Convert Snub By Israel Fuels Fresh Anger

Prominent Orthodox rabbis say Chief Rabbinate's latest challenge to American conversion ‘destroys the very fabric of Israel-disapora relations.’

02/06/13
Israel Correspondent
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Jerusalem — About 20 years ago, an infant girl (“Nina,” a pseudonym) from an Orthodox family underwent a conversion in New York that, by Orthodox American standards, was and still is beyond reproach.

The three converting rabbis, whose names The Jewish Week has withheld so as not to harm their reputations, are highly respected figures in the mainstream Orthodox Jewish world, according to Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, president of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA). 

But that hasn’t stopped Israel’s Chief Rabbinate or Israel’s Ministry of Interior from questioning the conversion, evidently because it took place in a synagogue-based beit din (rabbinical court) that did not meet on a regular basis, and not in an external beit din dedicated solely to conversions, The Jewish Week has learned.

This despite the fact that “historically, there were only isolated conversion courts in North America,” according to Rabbi Seth Farber, whose Jerusalem-based advocacy organization, ITIM, helps people navigate the Israeli government bureaucracy often related to personal-status issues.

North American conversions “almost always took place in the context of the local synagogue,” Farber said.

Farber, who with ITIM is fighting for Nina and several other converts to be recognized as Jewish by Israel’s Ministry of the Interior — which has sole authority to grant permanent residency status and citizenship — said she has been waiting almost a year, since she moved to Israel. 

“The Rabbinate has not recognized her conversion,” wrote Sabine Hadad, an Interior Ministry spokesperson, in reply to a query from The Jewish Week. She would not elaborate.

Farber said the unwillingness by both the Interior Ministry and Chief Rabbinate to trust Nina’s three converting rabbis is a harbinger of worse things to come.

“It makes it clear that the Rabbinate,” which the ministry consulted in this case, “plans to review almost every Orthodox conversion ever performed in the U.S.” — should the convert wish to live or be married in Israel.

American Orthodox rabbis “ought to be up in arms over this latest development and formulating a strategy for how to address this latest round of disenfranchisement,” Farber said.

The agencies’ refusals are especially galling, Farber said, given that ITIM sued the Interior Ministry in Israel’s High Court in 2011 and ultimately extracted a written commitment from the ministry that it would not to consult the Rabbinate on issues relating to aliyah except in “rare circumstances.”

This isn’t one of those circumstances, Farber said.

“They committed to the courts and to the Knesset that the Rabbinate wouldn’t be involved, and now they’ve backed out of their agreement,” Farber noted.

As The Jewish Week first reported several years ago, Israel’s increasingly ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate stopped automatically recognizing Orthodox conversions performed in the diaspora.

Although shocked and insulted by the Rabbinate’s questioning of their authority, the American Orthodox rabbinical establishment conceded at the time that not every rabbi who performed a conversion was a recognized expert in the field. 

Subsequently, the New York-based RCA, the pre-eminent membership organization of Orthodox rabbis, established the kind of network of regional conversion courts that the Rabbinate oversees in Israel.

According to the RCA’s website, the current regional conversion courts “should in no way affect the status of conversions performed prior to its inception.

“All those who were converted properly in the past in accordance with the dictates of halacha should be aware that the status of their conversions is unchanged,” the website continues. “If an individual is concerned that his or her conversion may not be recognized, he or she may contact the Beth Din of America for assistance.”

While the Rabbinate promised years ago to contact the RCA/Beth Din of America if it had questions about a conversion, it apparently failed to do so in Nina’s case and others. 

“Had we known about this earlier, we might have been able to communicate with our colleagues in Israel to ensure [the questions] were resolved,” said Rabbi Goldin. He added that he was alerted to Nina’s case by one of her converting rabbis, who was informed about the Rabbinate’s indecision by The Jewish Week.

Rabbi Goldin said that when the Rabbinate requests the RCA’s/BDA’s input “we identify the rabbis as individuals who are part of our system and who we are familiar with.”

In the past, when inquiries have come in “it has been a fairly pro forma process by which those conversions have then been accepted in Israel,” Rabbi Goldin said. “Not knowing this particular case, I’m surprised there is a problem and believe it can and should be solved.”

Even when a conversion is ultimately recognized, Rabbi Goldin said, it is “extremely hurtful” when the reputation of a rabbi or the Jewishness of a convert is questioned.

