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Israeli secular court to rule on Orthodox conversions

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Rabbi Seth Farber
Rabbi Seth Farber

There’s a lacuna in Israeli law – a gap, an opening into which Rabbi Seth Farber and the organization he heads, ITIM, is hoping to wedge a size 12 shoe.

So far the door is ajar, but whether it’s slammed shut remains to be seen.

ITIM, a non-profit organization that helps people navigate Israeli religious bureaucracy, is supporting Martina Ragacova and two others who are suing the Israeli government for the right to have their private Orthodox conversions recognized by state authorities. A decision is expected in the next few months and if Ragacova is successful, it could end the monopoly of the Chief Rabbinate on conversions when it comes to determining an applicant’s citizenship and status in the State of Israel.

At the same time, ITIM is promoting an alternative conversion system called Giyur Kehalacha (Conversion According to Halachah), an Orthodox process that has brought more than 70 people into the Jewish fold.

Breaking “the hegemony” of the Chief Rabbinate is crucial, Rabbi Farber said. At stake is nothing less than the future of the Jewish People. “After the security situation, this is the most important part of life in Israel. It’s about who’s in, who’s out and whether we are going to let a small band of rabbis decide that and put up barriers to entering the Jewish fold,” he said.

Rabbi Farber, an American who made aliyah 20 years ago, said a consensus has emerged in Israeli society that conversions outside the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate should be recognized. Rabbi Farber was in Toronto last week as part of a brief overseas visit sponsored by Torah in Motion to inform members of the Jewish community about recent developments in Israel. He spoke at Or Chaim Yeshiva in Toronto, as well as in Ottawa, Phoenix and Los Angeles.

Rabbi Farber said the High Court decision will have implications for issues such as registration as a recognized Jew, marriage and citizenship.

The Chief Rabbinate wishes to keep to itself the right to determine who is properly converted to Judaism. In doing so, it’s imposing strict standards on conversions, ignoring halachic precedents that permit a more lenient approach, he added.

Rabbi Farber said controversy over conversion has been brewing in Israel ever since the massive wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union began in the 1980s. More than one million people moved to Israel, but as many as 350,000 were not halachically Jewish.

As a result, they were unable to be married in Israel in the courts controlled by the Chief Rabbinate. “They did not have the full rights as Jews, even though they came as Jews and self identified as Jews.” They lived in Israel, served in the army, participated in the country’s life but weren’t considered fully Jewish. “That created a lot of resentment,” he said.

Ragacova was converted in Bnei Brak by the rabbinic court of Rabbi Nissim Karelitz, who is highly respected in the ultra-Orthodox world. Nevertheless, the Chief Rabbinate refused to recognize that conversion and any others not performed by its roster of 33 rabbis.

Moreover, it is increasingly imposing strict criteria that are not necessary under Halachah, said Rabbi Farber.

One example – not cited by Farber – is the case of Karen Brunwasser. Brunwasser’s father is Jewish. Her mother was not, but both she and her mother were converted by an Orthodox rabbinic court in Philadelphia when she was an infant. When Brunwasser moved to Israel, she learned the Chief Rabbinate did not accept the validity of the conversion, because two of the rabbis who officiated had also presided over congregations that had mixed seating.

That’s the kind of thing that has prompted concern in the Diaspora. “The North American Jewish community is perturbed by the expanding powers of the Chief Rabbinate, because it is being exported to North America,” Rabbi Farber said.

Efforts to expand the number of Orthodox rabbis empowered to perform conversions seems to have run into a roadblock. In 2004, then-prime minister Ariel Sharon created a Conversion Authority to try to bring into the Jewish fold the thousands of Russian Jews. But recently the Conversion Authority was transferred from the Justice Ministry to the Religious Services Ministry, which is controlled by Shas, a religious party.

Other reforms that would have permitted municipal rabbis to create their own conversion courts have been stopped, Ha’aretz reported.

“A group of rabbis and activists realized a red line had been crossed, that the Conversion Authority would remain the same and after discussing it with the moderate religious Zionist community, the die was cast to create an alternative Orthodox conversion court. This is the first mainstream Orthodox challenge to the hegemony of the Chief Rabbi of Israel,” Rabbi Farber said.

Twenty-one Orthodox rabbis perform conversions under Giyur Kehalacha auspices, primarily for children. The courts are given a high degree of credibility because of the involvement of prominent Orthodox scholars. The president of the conversion courts is Rabbi Nahum Rabinovitch, formerly of Toronto, while Rabbi David Stav, a respected scholar, is also part of the new system, Rabbi Farber said.

“What differentiates these conversions is our human approach and our halachic approach. We start with the premise that they self-identify as Jews and they want to share our destiny and we want to work together to bring them into the halachic Jewish fold,” he said.

“We don’t see ourselves as gatekeepers trying to keep people out. We see ourselves as representatives of a halachic community, trying to help people come in.”

Rabbi Farber hopes the Supreme Court will see it the same way and by approving a conversion outside the Chief Rabbinate’s authority, end its monopoly on determining who is a Jew.