Alon Shvut conversion - Yair Ettinger - March 2012
Ronen Osher and Anna Heiman during her conversion hearing in Alon Shvut. Photo by Yair Ettinger
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The questions were exacting, but Anna Heiman, 29, expertly fired back her answers. Finally, the rabbinic court judges asked her and her Israeli partner, Ronen Osher, to leave the room. The rabbis discussed the matter at length and resolved to accept Heiman as a Jew.

But this was no ordinary conversion: It took place in a private rabbinic court in the West Bank settlement of Alon Shvut.

The court began as a private mediation center for property disputes. Six months ago, in the wake of the crisis caused by the Chief Rabbinate's increasingly stringent standards and ever-growing bureaucratic hurdles, it also began dealing with conversions.

The court's founder is Rabbi Israel Rosen, who for years served in the official conversion courts. After he retired, he asked two other rabbinic court judges to serve with him in what he calls a "Jewish humanitarian act," aimed at solving the problem of many Jewish men and women, mostly partners of Israeli Jews, who for bureaucratic reasons have found official conversion closed to them.

The problem is that only Israeli citizens, or people who are entitled to immigrate under the Law of Return, are allowed to begin an Orthodox conversion in Israel. Foreigners who want to convert and live in Israel must apply to the Interior Ministry's exceptions committee.

Many of those applying to Rosen's court have waited years for the exceptions committee to discuss their applications. Now, they are seeking to be recognized as Jews according to halakha (Jewish law ), even if the state does not grant them citizenship.

Heiman and Osher, for instance, do not want to wait for the exceptions committee any longer, as they are expecting their first baby in three months and they want their son to be born Jewish.

Another couple wants to get married right away because they fear that the groom's father, who is sick, will not survive until the wheels of bureaucracy finally begin moving.

Rosen's institution operates according to Orthodox Jewish law: According to one official in the field of conversion, it is even stricter than the official rabbinical courts. Nor is it the only private conversion court in Israel: There are others, in both the ultra-Orthodox and the religious Zionist communities.

But at the moment, this is the one the Religious Services Ministry has in its sights. It is threatening sanctions against Rosen's two partners: Rabbi Gideon Perl, the rabbi of Alon Shvut, and Rabbi Uri Samet, the rabbi of Kibbutz Migdal Oz.

Religious Services Ministry Director General Avigdor Ohana has instructed the head of the local religious council to tell the two rabbis to cease their work on the conversion court "before the ministry acts to stop their salaries," as they are civil servants who must get permission to take on another job. According to Ohana, the Alon Shvut conversion court is unrecognized and "against the law."

Following the letter, Perl and Samet said they would quit the court. But Rosen is threatening to go to the High Court of Justice. He sent the Religious Services Ministry's legal adviser, Israel Patt, an expert legal opinion saying there is no legal impediment to converting people to Judaism.

Patt responded that such conversions are "contrary to the public interest" and civil servants should not be involved in them. The Religious Services Ministry said it took action at the request of the Chief Rabbinate and the Justice Ministry, as a civil servant cannot be allowed to violate government policy.

But the legal mumbo-jumbo is of no interest to either Heiman - who is from Munich, Germany and came to Israel to pursue her interest in Judaism - or Osher. For them, the court's ruling was a seminal event.

When they returned to the room, the rabbis asked Heiman to read the Shema prayer aloud. "It was such an exciting moment," she said. "I waited for it for a long time."

"This was the most exciting moment in my life," agreed Osher.

They have already married in a civil ceremony, based on which Heiman received temporary residency, and live in the small community of Beit Hashmonai. After starting the conversion process, they said they both became religious.

Now, Heiman will immerse in the ritual bath and join the Jewish people. She and two other women who appeared before the rabbinic court judges that same day then plan to get married to their Jewish Israeli partners.

Of the private conversion, Heiman said, "We know it's not a government body, but for us the religious step is more important. That's the reason I wanted to convert to start with."

"The absurdity cries out to the heavens," added Osher. "The state is ... spending millions to bring in the children and grandchildren of Jews, and here we have a small but high-quality group that wants to come live in Israel, yet the state is working hard to keep them out."

The Interior Ministry also places obstacles before people who have undergone Orthodox conversion abroad and want to enter Israel under the Law of Return. People who underwent Reform conversions abroad can move here easily. But a lack of clear criteria has led the Interior Ministry to reject many Orthodox converts.

In one case, for instance, the Interior Ministry rejected a woman from Moldava who applied for new immigrant status even though the Chief Rabbinate had recognized her overseas conversion. The woman petitioned the High Court, but the Interior Ministry asked the court to reject the petition on the grounds that she had not yet exhausted other legal remedies.

Rabbi Seth Farber, director of the advocacy group Itim, said the Interior Ministry is demonstrating contempt for the High Court of Justice. "For seven years, despite High Court rulings, the Interior Ministry has not set criteria for recognizing conversions from abroad," he said.