In Shift, 'Refusenik' Orthodox Converts Granted ID Cards

Interior Ministry changes policy after Rabbinate's rulings on overseas conversions prompt lawsuit

At least four of the 19 Orthodox converts whom the Interior Ministry had previously denied citizenship this week received their Israeli identity cards, mere days after the ministry announced a change in its policy regarding whom to consult about the validity of Orthodox conversions.

Thomas Dohlan, 24, an Orthodox convert from Canada whose battles with the Interior Ministry over the past few months had been highly publicized, was one of the four to receive an identity card this week.

"It was all sorted out, it sounds like it's too good to be true," said Thomas Dohlan.

After he arrived in Israel in February and was denied citizenship, Itim, a nonprofit advocating for the rights of converts and immigrants, filed a lawsuit in the Supreme Court on his behalf. The group is now mulling withdrawing the case in the wake of the seeming capitulation.

"We're very satisfied and gratified that not only were we able to achieve a change in policy ... but also that they're implementing it on the ground," said Rabbi Seth Farber, the head of Itim.

Yesterday his organization submitted a request for a two-month delay in the court case to see if all the other cases are resolved, he added.

"We're hopeful that in two months we'll be able to withdraw our case completely. We're now meeting with our clients, one by one, and have them go to the Interior Ministry to see if their cases are resolved."

Dohlan - who served in the Canadian Air Force before he converted last year in Montreal - was one of at least 19 Orthodox converts who recently were denied citizenship because the Interior Ministry refused to accept their conversion certificates. According to the Law of Return, people who converted in recognized Jewish communities are entitled to Israeli citizenship. But the Interior Ministry never formulated what constitutes a recognized community. Instead, it relied on the assessment of the Israeli branches of local Reform or Conservative streams for converts belonging to these streams. In the absence of a central body representing Orthodoxy, the ministry turned to the Chief Rabbinate regarding the validity of Orthodox conversions. The Rabbinate, however, only recognizes a limited number of foreign conversion courts.

Last week, in a breakthrough decision presumably prompted by the pending lawsuit, the Interior Ministry informed the Knesset that from now on it would again consult the Jewish Agency about the validity of Orthodox conversions.

In a statement to Haaretz, Interior Ministry spokesperson Sabine Haddad said

"the Jewish Agency advises on all conversions, as it did in previous years. ... Last week's decision was accepted by all committee members involved in the process, including representatives of the Rabbinate and the Jewish Agency. Its goal is to ease the process for [citizenship] applicants."

However, Farber countered that were it the case that the Agency was always consulted, Itim would have had no need to petition the court.

"Perhaps the ministry can refund us for the money and the effort we put in turning to the Knesset and the Supreme Court to get to where we are now."

For Rivka B. - a U.S.-born convert living in Eilat - things have not gone quite as smoothly. Rivka, who asked that her last name be withheld because she fears her friends abroad might cease supporting Israel when they learn about the hardships she endured here, this week visited the ministry but did not leave with her ID card.

Rather, she was given some forms to fill out and asked to return next week. Her visa expires July 3.

Before she learned of last week's policy change, Rivka - who was ordained a rabbi and served as a chaplain in the U.S. military - was desperate about the prospect of continuing her life without citizenship, since without permission to work or a benefits package offered to legal immigrants, she struggles to make ends meet.

"I've had to beg, I've had to collect bottles and cans off the street and Dumpster dive. I came here not a poor person, but not a very rich person by any stretch of the imagination - and I lost everything," she said, adding she failed to make rent and will be kicked out of her apartment next week.

Born in Michigan, Rivka grew up in a Christian household and only learned she has Jewish roots at age 16, when she came home from school and ignorantly praised Hitler to her grandfather.

"My grandfather came out of the kitchen hearing all of this with tears running down his face. He said, 'you don't know where you come from or who you are,'" she recalled.

Several years later, B. decided to go through a Reform conversion and enrolled in rabbinical school. Afraid she might not be accepted by all Jewish communities, she subsequently underwent a second conversion, this time with Orthodox rabbis.

Two years ago, she decided to move to Israel. She presented immigration officials her documents from the Orthodox conversion court, which turned out to be the root of her current trouble. Had she decided to present her Reform conversion papers, she likely would have received Israeli citizenship without any problem.

"With all due respect, I did not go through what I went through to become Orthodox to go back and be identified as a Reform Jew," she said. "Maybe if it was a matter of life or death, I would go that route. But unfortunately it is defaming those who are Orthodox, it should never be this way."