Observers are hailing a small but significant victory in attempts to reduce the power of Israel’s haredi religious establishment over matters of conversion.
Rabbi Seth Farber
Last week the Ministry of the Interior agreed to permit the Jewish Agency to vet the authenticity of conversions performed by Diaspora rabbinic courts from the modern Orthodox wing of Judaism.
In a letter to the Knesset, the ministry, which approves candidates for aliyah under the Law of Return, said it would rely on the Jewish Agency to advise whether Orthodox conversion courts outside Israel were legitimate within their communities. In cases where the Jewish Agency was not able to verify the court’s authenticity, the ministry would rely on the Chief Rabbinate for advice.
The haredi-controlled Chief Rabbinate had earlier rejected conversions by modern Orthodox rabbinic courts, despite a Supreme Court ruling that recognized Orthodox, Conservative and Reform converts as eligible to immigrate.
The issue arose when the ministry turned to the Chief Rabbinate to determine whether converts came from “recognized” communities abroad. The Chief Rabbinate only accepts conversions by about 20 rabbinical courts affiliated with the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America.
A case involving a Canadian convert to Judaism, Thomas Dohlan, prompted a lawsuit in Israel spearheaded by ITIM, the Jewish Life Information Center.
Dohlan, a veteran of the Canadian armed forces, had undergone an Orthodox conversion in February 2010 by a three-rabbi panel in Montreal after studying with Rabbi Daniel Elkin of Kingston. Dohlan is married to an Israeli woman and the family moved to Israel last year.
Rabbi Seth Farber, director of ITIM, said Dohlan’s case prompted Knesset hearings as well as consultations with the Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar. The Chief Rabbi chose not to contest the ministry decision after coming to the conclusion the rabbinate should not be involved in immigration decisions.
“Dialogue between us, the Jewish Agency, the Chief Rabbi and the Interior Ministry led the rabbinate to the understanding that it’s better off for everybody if they’re not part of this discussion,” Rabbi Farber said.
The new policy is consistent with traditional Jewish practice in which conversions are performed locally and recognized by other communities, he said.
Rejecting local rabbinic decisions had the potential to alienate Diaspora communities from Israel, he added.
Contacted at his home in Kiryat Tivon, about 30 kilometres east of Haifa, Dohlan said he’s hopeful his immigration problems will be cleared up soon. He had moved to Israel with his wife, Ortal, and four young children expecting to be immediately accepted as a Jewish oleh. “I was shocked,” he said, when he learned the Ministry of the Interior would not accept his conversion. “I didn’t understand it because I had all the paperwork, letters, everything.”
Moreover, others converted by the same Montreal rabbis had made aliyah without any problems, he said.
With his immigration status in limbo, he has found it “impossible to find a job.” Even grants provided new immigrants have become an issue.
Dohlan, who served in the Canadian air force as an aircraft engine specialist, met Ortal at Camp Borden while in training.
“She told me she was Jewish. I wanted to know more and more about it. I researched it and the more I read, the more I related to it. This is me, this is what I believe.”
After months of dealing with Israeli bureaucracies, he still hasn’t received the documentation that would permit him to get a job. “We’re trying to swim here, but we’re slowly running out of steam. Hopefully it will all get sorted out,” he said.
Rabbi Farber is optimistic Dohlan’s case will be resolved shortly. The new government policy appears to be paying dividends already, with news that a person converted 30 years ago was finally granted a citizenship certificate. That case was held up by the Chief Rabbinate because “they did not recognize the conversion as they did not know who they [the rabbis who officiated] were.”
Dohlan too should soon receive his Israeli documentation card. “We’re glad that an injustice has been rectified and hopeful that it will be implemented across the board immediately so no one goes through additional suffering,” Rabbi Farber said.
Toronto Rabbi Martin Lockshin said the new policy addresses an ironic situation in which immigrants converted by Conservative and Reform Diaspora congregations were readily accepted for immigration purposes, but not those who completed a “liberal Orthodox” one.
Under the new system, that should be remedied. “I can’t imagine the Jewish Agency would reject conversions by those three Orthodox rabbis in Montreal,” he said.
The policy “moves [determination of] the legitimacy of conversions from the haredim and I think it’s an excellent solution to the problem.”
Rabbi Lockshin, who teaches Jewish studies at York University, said the policy doesn’t address a much bigger problem within Israel that involves hundreds of thousands of immigrants, mostly from the former Soviet Union.
These are people not halachically Jewish but who would like to join the Jewish fold. Israel had set up a special State Conversion Authority headed by Rabbi Chaim Druckman, but their conversions have also been rejected by haredi courts, he said.
“I knew Rabbi Druckman. I never saw him as liberal Orthodox. He was straight line Orthodox.”
Rabbi Druckman can be considered on the right wing of the Orthodox movement and when he was given the task of integrating thousands of immigrants, “he recognized the enormity of the problem. He felt Jewish law demanded a lenient approach but he still took seriously the requirements of Jewish law.”
Rabbi Lockshin speculated the haredi rabbinate backed off the foreign conversion issue because “not that many converts are moving to Israel.”
The new policy “makes it a little easier for liberal Orthodox rabbis in North America…From the Israeli perspective, it’s a minor victory,” Rabbi Lockshin said.
As for Dohlan, he doesn’t regret his choice of moving to Israel despite his yet unresolved immigration status.
“It’s the best decision for us, especially for the children. It’s the best place to raise kids,” he said. “This is where the Jewish people are from and we’re going to be here forever.”
With files from JTA