Rabbi Goldin emphasized that the rabbis listed on Nina’s conversion document “are certainly rabbis who I trust implicitly and whose conversions I would not question.” He also expressed “great respect” for Rabbi Farber and his efforts.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the chief rabbi of Efrat and former rabbi of the Lincoln Square Synagogue, vouched not only for the rabbis in Nina’s case but for Nina’s family as well.

“It defies the imagination that this conversion should be questioned,” he said

Rabbi Riskin said Nina’s parents, whom he has known for decades, are “Orthodox Jews, but more to the point, the rabbis who converted her are upstanding Orthodox rabbis, one of them being one of the most prominent Orthodox rabbinical leaders in the United States.”

When the Israeli Rabbinate and Ministry of the Interior “impugn the integrity” of major Orthodox rabbinical voices in the diaspora, “it destroys the very fabric of Israel-disapora relations and the biblical commandments to love the convert,” Rabbi Riskin said.

Several American Orthodox rabbis were reluctant to speak to The Jewish Week, presumably out of fear that confronting the Rabbinate could inflame tensions and hurt the converts.     

But Rabbi Marc Angel, founder and director Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals, had this to say: “At a time when the Jewish world desperately needs visionary, compassionate leadership in the area of conversions, the Orthodox rabbinic establishment has adopted regressive policies that are in fact anti-halachic. In their zeal to maintain power and authority, the Rabbanut in Israel questions or negates perfectly valid conversions done by Orthodox rabbis in the diaspora. This not only is a deep affront to these rabbis, it is a cruel treatment of halachic converts and their families.”

Nina, whose heartbroken U.S.-based parents asked that her name be withheld out of fears she and their family could be stigmatized, said the Rabbinate’s refusal thus far to recognize her as Jewish “has hurt my family.”

“My [siblings] went through the same conversion process. If they were to come to Israel it’s possible they and their children may not be recognized as Jewish. I would be devastated if my future children weren’t considered Jewish.”   

Nina, who attended Jewish camps and Jewish day school, who went to Poland with March of the Living and calls her father every Friday before Shabbat for a blessing, said it has been “shocking” and “devastating” to be recognized as a Jew everywhere but in Israel.

ITIM’s Farber, who since being alerted in recent weeks to the young convert’s plight has been in almost daily contact with Nina, the Rabbinate and Ministry of the Interior, said the ministry’s decision to consult the Rabbinate on many cases — despite a signed agreement to do so in only “rare” cases — as well as the Rabbinate’s treatment of converts, “needs to be stopped immediately.”

Farber said the actions of both government bodies “is a slap in the face” to the autonomy of diaspora Jewish communities and their leadership.

Once formed, the new government in Israel “presents an unprecedented opportunity for us to clarify once and for all the Who is a Jew issue,” Farber said “and it’s central to ITIM’s agenda in the coming months.

“We’ve already turned to the Jewish Agency and will turn to the Knesset and if necessary the High Court of Justice in order to help the thousands of converts this affects,” Farber said. 

editor@jewishweek.org

Last Update:

12/15/2013 - 05:19

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I read this article and I must have missed all the relevant details about Nina, including her age, background and why she needed to convert in the first place if she was, as the article mentions, a child of orthodox parents. Are all children born of Jewish mothers not jewish in the eyes of the chief rabbinate unless they have a conversion certificate? i'm confused.

My assumption is that she was either adopted as an infant, or her mother converted after her birth.

While I'm totally sympathetic to the arguments against the Rabbinate's latest policies, I'm also aware that there are many, especially on the Reform side, who make a mockery of Judaism. One Florida. reform'rabbi', Yakov Nerenberg, makes Bar Mitzvahs for dogs and even officiates at interfaith weddings. How can sane person accept conversions presided by such people?

20 years of performing mitzvot counts for nothing? So. Will there also be posthumous 'examinations' of conversions and subsequent exhumations of the bodies of those whose conversions are deemed unfit? G-d forbid! I would rather judge leniently than to mistakenly judge harshly and risk being at odds with Torah on the side of stringency. As it is written:

"You shall love the convert, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt."
Devarim (Deuteronomy) 10:19

"Do not hurt the feelings of a convert or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt."
Shemot (Exodus) 22:20

"Do not oppress a convert, you know how it feels to be a stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt."
Shemot (Exodus) 23:9

"When a convert comes to live in your land, do not hurt his feelings. The convert should be to you exactly like a born Jew and you shall love him like yourself, for you were strangers in Egypt - I am HaShem, your G-d."
VaYikra (Leviticus) 19:33-34

My wife was converted by a Conservative Beth Din in the U.S. If we moved to Israel, does this mean they would not grant her citizenship or would not consider her a Jew? Do they not recognize conversions from any other streams?

they will accept you for aliya. But the rabbinate only recognizes a select number of Orthodox conversions. So her children will have a problem getting married.

