One of the nicest parts of the Shavuot holiday is the reading of the Book of Ruth. Naomi, the bereaved widow who returns to her homeland with nothing, is traditionally viewed as the first person to convert someone to Judaism, the one who shaped the conversion process. "Your people will be my people and your God, my God," her daughter-in-law Ruth told her, in that order. In other words, joining the nation, the society and the community is the first stage of conversion, and only afterward does "God" come into the picture - not necessarily in the form of religious belief, but in spiritual, cultural and philosophical values.

But if Ruth were to decide today to link her life with Israel and the Jewish people, her chances would be negligible. The Orthodox establishment - which is cut off from the majority of the Jewish people in the Diaspora, with its various denominations, as well as from many Israelis - has over the last few years fortified the walls that prevent hundreds of thousands of people from joining the State of Israel and its society as citizens with equal rights. Full citizenship in Israel is possible only for those who convert.

The conversion administration that Ariel Sharon established as prime minister, in an effort to shorten the conversion process and resolve the demographic problem that so concerned him, not only did not stand up to the challenge, but actually did more harm than good. Political and personal power struggles among rabbis, along with ultra-Orthodox pressure, led to new restrictions - particularly Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar's decision to grant conversion courts the authority to invalidate previous conversions, notwithstanding a government decision to the contrary.

Neither efforts by interior ministers nor a High Court of Justice ruling on the subject - which stated that those who attend Israeli conversion institutes and then convert in non-Orthodox ceremonies abroad must be allowed to immigrate under the Law of Return - have managed to overcome the opacity and the political-religious belligerence.

The result is personal tragedies, each of which sounds more farfetched than the other. About a week ago, rabbinic pleader Rivka Lubitsch, of the Center for Women's Justice, wrote a letter to the committee that appoints rabbinic judges, in which she related the story of a woman who converted in an Israeli rabbinical court 15 years ago, but was told when she wanted to get a divorce that her conversion was invalid, rendering her marriage invalid and her children non-Jewish. All this was because Rabbi Haim Druckman headed the rabbinical court that converted her, and the ultra-Orthodox judges on the divorce panel do not view him as having sufficient authority.

Another woman moved to Israel 15 years ago for work reasons after having converted abroad, deciding to leave her country and family in order to build a home in Israel. A few years ago, she met an Israeli man and they wanted to get married. She was not asking for any benefits, just for her children to be born Jewish and registered as Jewish on their birth certificates. Since her conversion was not recognized in Israel, she went to the special conversion court and prepared to undergo a second conversion. Following various inquiries, she was converted in a festive ceremony and got married in an Orthodox wedding a few weeks later. Four years have passed since then, and the woman has yet to receive a conversion certificate, because the current conversion administration does not recognize the conversions carried out then.

Now she is being offered yet another conversion, which would also require the two daughters she has had since to undergo conversion when they come of age. Both were born and raised here, have Hebrew names and know no other identity, homeland or religion but being Jewish and Israeli.

The rabbis are trying to convince the public, most of which is indifferent to such issues, that it is necessary to be stricter with converts so that they will not "deceive the state," as conversion administration founder Rabbi Israel Rosen has said, and so that they will not turn conversion into a tool for acquiring citizenship (is that not the story of Ruth, who converted in order to join Naomi and her people?).

But it is the rabbis themselves who are using official excuses as a tool to establish a religious monopoly.

The only bright spot is that over the last few years, hundreds of thousands of people have taken on Israeliness while circumventing the rabbis and those who would examine them. They have a civil marriage, forgo conversion and do not get up in arms over a burial outside the fence designating the Jewish section.

Thus, unintentionally and after the fact, Israel will say "your people are my people" even to those whom the rabbis attempted to stop at the door.