11 Orthodox converts barred from aliyah
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11 Orthodox converts barred from aliyah

Local rabbi signs letter to interior ministry

This time it’s an Orthodox problem.

The latest round in the never-ending battle over “who is a Jew” pits diaspora Orthodox rabbis, including one from Teaneck, against the Israeli Interior Ministry and the office of the chief rabbi.

At immediate issue is the immigration status of 11 North American Jews who underwent Orthodox conversion and whose petition to make aliyah has been denied in recent weeks by Interior Ministry immigration authorities.

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Rabbi Seth Farber Larry Yudelson

“It’s just not right that people who live in our communities, who are observant Jews, who have come to share their fate with the Jewish people and the State of Israel by making aliyah, are being denied the right to become citizens under the Law of Return, as other Jews can do,” said Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot of Cong. Netivot Shalom in Teaneck.

Helfgot was one of more than 100 rabbis who signed a letter to the interior ministry expressing concern that “conversions performed under some of our auspices and those of our colleagues are being questioned vis-à-vis aliyah eligibility.” The letter protests a new policy by which Orthodox converts are no longer automatically approved for immigration. Instead, the ministry has begun consulting with the chief rabbinate, which has announced a policy of accepting only conversions performed by certain rabbinical courts.

Had these converts been converted by Reform or Conservative rabbis, they would have been eligible to immigrate under a 1988 Israeli Supreme Court ruling that non-Orthodox converts are to be considered Jewish for the purpose of aliyah.

The letter was organized by Rabbi Seth Farber, head of Itim: The Jewish Life Information Center.

“One of the sad things for me is that one of the 11 converts converted more than 25 years ago and has been living an Orthodox life, and for the first time this person got a slap in the face. He’s basically being told he’s not Jewish as far as the State of Israel is concerned,” Farber told The Jewish Standard last week.

Farber, a Yeshiva University-trained rabbi, formed Itim in 2002 to ease the access to Jewish lifecycle services – such as weddings and funerals – that are under the purview of the Israeli government rabbinate.

Since then, Farber has found himself advocating for people whose Jewishness has been called into question by that body.

“We challenge the rabbinate when we see them either not following the policy as they define it, or see the policy they define as going against normative democratic behavor,” he said.

“I once thought that working quietly with the rabbinate wold solve every problem, that we could be the nice guy,” he added. “I’ve learned that the rabbinate is put into political positions and we’ve become a political counter-pressure against forces from the right,” Farber said.

A lawsuit filed by Itim has been shaking Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition. Itim had demanded that the rabbinate and local marriage registrars register as Jewish people converted by the Israeli army rabbinate. Without such registration, the converts will be unable to legally marry Jews in the State of Israel. The army rabbinate has converted more than 4,000 people, mostly immigrants or children of immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

The army rabbinate is considered by many to be more lenient than the national rabbinical authorities, who demand that converts observe a strict Orthodox lifestyle. This makes it a useful avenue for aliyah advocates, including many religious Zionists, who want large-scale conversion to help integrate the many non-Jewish relatives of Jews who immigrated from the former Soviet Union, but that leniency has led the national rabbinate to refuse to register the converts as Jewish.

This has resulted in political battles between the Yisrael Beiteinu party, which represents immigrants from the FSU, and the haredi Shas party, with the former offering legislation that would require the rabbinate to register military converts.

For the 11 Orthodox converts seeking to make aliyah, the question is less a struggle over who is a valid convert and more a question of who decides who is a kosher Orthodox rabbi: the Israeli chief rabbi or the local community?

This has been a gray area in Israeli law for several years, but the practice until the beginning of this year had been that the interior ministry deferred to the local community.

The Jewish Agency for Israel, which serves as the official bridge between Israel and the diaspora, particularly when it comes to aliyah, is getting involved in the matter at Farber’s behest, and Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky is raising the matter with interior ministry officials.

“Let the Jewish Agency emissaries decide who is eligible for aliyah, just as they decide concerning people who are born Jewish,” said Farber. “Halacha says we don’t treat the convert different than anyone who is born Jewish.”

Ultimately, said Farber, this all speaks to a broader issue.

“Certain forces in Israel are trying to export their version of Orthodoxy over the whole world. There are two opposite approaches, one that sees Israel as relevant to the entire Jewish people, and another ideological position that klal Yisrael – Jewish peoplehood – is only for the type of Orthodoxy that the chief rabbinate identifies with,” said Farber.

To reach Larry Yudelson, write to larry@jewishmediagroup.com.

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