"It’s a travesty. If Israel was looking for a way to disenfranchise not only converts but all of diaspora Jewry, this is just the policy they should adopt."
Fresh Rift Seen Over New Israeli Conversion Rules
By Michele Chabin, The Jewish Week
Jerusalem — In a potentially divisive flare-up in the ongoing Who is a Jew struggle, Israel’s Interior Ministry is poised to institute new, stricter guidelines for diaspora converts wishing to immigrate to Israel, The Jewish Week has learned.
According to the new guidelines, spelled out in a two-page draft document in the works since 2005, potential converts from all religious streams seeking to make aliyah must study Judaism a minimum of 350 hours in “a recognized” Jewish community.
They must also spend a total of 18 months in the community where they are converting (at least nine months following the conversion), in order to prove their sincere commitment to Judaism.
Until now, the ministry has never dictated the number of hours a convert must study.
The 18-month requirement is six months longer than the ministry’s long-standing criterion, which the Supreme Court deemed illegal in 2005.
Converts who do not want to wait the full nine months after conversion will be allowed to come to Israel but will not be granted citizenship until they can prove they are Jewish — often a long and complicated process with no guarantee of success. They will receive no health insurance or other benefits in the interim.
Although non-Jews are permitted to live in Israel with their Jewish Israeli spouse, they will not be granted citizenship unless their conversion is recognized by the Interior Ministry or they can prove they have one Jewish grandparent. Righteous Gentiles are the exception.
Finally, the guidelines — which are retroactive, according to sources — automatically refuse citizenship to anyone whose visa application to Israel was rejected in the past for any reason.
The new guidelines apparently are, in part, an effort to prevent non-Jewish foreign workers who reside in Israel from converting quickly in Jewish communities overseas, and then declare aliyah.
A decision by the Justice Ministry to approve the new guidelines is expected in the next few weeks, according to those close to the situation. Members of the committee that drew up the guidelines say the timing of the new rules is no accident. They say the Interior Ministry, currently headed by Kadima’s Meir Sheetrit, is trying to implement the new protocols before a new ministry head is named, after the recent national elections and shakeup of the government.
It is believed that the number of converts who seek to make aliyah annually is in the hundreds.
The new Israeli government protocols, viewed by The Jewish Week, have been so carefully guarded that even the ministry’s spokeswoman said she was unaware of them.
Critics say the new requirements cut to the very heart of the most contentious issue between Israeli and diaspora Jews: Who is a Jew?
Opponents say the Interior Ministry will strip diaspora Jewry of its right to decide who is eligible to convert and what a conversion should entail, much the same way Israel’s Orthodox Chief Rabbinate has successfully imposed its stringent standards on Orthodox conversions in North America.
During committee meetings on the subject, ministry officials have reportedly defended the criteria, citing the need to prevent the large-scale influx of insincere converts whose only motivation to convert is a higher standard of living.
“In essence, the State of Israel is completely disregarding the autonomy of recognized diaspora Jewish communities, whether they be Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform, and doesn’t allow for the local nuances of these communities,” said Rabbi Seth Farber, founder and director of ITIM, the Jewish Life Information Center. “From now on, the Interior Ministry and not local communities will be deciding who is a Jew.”
Rabbi Farber, whose group helps potential immigrants and others receive legal recognition from government institutions, believes the new protocols go against the spirit of two Supreme Court decisions whose intent was to limit the Interior Ministry’s jurisdiction over conversion.
In the first case, in 2002, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that conversions performed in recognized communities overseas should be honored for purposes of immigration to Israel under the Law of Return.
Almost as soon as the ruling was rendered, however, “the ministry sought to minimize the significance of this ruling by instituting a policy that stated that converts would not meet the eligibility requirements of conversion unless they resided in their communities within which they converted for at least a year following the conversion,” Rabbi Farber said.
While concern over quickie conversions by opportunists was valid, he added, “the ruling hurts sincere converts who should have been welcomed to Israel with open arms.”
In 2005, in response to petitions from such bona-fide converts, the Supreme Court overruled the protocol of the Interior Ministry and insisted that the ministry issue new directives for determining eligibility for citizenship under the Law of Return.
Fearful of yet another Supreme Court case, Interior Ministry representatives then began a sporadic dialogue with Israel-based representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements to guarantee that the new criteria of aliyah eligibility would be acceptable to Jews from around the world.
Although the non-Orthodox streams, which have no legal standing in Israel, welcomed the opportunity to join the committee, they were left with more questions than answers, they say.
