Israeli Jews Who Aren't Jewish in Eyes of Rabbis Face Kafkaesque Conversion Plight

Immigrants Make Aliyah But Rejected by Rabbinate

Not Jewish Enough? Maxim and Alina Serjukov had to move to another town in Israel after a rabbi rejected their efforts to convert.
Courtesy of maxim and Alina Serjukov
Not Jewish Enough? Maxim and Alina Serjukov had to move to another town in Israel after a rabbi rejected their efforts to convert.

By Nathan Jeffay

Published April 04, 2014, issue of April 18, 2014.
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“They prefer to strengthen the Chief Rabbinate instead of helping citizens,” Stern’s aide Tani Frank complained in an interview with the Forward.

The bill is currently frozen and seen as having reached a dead end, thanks to the effective veto of Jewish Home politicians in the government. “They fail to understand that there’s a solution and that they may, at some point, have to go against the rabbinate to bring it about,” Frank said.

The most surprising part of the saga is the attitude that drives the rabbinate’s opposition to the reform: It doesn’t trust its own rabbis around the country. Municipal rabbis are the face of the rabbinate to most citizens — the only state rabbis they will ever meet. They are responsible for registering weddings and running religious services in their regions. But there is a “concern” in the Chief Rabbinate that some of them couldn’t be trusted to perform conversions according to proper religious standards, a source in the organization familiar with the topic told the Forward.

The source, who did not have clearance to speak to the media and therefore requested anonymity, said that municipal rabbis currently fulfill functions that are important but “reversible and not so severe according to Halacha,” the Hebrew term for traditional religious law. Conversion, he said, is a different matter.

About 2,000 Israeli citizens convert each year — mostly immigrants from the FSU who are not considered halachically Jewish and their offspring. Yet as a result of births and continued immigration, the number of residents in this demographic group lacking Jewish status increases by more than 5,000 people annually.

According to Seth Farber, an Orthodox rabbi who directs ITIM, an advocacy group for converts and prospective converts, this growth poses challenges to the assimilation of these immigrants for which Israel doesn’t have answers.

In a letter Farber showed to the Forward, one couple wrote that they had “given up on our dream of a Jewish home in Israel, and as a result halted the conversion process” more than a year after the non-Jewish partner decided to convert. They blamed the “degrading and arrogant” approach of the conversion court to which they were summoned — one of four run by the Conversion Authority. This included repeated interrogation, they said, as to whether they go to church, despite stating that they don’t. Farber, whose office received the letter, said that there are many converts who do not even get as far as this couple.

Another West European immigrant told the Forward she was told to marry her Jewish fiancé the same day she converted if she wanted a marriage license. The rabbis’ demand stemmed from the fact that the couple were already living together. The rabbis insisted that they should not be in each other’s company unmarried after the conversion, because of stringent religious modesty laws that would now apply to her as a Jew.

As a result, her family members, who live in Europe, couldn’t attend her wedding last summer. The rabbis “said they didn’t care and that we should just bring wine and bourekas [stuffed pastries] and it would be okay,” the woman recalled. “They ruined the best day of my life.”

Her wedding-day conversion was actually her third conversion to Judaism. The woman said that she had undergone a Conservative conversion in Europe and a conversion with the New York Orthodox rabbi Marc Angel, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in Manhattan. Neither of these passed muster with the Israeli rabbinate.

The couple’s unmarried co-habitation provoked harsh comments from the Israeli conversion court, the woman said. Members of the conversion court told them they “live like animals,” she recounted. The process made her feel like a “nonkosher piece of meat,” she said. Though she is now converted and married, she insisted her name not be published, due to the sensitivity of the subject.

While some liberal Orthodox religious-Zionists like Farber argued for Stern’s reform bill, the right wing of the Religious Zionist camp fought it tooth and nail. The influential rabbi Shlomo Aviner, head of Jerusalem’s Ateret Cohanim yeshiva, told the Forward that conversion is just too important to be entrusted to local rabbis. “Each rabbi decides things for his community, but with conversion, you are making decisions for the whole Jewish nation,” he said. “The rabbinate for this is the Chief Rabbinate, and only it should decide.”

Contact Nathan Jeffay at jeffay@forward.com


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