Con­verts hit new Is­raeli bar­rier

The Is­raeli au­thor­i­ties are mak­ing it more dif­fi­cult for con­verts who want to go and live in the Jewish state — and di­as­pora rab­bis are not happy

The Jewish Chronicle - - JUDAISM - BY SI­MON ROCKER

SINCE IT is the mis­sion of Zion­ism that as many Jews as pos­si­ble live in Is­rael , you would as­sume that Is­rael would make it as easy as it could for Jews to move there. But you would not be reck­on­ing with the re­al­i­ties of Is­raeli bu­reau­cracy. Among prospec­tive emi­grants to Is­rael from Bri­tain this year is a black fam­ily from South Lon­don who con­verted to Ju­daism. So read­ily have they em­braced their new faith that they want to settle in the Jewish home­land. Their de­par­ture had been set for Au­gust un­til they hit an un­ex­pected ob­sta­cle: the Is­raeli au­thor­i­ties have with­held ap­proval of their aliyah.

Rabbi Rod­ney Mariner, con­venor of the Re­form Beth Din, which rat­i­fied their con­ver­sion, is mys­ti­fied why “the plug was pulled.” Ac­cord­ing to the Law of Re­turn, di­as­pora con­verts (whether Ortho­dox or Pro­gres­sive) are as en­ti­tled to ap­ply for Is­raeli cit­i­zen­ship as na­tive Jews. “Any Re­form con­gre­ga­tion would have ac­cepted that this fam­ily has done ev­ery­thing they are re­quired to here,” he said. “They de­cided, for spir­i­tual rea­sons, that the fu­ture for them and their kids was in Is­rael.”

Un­der­stand­ably, the fam­ily wants to re­main anony­mous. But what­ever the rea­son for the de­lay, it points to a wider prob­lem: the in­creas­ing wish of some in Is­rael to re­strict the en­try of con­verts into the coun­try and to reg­u­late con­ver­sions in the di­as­pora.

A few weeks ago, Is­rael’s In­te­rior Min­istry pub­lished new pro­pos­als to con­trol the aliyah of con­verts. Among the main con­di­tions is that ap­pli­cants would have to have clocked up at least nine months’ study for their con­ver­sion (no con­ver­sion course in the UK takes less than 12 months) and, fol­low­ing con­ver­sion, then to have lived in the Jewish com­mu­nity for a fur­ther nine months. But crit­ics con­tend that the new pro­to­col dis­crim­i­nates against con­verts and in­ter­feres with the au­ton­omy of the di­as­pora rab­binate.

Since most di­as­pora con­ver­sions are non-Ortho­dox, the con­di­tions are “par­tic­u­larly de­signed to limit Re­form and Con­ser­va­tive con­ver­sions”, ar­gues Rabbi Uri Regev, the Is­rael-based pres­i­dent of the World Union for Pro­gres­sive Ju­daism. But protests have come not only from the non-Ortho­dox.

Rabbi Shaul Far­ber, the Ortho­dox head of Itim — the Jewish Life In­for­ma­tion Cen­tre in Is­rael, which ad­vises po­ten­tial con­verts — said: “Th­ese cri­te­ria demon­strate com­plete dis­re­gard and dis­re­spect for the lo­cal Jewish com­mu­nity.”

The prob­lem, he ex­plains, be­gan five years ago when the In­te­rior Min­istry feared that for­eign work­ers at­tracted to Is­rael for eco­nomic rea­sons could pro­cure pa­per con­ver­sions to get there. Hence, the min­istry in­tro­duced a re­quire­ment for con­verts to have lived a year in their Jewish c o m m u - nit y a f t e r con­ver­sion be­fore they could make aliyah.

“In 2003, we started get­ting calls from peo­ple who had con­verted in Ortho­dox Jewish courts and were be­ing re­jected for aliyah,” Rabbi Far­ber said.

In 2005, Is­rael’s Supreme Court ruled the new reg­u­la­tions out of or­der but the min­istry, he says, has con­tin­ued to “drag its feet”.

Mean­while, there are other moves to clamp down on con­verts. The main­stream Ortho­dox Rab­bini­cal Coun­cil of Amer­ica has bowed to pres­sure from the Is­raeli Chief Rab­binate to ad­min­is­ter con­ver­sions through spe­cial courts rather leave it in the hands of lo­cal com­mu­nity rab­bis. Is­rael’s Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar re­cently vis­ited the United States to ap­prove the ap­point­ment of dayanim to the new courts, thereby ex­tend­ing the author­ity of the Is­raeli Chief Rab­binate into the di­as­pora.

Rabbi Mariner thinks it is rea­son­able for Is­rael to ex­pect con­verts to have “a bona fide con­nec­tion” to the Jewish com­mu­nity. “I’ve got no prob­lem with try­ing to stop char­la­tans. There is a ter­ri­ble trade in Is­rael and out­side of con­ver­sions for money,” he said.

But the cre­den­tials of con­verts are best de­ter­mined by es­tab­lished lo­cal rab­binic bod­ies, he ar­gues. If the Is­raeli pro­pos­als are im­ple­mented, “then the sort of trust that is nec­es­sary is se­ri­ously un­der­mined”.

Rabbi Chaim Weiner, con­venor of the Lon­don­based Euro­pean Ma­sorti Bet Din, takes a sim­i­lar view. “Changes to the im­mi­gra­tion pro­ce­dures in Is­rael fre­quently come down to the ul­tra-Ortho­dox au­thor­i­ties wish­ing to as­sert their power over Jews abroad,” he said. “As they show lit­tle un­der­stand­ing of Jewish life in the di­as­pora, the bu­reau­cratic so­lu­tions they pro­pose are rarely ap­pro­pri­ate. They un­der­mine the rab­bis and re­li­gious courts work­ing in di­as­pora com­mu­ni­ties. The stan­dards of the Euro­pean Ma­sorti Bet Din ex­ceed any­thing be­ing sug­gested at this mo­ment. How­ever, the reg­u­la­tions give an of­fice worker in Jerusalem, who doesn’t know the de­tails of a case the power to over­turn a de­ci­sion of trained rab­bis who have known a can­di­date for years. This can­not be right.”

He added: “I know many cases of in­jus­tices. One case in­volved a girl from East­ern Europe, not ha­lachi­cally Jewish but with sig­nif­i­cant Jewish her­itage, who was des­per­ate to re­claim her Jewish past. As there was no Jewish life lo­cally, she left her home and went to a Jewish board­ing school abroad, where she lived a tra­di­tional Jewish life and stud­ied Jewish stud­ies in depth for four years be­fore ap­proach­ing a Bet Din.

“By the time she reached the Bet Din, she had stud­ied longer, had a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing, and greater level of Jewish ob­ser­vance than most. Yet, when she even­tu­ally ap­plied to im­mi­grate to Is­rael, she was re­jected on the grounds that her con­ver­sion had been too short.”

For Rabbi Far­ber, the In­te­rior Min­istry’s cri­te­ria would iron­i­cally mean that “Ruth [the bib­li­cal hero­ine] would not have been able to make aliyah”.

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