Court’s Conversion Ruling Satisfies Few

By Mitchell Ginsburg, With Reporting by Jta and Ha’aretz.

Published April 08, 2005, issue of April 08, 2005.
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JERUSALEM — Israel’s Supreme Court touched off a wave of cheers and jeers with its 7-to-4 decision last week to recognize a new category of non-Orthodox conversions to Judaism.

The March 31 ruling ordered the government to recognize the Jewish status of 17 Israeli residents who had traveled abroad for conversion by Reform or Conservative rabbis. It was hailed by religious liberals and attacked by Orthodox rabbis, both of whom called it a blow to the Orthodox rabbinate’s monopoly on defining Jewish identity in Israel.

But most observers agreed that the decision would do nothing to change the status of the Israelis most in need of recognition: the estimated 300,000 immigrants who are considered non-Jews by the rabbinate and the government.

“The decision of the High Court of Justice provides a solution to a humanitarian problem, but it does not affect directly the central problem of the State of Israel regarding conversion,” said Sallai Meridor, head of the Jewish Agency for Israel, which helps resettle immigrants.

Israel’s Law of Return permits any Jewish person to come to Israel, along with his or her children and grandchildren, and receive automatic citizenship. The law includes converts to Judaism.

Among the 1 million immigrants who came to Israel from the former Soviet Union during the 1990s, some 300,000 are children or grandchildren of Jews but are not considered Jewish by traditional standards. Most are Israeli citizens, speak Hebrew, serve in the army and vote, but they cannot marry, divorce or be buried as Jews in Israel.

Under Israeli law, matters of personal status — including marriage, divorce, adoption and burial, are the exclusive domain of clergy.

Non-Jews may convert to Judaism, but most Orthodox rabbis insist that converts commit themselves to an Orthodox lifestyle. Few immigrants have been willing.

Under a 1989 high court ruling, conversions performed by non-Orthodox rabbis in other countries, within the framework of “recognized Jewish communities,” are recognized for Israeli immigration and citizenship purposes. Conversions by non-Orthodox rabbis within Israel itself are not recognized.

The 17 Israeli residents in last week’s court ruling are non-Jews with no Jewish heritage who did not immigrate under the Law of Return. All took yearlong, non-Orthodox study courses here, then went abroad to undergo conversion. On return, they asked the Ministry of Interior to register them as Jews in their personal-identity documents. The ministry refused, saying they had not “integrated themselves” into the communities where they were converted. They filed a joint appeal to the high court in 1999.

The court rejected the ministry’s reasoning. “It isn’t at all clear why recognition of conversions conducted abroad must be restricted to those converts who want to join the community that converted them,” Chief Justice Aharon Barak wrote in his majority opinion.

The interior minister, Ofer Pines-Paz of Labor, said he would order his ministry to comply with the ruling at once. The ruling does not require recognition of the appellants as Jews by the rabbinate for marriage, divorce or burial.

For John Aguedelo, 43, the ruling ended a 14-year quest. He came to Israel in 1991 from Colombia to work as a nurse. By 1993, he was regularly attending a Reform synagogue. Two years later he was circumcised. Knowing he could not convert here, he flew to Argentina, underwent conversion and promptly returned.

“When I came back to Israel and they wouldn’t recognize me as a Jew, I was broken,” Aguedelo told the Forward. “But now I am happy. The moment of justice has come.”

The court ruling brought sharp responses, mostly along denominational lines. Eli Yishai, chairman of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, called it a “terrorist attack against the Jewish people.” Shas was gathering signatures for an emergency Knesset session this week, and the smaller Degel Hatorah party threatened to bolt the Sharon coalition.

Reform leaders called it a “precedent” that would help lay the groundwork for full recognition of Reform conversion. “It’s a big step forward, but it’s not the final destination,” said Anat Hoffman, director of the Israel Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

In his ruling, the chief justice acknowledged widespread dissatisfaction with the Orthodox monopoly, but called for the legislature to address it. “Not every problem that the court has the capacity to solve should be addressed in the court,” Barak wrote. “The solution to the issue of state and religion, and the healing of the national rift regarding this issue, requires a compromise of national proportions. Judges cannot bring that about.”

Previous attempts at compromise have fared poorly. The most important was the so-called Ne’eman plan, drafted by a government-appointed panel in 1998. Under the plan, conversion remains under Orthodox rabbinic control, but Reform and Conservative rabbis would participate in preparing candidates. The commission called for the creation of a national conversion studies institute, operated by the three religious streams. It also called for special rabbinical courts for conversion, which were expected to follow more lenient standards than the Chief Rabbinate traditionally required.

Rabbi Yisrael Rosen, a conversion court judge, told the Forward that the while the Knesset accepted the Ne’eman recommendations, “the rabbinate said they’d only accept the first clause” — preserving the Orthodox monopoly.

Special conversion courts were created, but they haven’t led to large numbers of immigrants converting.

Prime Minister Sharon, angered at the slow pace, ordered that the conversion courts be moved under his office’s control in 2003. But only 682 immigrants were converted in 2004, 20% fewer than the year before.

Rosen said the pace had nothing to do with rabbinic standards. “We’ve gone as close to the edge as we can go,” he said. “Nearly 90% of the candidates pass the course.” The problem is, he said, most immigrants are “not interested in conversion.”

The chairman of the Ne’eman-created Joint Institute for Jewish Studies, Professor Binyamin Ish-Shalom, said, “Out of those 300,000 people, we need to reach a group of young women, students, and soldiers who hold the keys to the acceptance of the next generation,” he said.

Ish-Shalom’s institute is targeting soldiers. Of some 7,500 soldiers of “undefined” religion, almost 500 were converted last year. Another 2,500 have enrolled for next year.

The higher pace of conversion in the army owes partly to the military rabbinate’s greater flexibility. Some observers also note that army rabbis have an easier time demanding Orthodox practice, since soldiers are fed only kosher food.

For civilians, however, the problem simmers. “What we’re left with,” Jewish Agency spokesman Michael Jankelowitz said, “is a people who aren’t stateless; they’re religion-less.”

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