeli town of Bnei Brak on a temporary visa. Knowing that Israel does not accept this beit din,’s conversion, she converted again, through Kiev’s Orthodox rabbinate on her return home.

Soon afterward, Bikus applied for aliyah but was told that she had not fulfilled the relevant requirements — which is what prompted her request for details of those requirements. Toward the end of last year she filed a petition with the Israeli Supreme Court, asking for her aliyah application to be processed, and she now lives in Kishinev, waiting for a decision that would allow her to move back to the place she calls home, Bnei Brak.

“She’s very miserable,” her lawyer, Jana Rabinovich, told the Forward. “She has come to love Israel and lives as an Orthodox Jew. It’s very difficult for her that the community in Kishinev is not as religious as the one where she lived in Bnei Brak.” Rabinovich said that the Interior Ministry has “really put her through hell.”

Interior Ministry spokeswoman Sabine Hadad said the residency requirement was a legitimate way of checking that converts are genuine about wanting to become Jewish, and not just doing so to receive the benefits of Israeli citizenship. “The purpose of [the Interior Ministry’s conversion] criteria is to test the conversion and make sure that it was not made to get the status only,” she told the Forward. She did not respond to questions on how the residency requirement is justified in light of the Supreme Court ban.

Meanwhile, on a separate front in the conversion wars, thousands of Israeli converts are grappling with the collapse of a delicate compromise that has guaranteed them marriage rights despite controversy about their status.

Ever since Israel’s army started offering conversion courses a decade ago, some Haredi marriage registrars have claimed that its standards are too lax. They refuse to issue marriage certificates for any of the 4,500 graduates, even though their conversions are conducted under the supervision of Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar — ostensibly their boss, since they are state-salaried clerics.

In May 2010, ITIM petitioned the Supreme Court for an order mandating renegade registrars to marry converts. But the case was put on hold in July 2011 when the Chief Rabbinate guaranteed the converts would get their marriage licenses.

ITIM has since received official complaints from converts who have found that several rabbinates will still not marry converts. On April 19, ITIM met with the Chief Rabbinate and demanded a solution. Both sides agreed that if converts are not receiving marriage licenses nationwide within four months, ITIM’s Supreme Court case, which demands that the Rabbinate censure the registrars in question, will be revived.

“If these rabbis were Sabbath desecraters the rabbinate would suspend them in a day,” Farber said. “So why are they allowed to keep their jobs if they continue to persecute converts?”

Contact Nathan Jeffay at jeffay@forward.com


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