The Jewish Agency will accept her teudat giyur for the purpose of Aliyah and once you are in Israel the Misrad Hapnim will record her as Jewish in the population registry. You will go on living your lives and perhaps have children. When the time comes and they want to get married the Rabbanut will ask them to provide proof of Jewishness, i.e. their parents' ketubah and the teudat giyur. At that point they will be told that their mother is not Jewish and thus they are not either. FYI - there is a very short list of "approved rabbis" whose conversions are presently "acceptable" to the rabbanut. Converts converted by Orthodox rabbis that are not on this list face the same issue. The only thing one can do is to do another giyur in Israel or get another conversion in the USA that is approved. Welcome to Israel!!

Your wife would be considered Jewish by the state and could thus become a citizen through the Law of Return. She would not be considered Jewish by the Rabbanut, which has control over issues of status and the religious courts. Your civil marriage would be recognized, for example.

The two things are unrelated.

From a religious perspective, a masorti conversion is not considered kosher.

From a perspective of Medinat Israel, according to more recent legal decisions, your wife is likely to be given citizenship.

Because from a religious perspective her conversion is not kosher, any children you have with her will not be considered Jewish and will not be able to marry in Israel - unless of course your children convert in a kosher beit din.

From the religious perspective of Ultra-Orthodox Judaism many Modern Orthodox conversions are obviously not considered kosher. That doesn't mean that they aren't kosher gerim who accepted the mitzvot and were converted by a kosher bet din. The same is perhaps true for a Masorti conversion - some of them might be perfectly kosher, but b/c of hardliners like you sincere converts and they partners feel that they are not good enough to be in the club. Isn't it ironic that we have come to a point at which ORTHODOX gerim's Jewishness is in question?

The true absurdity is that the state of Israel continues to maintain the authority of the Chief Rabbinate, which, of course, solely represents the interests of the ultra-orthodox. It is utterly reprehensible that conversions performed by any Rabbis, whether Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, or Reconstructionist, would have their validity questioned. That even a conversion performed by three Orthodox Rabbis would be questioned shows just how bad the situation has become. Amazing.....in a world with only about 13,200,000 Jews, the Chief Rabinate, if it had its way, would probably have this figure cut by at least one-half to two-thirds. This from the same idiots who cause women who carry a torah or wear a talit at the Western Wall to be
arrested. These ultra-orthodox Rabbis, who presumably have studied Torah most of their lives, are truly unethical people.

I pray that Rav Stav becomes Chief Rabbi.

Amen.

When I was in high school and college I was very much pro Israel, I visited Israel few times, one through Birthright and planed to do Aliyah.

Later, I became disillusioned and I wonder who in their right mind will move to Israel when their life will be controlled by the Ultra-Orthodox rabbinate.

Here in the States, you can go to shul on Shabath or you can go to the mall, you can eat cheeseburger or you can eat gefilte fish, you can wear a long skirt or you can wear pants or even shorts. All of it are trivial issues here but in Israel they can get you physically hurt.

The most important thing is that in the States you, your family and your community creates your identity, in Israel they do not matter, bearded people who dress like nineteen century Polish landowner control your identity and by proxy your life.

I feel bad for the girl but she always has the option to re-join us in the land of the free and the home of the brave.

I still love Israel with all my heart but as long as they let the Ultra-Orthodox define the relationship between the Israel and the diaspora I am staying here.

I wonder if the rabbinate will question conversions done by the prominent Haredi rabbi Leib Tropper, for those who do not remember rabbi Tropper was forced out after running Sex for Conversion ring.

The Israeli Rabbinate is fairly certain it, and it alone, has the deed to the deity's explanation of who is a jew and who is not. There is no religious argument involved so much as an exercize of naked power and nose thumbing.

