When New Yorker Bruce Smith prays three times a day for a “return to Zion,” it’s a very personal plea. He is desperate to immigrate to Israel with his wife, Fanny, and their three children, but he can’t: Fanny is an Orthodox convert to Judaism.
Ironically, the problem is that Fanny Smith converted through the Orthodox Vaad Harabonim of Queens and not through the less stringent conversion programs run by America’s Reform and Conservative movements — conversions that Israel’s Interior Ministry is obliged to accept under Israeli law.
The right of people who convert in the Diaspora under Reform or Conservative auspices to make aliyah, or immigrate to Israel and claim citizenship as Jews, is detailed in Israeli law — a reaction to various attempts by ultra-traditional, or Haredi, politicians to bar them. But it has always simply been taken for granted that all Orthodox converts have immigration rights under Israel’s Law of Return, which permits entry and instant citizenship to Jews everywhere.
But now, the Interior Ministry, which sets immigration policies, has begun discriminating from among the Orthodox.
Under the Haredi-oriented Shas party, which controls the ministry, Interior officials have started turning down applications by Orthodox converts such as Fanny Smith. The Forward has learned of 11 such cases, all of them involving North Americans, and there are believed to be more.
“My wife and I live an Orthodox life and feel Orthodox, and we want to contribute to the Jewish state and live there,” Bruce Smith, a resident of Brooklyn, told the Forward. “It makes us angry; it makes us upset.”
He added that although Fanny, who completed her conversion 10 years ago, could move to Israel registered as his non-Jewish wife, the Smiths cannot afford to do this. She would lose out on the financial benefit package that only new Jewish immigrants receive. The couple say they need these benefits to pay for their relocation.
Clashes between Diaspora religious leaders and Israeli politicians are nothing new, but the protagonists tend to be Reform and Conservative leaders protesting discrimination against their movements by state authorities, who privilege Orthodoxy. Just last summer, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist leaders fought legislation that would have given Israel’s Chief Rabbinate official control over conversion within Israel. Their protests helped convince the sponsor of the bill to put it on hold indefinitely. But the anger among America’s Orthodox leaders, sparked by the latest change at the Interior Ministry, is unprecedented.
Some 100 American Orthodox rabbis have signed a February 28 letter calling on Interior Minister Eli Yishai to “rectify the injustice being done to our converts, ourselves and the Jewish people.” The signatories include Yosef Blau, president of the Religious Zionists of America and a senior faculty member of Yeshiva University’s rabbinic school; Barry Gelman, rabbi of the United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston and Adam Mintz, rabbi of Manhattan’s Kehilat Rayim.
“Until now, no one in the Orthodox world cared that we were having problems,” said Andy Sacks, director of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly in Israel. “But now that significant parts of the Orthodox community are having problems, there is a realization of the need to separate politics and religion when it comes to conversion.”
Seth Farber, an Orthodox rabbi who runs ITIM, a not-for-profit organization that assists people whose conversions are called into question, views the Interior Ministry’s new approach as a disaster for Israel-Diaspora relations. “Here, under our noses, we have a very real schism with the Diaspora,” he said.
The question of “Who is a Jew?” is a complicated one in Israel, where the state sometimes categorizes individuals as Jewish for civil purposes, like eligibility to immigrate, but the Chief Rabbinate, which has jurisdiction over marriage, categorizes them as non-Jewish.
In the past, the Chief Rabbinate has rejected some Orthodox Diaspora conversions in the context of its marriage registration powers. The Chief Rabbinate maintains a confidential list of certain Diaspora batai din , or rabbinic courts, whose conversions it deems acceptable. The list is known to include several panels affiliated with the Rabbinical Council of America. But individuals converted by other Diaspora Orthodox programs must re-convert if they seek to wed in Israel.
Until recently, the Interior Ministry never took this selective approach; it accepted all Orthodox conversions for immigration of Jews to Israel under the Law of Return. But about a year ago, the ministry started deferring to the Chief Rabbinate’s principles when handling aliyah applications; it would reject people who were converted by Orthodox batai din that were not on the rabbinate’s list.
Besides infuriating American Orthodox rabbis, the Interior Ministry’s policy shift is causing a major rift with Israel’s Jewish Agency, the body responsible for aliyah applications until they go to the ministry for final approval.
Jewish Agency spokesman Michael Jankelowitz said that in making themselves judges over Orthodox conversions, ministry officials are “sticking their noses into issues that were never theirs.” On February 22, the Jewish Agency passed a resolution calling for the government to restore its traditional role as verifier of the Jewish credentials of aliyah applicants instead of deferring to the Israeli Chief Rabbinate.
The ministry declined a request by the Forward to respond to this criticism and clarify its policy on Orthodox converts.
As the row over Diaspora conversions escalates, Israelis who have undergone conversion in Israel are also eagerly waiting to hear whether an end is in sight to the limbo in which they find themselves.
Under instruction of the Supreme Court, in mid March the state proposed its solution to the problem of people who converted under the state-run Conversion Authority being refused marriage licences by state marriage registrars who take the ultra-Orthodox view that their conversions are invalid. The state suggested that it ensures that whenever a registrar refuses a marriage certificate to a convert, he must pass the file to another, more lenient registrar who will grant one.
Farber, whose group brought the case to the court, told the Forward that he is sceptical that registrars would abide by such an arrangement. He is deliberating on what response to give the court on this proposal.
Contact Nathan Jeffay at firstname.lastname@example.org