“The first question I raised was, ‘What constitutes a recognized community?’” said Rabbi Andy Sacks, a member of the committee and director of the Masorti/Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly in Israel. “If the ministry has set criteria, they haven’t shared them with us.”
According to the draft document, “The community must provide to the Interior Ministry a detailed explanation of the rules of conversion in their community, including preparation and likewise, that the conversion was conducted in accordance with the rules of the community. And that the convert was accepted as a member of the community.”
Rabbi Sacks is particularly riled by the ministry’s demand that all prospective converts study for 350 hours of study, regardless of their level of knowledge.
“[Potential] converts don’t fit neatly into a mold,” he said. “There are some who already have a strong background. We see people who have been involved in the Jewish community for years in South America, in central and Eastern Europe, who have participated in Jewish life. Some have even attended Jewish schools because one parent is Jewish. They are too advanced for a beginner’s class and don’t need that number of hours.”
Rabbi Sacks insists that it is “unreasonable to remove the discretion of the converting rabbi and local conversion court. Who knows more about the convert? The rabbi or a clerk at the Interior Ministry?”
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, director of the Israeli Reform movement and a member of the committee, said it is “absurd to think” that Interior Ministry personnel, virtually all of them Orthodox, could soon have the legal responsibility to decide which converts are kosher.
But in reality, Rabbi Kariv said, both ministry personnel and Jewish Agency emissaries based overseas “have been illegally” grilling converts for years.
“They’re asking questions about what the converts have learned, what they practice in everyday life, about the holidays, about Shabbat. Some ask theological questions. These are clerks who are not familiar with the Jewish reality in the diaspora and, more troubling, aren’t willing to learn about this reality. These are the people setting policies.
“Fortunately,” Rabbi Kariv continued, “the Justice Ministry is also involved in these issues and we hope it will be wise enough not to open a new frontier with the diaspora on the issue of conversion.”
An Interior Ministry spokeswoman insisted that the one-year residency requirement was canceled two years ago, and a request for additional clarification from a ministry official went unheeded.
Rabbi Kariv said he is prepared to accept a specified period of time a convert must live in his or her converting community on the condition that ministry officials drop the 350-study hour requirement.
“We told the ministry, ‘Don’t interfere in the character of a conversion. Let’s decide on the period of time that a convert has to be tied to his congregation before or after his conversion. But then, if he presents documents from his rabbi and congregation, automatically acknowledge it and permit him to make aliyah.”
Ironically, the new guidelines will likely be most onerous for Orthodox converts, the committee members say. While the ministry has accepted the Reform and Conservative movement’s comprehensive list of recognized communities and congregations, there is no one list or universal governing body in the Orthodox world.
“What emerged at the committee meeting I attended is that the Interior Ministry plans to rely heavily on the Chief Rabbinate to determine which Orthodox rabbis are recognized to perform conversions,” Rabbi Farber said. “That’s problematic because the Chief Rabbinate reflects only one stream of Orthodoxy.”
Rabbi Farber said it remains unclear whether the agreement between the Rabbinate and the Rabbincal Council of America (RCA) over the recognition of Orthodox converts will govern these decisions. That agreement recognizes most but not all RCA conversion courts, and does not include Orthodox conversions performed outside the RCA framework.
“What I can say is that the new protocols will be retroactive, meaning that someone who converted five years ago but who didn’t fulfill the new requirements may be suspect in the eyes of the Interior Ministry,” Rabbi Farber said.
He calls the ministry “a civil governmental body” that will be relying on “religious authorities to interpret the law. Diaspora communities should be up in arms about this,” he said heatedly.
Informed of the proposed guidelines, Rabbi Basil Herring, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, said, “The RCA cannot comment on the matter until such time as it has an opportunity to find out what exactly is being proposed.”
Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, spiritual leader of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun on the Upper East Side and a leading Modern Orthodox voice, said, “It is astonishing and frankly appalling that a minister of the interior is putting into place draconian measures which could only be understood as an effort to make it much harder for anyone to join the Jewish people and to enter the State of Israel as a Jew.
“The sages of the Talmud who set forth guidelines for accepting converts,” Rabbi Lookstein continued, “would be astounded by the narrowness and exclusionary nature of these requirements.”
When informed about the protocols, Rabbi Marc Angel of New York, founder and director of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals, and a former president of the RCA, expressed deep concern over Israel-diaspora relations.
“If what you say is true, it’s a travesty. If Israel was looking for a way to disenfranchise not only converts but all of diaspora Jewry, this is just the policy they should adopt.
“This is an affront to the intelligence and religious integrity of the religious leadership of the diaspora,” Rabbi Angel said. “It’s an outrage and a scandal.”
[Hat Tip: Michelle.]