If the Chief Rabbi of Israel thinks he has a direct-line to the Ribbono Olam on this matter, he better check his sources before he makes a fool of himself to the rest of humanity. To err is human, but to be so blind and insentitive to others is unforgivable--and this insensitivity goes way beyond matters of who should be considered a Jew. It's time to put the likes of him to closer public scrutiny, including the politicians in Eretz Yisrael. His arbitrary stranglehold must be broken for the sake of Kol Yisrael.

At a time when the Jewish people need achdus, egocentric, power hungry rabbayim are creating this chillul HaShem. This truly is a disgrace.

Get rid of the Chief Rabbinate! There is no excuse for their continued existence. They are a threat to the well-being of the Israeli state and of the Jewish people worldwide. Their arrogant disrespect for other Orthodox rabbis promotes an even greater disrespect for the rabbinic tradition and for the State of Israel in general. We can't afford to let this institution continue.

I reside in African, I have had the honor of getting converted to Judaism under a Beit Din which carried out all the mandatory procedure required for the conversion process.

People practicing Judaism in my country and myself are really shocked with the things the Jews in the U.S get involved in. for instance ordaining homosexual Rabbis. I pray that such evil never get to occur in our Jewish community here. I just dont want to imagine what the State of Israel would turn into should the Rabbinate pass a law that recognizes Reform cosmetic conversion in Israel.

I studied the PEW survey, the Reform and Liberal Rabbis are the types we avoid here. I pray that the Reforms will never be given the opportunity of perpetrating their disgraceful acts in Aretz Israel.

What irony. Givng the best spin on the Israel Rabbinut's actions, it appears they are trying to honor and sanctify Hashem. Instead, they are particpating in a "Chilul Hashem". If the representations made in the article are true regarding the Rabbonim involved in this conversion, then how do the israeli Rabbonim justify their actions? I was taught from a very young age that one is not allowed to denigrate or otherwise throw the fact of conversion in the face of the convert for a period of seven generatons. Have the Israeli Rabbonim lost their minds? Or, are we to put them in the same group of Haredim who deny the existence of the State of Israel and have embraced the Ahmadinejads of the world?

All this could have been solved by a short visit to the RCA's office to review her paperwork and add a simple Gerut lchurma by its Beit Din if they felt it was necessary. I know quite a few who on their own had their Gerut reviewed with most going Gerut lchumra. I notice that you did not quote any members of the RCA's several Batey Din.

With all due respect, you must understand, its not 'Nina' its a question of how Orthodox RCA /BDA is. The majority of religious American organizations would also hesitate regarding decisions made by the RCA. The Rabba incident only exacerbated the issues and greatly clarified their position in Halahkic matters. In their zeal to espouse an open and friendly Judaism, they have estranged almost all other orthodox groups.

Maybe if she wore a burka and covered her face ---- oh, wait a minute, that's the Taliban - oh, wait a minute - no difference !!!!!!!!!!!

What a travesty. Someone who did everything right, lived a frum and committed life, and yet still was turned away. Perhaps it's time to simply say no to conversions. Having someone change their life to be Jewish, changing his family arrangements, social arrangements, and, yes, his, life only to be told not good enough is cruel. We shouldn't falsely be leading people down a path that ends in heartbreak.

I am personally aquainted with several converts who attempting to make Israel their home and are confronted with this severe issue. They are literally being tortured by the Ministry of Interior and the Israeli Rabbinate who refuse to recognize their official Orthodox conversions done by prominent batei din.

Does anyone see the irony/hypocrisy in this story? The American Orthodox establishment refuses to recognize conversions done by any other branch of Judaism, yet they are dismayed when the same bigotry/intolerance is dished out to them by the Israeli Orthodox establishment. Please, let’s evolve past these tribalisms and sub-tribalisms. There are more important problems in this world to be solved.

I wish that The Jewish Week had noticed this us:them double standard. Kol Israel arevim zeh bazeh.

Who is she? Does she need help getting a shidduch? My wife and I will help her out. Her kids can marry my kids and it will Jewishly awesome.

The American Rabbinate has more recognition and validity than the Israeli Rabbinate. The RCA does not and should not be in consultation with this body until it is dismantled and reincorporated as a body that actually reflects the needs of the people, instead of abusing the system in order to force American converts to pay new fees to get Rabbinate/Ministry of the Interior conversion certificates.

This is all political. The rabbinate does not care about the people. That goes for gerut, kashrut (The animals are not healthy, nor taken care of, and then passed on to us, the consumer), nasui, and a few other items. They are greedy to the point of hating the their fellow Jews in exchange for money or power.

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