American Rabbi Hopes New Guidelines Will Change Rabbinate's Stance on Conversions

Raphael Ahren
Raphael Ahren
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Raphael Ahren
Raphael Ahren

A senior American rabbi on sabbatical in Israel plans to draft new conversion guidelines in a bid to keep the Chief Rabbinate from preventing Modern Orthodox converts from immigrating.

Currently, the Israeli Rabbinate only accepts conversions by a limited number of Diaspora rabbis, and at least 10 Orthodox converts who went through other rabbis were denied Israeli citizenship based on the Rabbinate's recommendation in the past few months.

Rabbi Joel Tessler with his daughter Shifra upon her immigration to Israel last year.Credit: Courtesy

Now Rabbi Joel Tessler, whose converts were among those rejected, wants to prove that there are no grounds to reject Modern Orthodox conversions.

"What we're trying to do is to allow the Chief Rabbinate to be comfortable again with trusting American Orthodox rabbis, who commit to conducting conversions according to halakha [Jewish ritual law]," said Tessler, vice president of the International Rabbinic Fellowship, or IRF, a new group of some 150 U.S. Modern Orthodox rabbis. As the head of the IRF's conversion committee, he hopes the Chief Rabbinate will recognize all conversions conducted by rabbis following the new guidelines, which closer mirror the already accepted guides and are just as strict than those of the Rabbinate itself, he says.

According to the Law of Return, all Jews are entitled to Israeli citizenship, but the question of who is a Jew has led to rising tensions between immigration professionals and the Interior Ministry, which is increasingly turning to the ultra-Orthodox Rabbinate for guidance.

The Jewish Agency used to determine the eligibility of all immigration candidates, but the Interior Ministry changed the policy. For Reform or Conservative converts, the ministry relies on the Israeli branches of these streams. In the absence of a central body representing Orthodoxy, the ministry started turning to the Rabbinate regarding the validity of Orthodox conversions. The Rabbinate, however, only recognizes a limited number of foreign conversion courts.

At a meeting at the Knesset's Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Committee last week, Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar spoke of people who paid high sums for conversion certificates from Orthodox rabbis in the U.S. To avoid such frauds, he said, he would only accept conversions conducted by the rabbis on his list. The full list has never been publicized but includes 12 conversion courts established by the Rabbinical Council of America, or RCA. The conversions of most other rabbis who do not head one of those courts - such as Tessler, who is a former vice president and current executive board member of the RCA - are not recognized.

As the rabbi of Beth Sholom Congregation in Potomac, Maryland, Tessler has conducted more than 200 conversions, all of which used to be accepted by the Chief Rabbinate.

Recently, however, some of Tessler's converts were told they couldn't immigrate to Israel because the state doesn't recognize their conversions.

"I converted a young lady who wanted to get married in Israel," Tessler told Anglo File this week. "One day I got a phone call from a Chief Rabbinate's office in an area of Israel: 'We don't know who you are, we don't see your name on the list, therefore we're not accepting the conversion.' I said, 'You accepted my conversions for 28 years, what are you talking about?' 'Well, we don't know you.' I told them whom I studied with, and they said, are you sure you're Orthodox? How do we know?'"

When Tessler confronted Amar with this at a meeting of the Knesset's Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Committee last week, "he told me that they were never suspicious of my conversions, given my background and because of the high halakhic standards I follow. My hope is that after seeing the document I will present to him he will see that I'm no different from the hundreds of rabbis in the U.S. who are involved in conversions and who follow the highest standards."

Tessler is not the first to protest the ministry's new policy: On February 28, some 100 North American Orthodox rabbis wrote to Interior Minister Eli Yishai of Shas demanding he rectify "the injustice being done to our converts."

Rabbi Shlomo Amar at the Knesset conversion meeting last week.Credit: Daniel Bar-On

The Reform Movement also issued support for the Diaspora rabbis.

"The Rabbinate is a body that is not capable of appropriately identifying accepted Jewish communities overseas," said Nicole Center-Maor, who directs the Israeli Reform Movement's legal aid center for new immigrants. The problem arose because there is no one global body that represents Orthodoxy, she said. "We absolutely support the claims of the local Orthodox congregations in the states that their conversions should be recognized."

The Rabbinate meant to minimize confusion when it urged the RCA to establish centralized conversion courts, said Tessler, who is living in Ra'anana and plans to immigrate here himself in the next two years. "But now there are hundreds of rabbis who are disenfranchised. There are 2,000 Orthodox rabbis in America who are totally honest and don't take money for doing this holy responsibility."

"It just doesn't makes sense that if someone converts through a Reform rabbi or a Conservative rabbi he won't have any problems getting Israeli citizenship," Tessler said, "but if you're converted by an Orthodox rabbi you can only make aliyah if the rabbi who converted you is on a small list of 60, 70, names. That's just ridiculous, it's a hilul Hashem, [desecration of God's name]."

Israeli law grants the Chief Rabbi the authority to recognize or reject conversions regarding marriage and divorce, but it does not do so regarding the Law of Return, said Rabbi Seth Farber, whose Itim organization advocates on behalf of converts and new immigrants.

"Immigration policy is determined by the Interior Ministry, and while it would be nice to have the Chief Rabbi on board it doesn't appear to me that the Chief Rabbinate has any authority to determine who is eligible to make aliyah," he said.

That the Interior Ministry makes its decision based on the Rabbinate's recommendations is a "stopgap measure" he's willing to fight in court, he asserted. "The ultimate policy should be that individuals converting in recognized Orthodox communities ought to be able to make aliyah irrespective of the Chief Rabbinate's involvement."

"We cannot allow the Interior Ministry to disrespect converts," Farber added. "The absurdity here is that in the name of halakha, the Interior Ministry is violating halakha by persecuting genuine converts."

Farber said he supported Tessler's initiative, which would promote "greater understanding" in the Chief Rabbinate.

The ministry's spokesperson did not respond to an Anglo File query in press time.

Tessler will meet with Amar after Passover and is confident he can convince him that centralized conversion courts - as they exist in Israel and as Amar wants them for Diaspora communities - do not guarantee more sincere converts.

"When you have a centralized system, you're sending the convert to somebody who does not know you, who has no relationship with you, and therefore cannot respond to particular needs. Every conversion is a little bit different, it's not just a black-and-white issue, where you tick off questions in a box: You do this, you don't do this, therefore we do a conversion. Every individual case has slightly different nuances."



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