The double lives of Jewish converts in Israel
By ED RETTIG AND SETH FARBER • Jerusalem Post
Article's topics: Olim, Conversion, Judaism, Chief Rabbinate
Ilana has been living a double life in Israel. Though her first visit was as a Catholic, she ultimately decided to convert to Judaism, and following her conversion in Italy in 2006, she moved to Israel. Incredibly, despite the fact that the (Orthodox) Chief Rabbinate certifies her conversion, the civil organs of the State of Israel continue to deny her basic rights as a citizen.
Scandalously, Ilana lives without medical insurance, is unable to work, and has been waiting for more than two years for her case for citizenship to make it to the Supreme Court. In every other Jewish community in the world, Ilana is Jewish. Not here. This is because the Interior Ministry has taken it upon itself to review conversions that were performed worldwide in terms of its own bureaucratic criteria.
THE AUTHORS of this article have little in common. One is an Orthodox rabbi who directs ITIM, a nonprofit organization that helps Israelis and new immigrants navigate Israel's rabbinic bureaucracy. The other is a social historian and ordained Reform rabbi who directs AJC Jerusalem, the local office of the American Jewish Committee, which seeks to strengthen the Israel-Diaspora connection. What binds the two of us together is a passion for the Jewish people. Today, together, we are issuing a call to the Diaspora Jewish community to speak up on behalf of a vulnerable group among us - converts to the Jewish people.
Since the Supreme Court ruled in 1988 that all conversions performed abroad are recognized by the State of Israel for purposes of aliya, thousands of new immigrants who underwent conversion have come here. They contribute greatly to this country.
Since 2002, however, the State of Israel has taken a step backward, refusing immediate recognition of conversion certificates issued by recognized communities in the Diaspora. Today, if someone converts in a Diaspora community, it will take at least a year before the State of Israel recognizes that person as Jewish.
Though the Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that all converts should immediately be allowed to emigrate under the Law of Return - a law that has become sacrosanct in Israel-Diaspora relations - the Justice and Interior ministries continue to insist on draconian "citizenship tests" for converts that horrify each of us, from our different perspectives.
Most recently, the Justice Ministry issued new protocols, already being implemented by the Jewish Agency, that demand an 18-month residency and a formal curriculum of study for converts abroad who want to come live here. These protocols demand that rabbis overseas ask certain specific questions of converts, that the process be reported in detail to the Israeli authorities and that converts adhere to strict bureaucratic procedures if they want their conversions to be accepted by Israeli civil authorities. In a word, civil bureaucrats are seeking to impose their will and standards on Diaspora Jewry, challenging the autonomy of Diaspora communities.
As Zionists and as individuals who believe in the sanctity of Klal Yisrael, we cannot stand by while Israeli law is ignored and the delicate relationship between the Diaspora and Israeli communities challenged. This is not only an internal crisis; it affects Jewish communities everywhere. According to the National Jewish Population Survey, more than 70 percent of North American Jews have a non-Jew or a convert in their family. Research by AJC's Koppelman Institute shows that by numerous social measures, conversion to Judaism is the single best outcome to a mixed marriage, certainly in terms of Jewish continuity. Clearly, encouraging conversion is a key factor in ensuring the future of Diaspora Jewry, and a posture of intransigence taken by the government - refusal to accept converts as full members of the Jewish people - threatens the Jewish future.
When the "Who is a Jew" issue reared its ugly head in the 1980s, Diaspora Jewish leaders organized rabbinic missions to Israel to convince its leadership to recognize the hegemony of the local Jewish communities. With that precedent in mind, we call upon Jews all over the world to speak up on behalf of converts. Write letters to the prime minister asking why civil authorities are not treating converts as full Jews; make conversion part of the Jewish communal agenda. In doing the right thing for converts, we also hope to reestablish the appropriate balance between Israel and the Diaspora.
Rabbi Dr. Ed Rettig is acting director of the American Jewish Committee's Israel Office, and Rabbi Dr. Seth Farber is founder and director of ITIM: the Jewish Life Information Center.