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Reality TV Star’s Conversion Plight Reveals Orthodox Rabbinate’s Kafkaesque Grip

(Haaretz) — The struggle against the ultra-Orthodox grip on Israel’s Chief Rabbinate in issues of personal status in Israel has a new, and very attractive, poster girl. Alin Levy, an Israeli reality TV star, says she has been told she cannot complete the process of converting to Judaism because she is an actress.

Levy blasted into the national consciousness four years ago when she was one of the most popular contestants in the Israeli version of the highly rated reality show sensation “Big Brother.” One of the youngest ever to participate in the show, at age 18, Levy was an audience favorite with her cheerful and ditzy ‘girl-next-door’ persona. Her blonde good looks, of course, didn’t hurt.

After reaching the finals of the show – but not winning – she completed her service in the Israel Defense Forces and kept a high profile – parlaying her celebrity into stints as a television gossip reporter and performer on panel shows. Constantly tracked by paparazzi, she had a high profile in the Tel Aviv social scene, complete with a Kardashian-esque sports star boyfriend.

But a few years ago, she took a deliberate step out of the spotlight. A profile of Levy published in Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper on Friday explained that, at the ripe old age of 23, she decided to change her life and take a more serious direction – to leave her pop culture gigs and immerse herself in Chekhov and Shakespeare at a prestigious acting school. The spread on Levy’s ‘new life’ was illustrated with an artistic photo of Levy lighting Sabbath candles and was headlined with the revelation that she was converting to Judaism.

Levy immigrated to Israel from Ukraine when she was four years old. Her father was Jewish, and though her mother met the legal requirements for immigration to Israel thanks to her Jewish grandfather, she was not considered Jewish according to religious law (halakha), and so neither was Alin. Alin said she had felt Jewish all her life in Israel. It was during her military service that she began to be troubled by that fact that as far as the Chief Rabbinate was concerned, she was not Jewish.

It upset her that she wasn’t ‘officially’ considered a member of the religion, and, according to the interview, she determined to become a full-fledged kosher Jew, she began the procedure for Orthodox conversion, studying Torah three hours each week, dressing modestly, making blessings over her food and began to observe Shabbat. Asked if she might become fully Orthodox in the end, she responded “I can’t rule it out.”

The process is standard operating procedure for secular Israelis who want to complete conversion. In order to do so, they are required to adopt a lifestyle that is far more observant to become Jewish in the eyes of the stringent conversion court.

But for the court supervising Levy’s conversion – it wasn’t enough.

Shortly after the newspaper article appeared, the story broke in the media that Levy had been told she could not continue toward conversion if she insisted on continuing to study acting and working as a performer.

She told the press Sunday that she was shocked by the news that came in a phone call from the rabbi she was studying with toward conversion, who was acting as her liaison to the conversion court. He said he was told by the conversion authority that “An acting career does not go together with the spirit of the religion.”

She said she was rebuffed when she asked to meet with the rabbinate to discuss her case, and so, feeling like she had nothing to lose, she went public with the fact that she had been told that she couldn’t be an actress and a Jew at the same time.

A devastated Levy went on television with her sadness and anger on Sunday, saying that “the whole thing made me feel like damaged goods.”

Levy’s story is far from unusual, says Rabbi Seth Farber, whose organization ITIM helps people navigate Israel’s religious bureaucracy.

“It is a complete absurdity” Farber said, for someone to be rejected as a candidate for a conversion because of choosing a career in acting, but he has seen similar occurences.

“We’ve had people who work as nurses being told they couldn’t convert because their job requires them to work shifts on the Sabbath,” he said. Farber added that he believed her case could be moved through the system with the proper approach and that he hoped she would pursue the issue and wouldn’t give up. Many secular Israelis have done just that – abandoning the conversion process in disgust, or in aminority of cases, converting with Conservative or Reform rabbis although they knew their conversion won’t be recognized by the state authorities.

Whatever the result for Levy, the public awareness stirred up by her plight adds fuel to the fire of dissatisfaction and anger toward the rabbinate in the Israeli public as the gap between the realities of modern Jewish life and their ultra-Orthodox outlook grows wider and wider.

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