Conversion controversy pits Jew against Jew
BY JENNIFER GREEN • OTTAWA CITIZEN
Would-be converts must now travel back and forth to Montreal since no other rabbi in the nation's capital has undertaken the time-consuming and expensive process.
"We send them now to the Montreal rabbinic court," Bulka says. "I wish I could tell you that it's straightforward, but they are having trouble with Israel, too.
"Nothing in Israel stays in Israel," he says of the dispute over who is really Jewish. "It's going to go overseas."
There are thousands of converts — Reform, Conservative and Orthodox — who are considered Jewish outside Israel but will not be considered Jewish in Israel if the rabbis have their way.
For the past few years, religious authorities in Jerusalem have accused migrants to Israel of converting to Judaism to take advantage of the country's Law of Return, which gives Jews automatic citizenship. They also fear that many convert to marry an Israeli Jew without any intention of observing Orthodox requirements.
However, disallowing their conversions would be tantamount to banning them and their offspring from the faith, at least in Israel. Going to live in Israel has transcendent religious implications for the faithful, who view it as an in-gathering of the diaspora. Jews say they are "making their aliya" or "ascending" to the ancient land. Those who move away "descend." Non-Jews have to follow a much more torturous route to citizenship and many don't make it. They may also have trouble arranging religious marriages, and have to resort to civil ceremonies.
Religious authorities in Jerusalem believe thousands of Russian Jews, many with gentile spouses, simply want to improve their standard of living. The migrants live in Israel for a while, go to another country for a less challenging conversion and then apply for citizenship.
Several years ago, the Chief Rabbinate challenged these conversions, but the High Court of Justice ruled they had to be allowed. Meanwhile, it established a commission in which Judaism's three streams — Reform, Conservative and Orthodox — were to work out consistent standards. Before long, though, the fervently Orthodox strand, the most rigid, nixed the entire process.
The situation collapsed into a vicious flurry of challenges, with one judge trying to invalidate thousands of conversions performed by the country's own conversion agency. In another case, the son of a Reform rabbi and Holocaust survivor was told he had never been Jewish because his Toronto conversion was invalid. One deaf person was not allowed to convert because his handicap prevented him from fulfilling one of the ritual observances.
Finally, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar — the top Jewish religious figure in Israel — announced he would no longer recognize the conversions of the Rabbinic Council of America, which oversees all of Canada and the United States.
"It was nuts," said Bulka. "It was totally wacky. Had that happened, every single conversion (in North America) would have been in jeopardy.
"They were challenging every conversion in the book."
At one point, Chief Rabbi Amar said he did not want to allow any converts to come to Israel under the Law of Return.
That prompted Ottawa resident Barbara Crook, a 10-year convert to Orthodox Judaism, to write this editorial in The Jerusalem Post: "According to Jewish, law, I have all the obligations and privileges of any Jew born of Jewish mother. But if (Amar) gets his way, when the time comes to make aliya, I will be denied the basic right of equality to other Jews under the Law of Return. Rabbi Amar wants to change Israeli law so that only Jews born to a Jewish mother would be entitled to automatic citizenship."
"In other words, all Jews are equal but some are less equal than others.
"Beyond my personal outrage, I find it hypocritical that a rabbi in his position would try to subvert Torah law for his own political purposes. He is angry that both the conversion process and the Law of Return have been abused by a minority of converts. And it appears that he is also trying to use this proposed change to delegitimize Conservative and Reform conversions."
Converting to Orthodox Judaism means dramatic lifestyle changes that can be hard to maintain year in, year out. Many Jews keep two or three separate sets of dishes, and some have separate kitchens, to honour dietary restrictions. Women dress modestly and some wear head coverings. The laws of the Sabbath can be particularly convoluted and onerous. Electrical switches cannot be turned on, nor can a family drive to the synagogue. They must walk.
When a convert doesn't meet the standard, the question arises: Is the conversion still valid? Was it ever valid in the first place?
Chaim Mendelsohn, of Chabad Centrepointe, explains it like this: "We're having a big problem in the Jewish world. People are becoming converted to orthodoxy and they are not living the religious lifestyle. I have this in my own congregation. The fact is there are many, many people who convert and then they don't actually end up living that. I guess it started to become scandalous."
Eventually, the Chief Rabbinate approved a list of about 15 rabbinic council courts and approximately 40 rabbinic judges whose North American conversions would be accepted. Any rabbi who wanted to be added to the list would need the approval of two leading Yeshiva University rabbis and one from the chief rabbinate. If a rabbi was no longer on the list, his conversions were "subject to re-evaluation."
Bulka, who was already thinking of retiring, decided to drop conversions. He had led the Congregation Machzikel Hada for more than 40 years, and had been co-president of the Canadian Jewish Congress. As people came forward for marriages or other religious matter, his conversions were reviewed but none were disallowed. He has since reconsidered retirement, but not conversions.
Rabbi Seth Farber, of Israel's Jewish Life Information Centre, wrote in a 2008 opinion piece for the Jerusalem Post: "If the state can't rely on a local Orthodox rabbi to perform conversions, then Orthodox rabbis will eventually cease writing letters of conversion and simply begin to write letters of Jewishness (I've already seen this happen)."
Two other American rabbis pointed out in another Post article that the American rabbinic council had moved away from its "trademark commitment to providing a home for both right- and left-wing voices."
Now, the right ruled, said Marc Angel and Avi Weiss, both long-time members of the Rabbinical Council of America.
"Not only is the convert's status questioned here, but the respected position of the local rabbi is also at stake. . . . What makes this chapter especially sad is that the new arrangement not only undermines the power of the local rabbi as teacher and spiritual guide, but even worse, puts fear into the hearts and minds of many wonderful converts who are upstanding Torah-observant and God-fearing Jewish souls."
"The people who suffer the most are the one who have made this tremendous move. A person who genuinely embraces the Jewish faith . . . you can't help but have transcending admiration for someone like that. It's not an easy thing."
Some rabbis are trying to outdo each other in severity, he believes.
"It's nice to say, 'I am better because I am stricter,' but (one) can also argue that what you are doing is therefore placing barriers in front of people who want to embrace a faith."
Rabbi Barry Freundel, the RCA's head rabbi for conversions, was on Zev Brenner's show last night.