Converts Petition Over Rabbis' Refusal to Register Marriage

Ever since the conversion law was defeated by the ultra-Orthodox members of Netanyahu's coalition, new immigrants, together with public figures and religious Zionist organizations, have been looking for alternative ways to deal with related issues. A petition to the High Court of Justice yesterday requests it to end to the increasingly common phenomenon of ultra-Orthodox rabbis in senior government posts preventing citizens who have undergone legal and halakhic conversions from registering their marriages.

The petitioners are a couple from Ashkelon, Alina and Maxim Serdukov, who were forced to register their marriage outside their hometown after a long series of obstacles was put in their path, they say, by the Ashkelon rabbinate.

The petition was submitted by attorneys Tsuriel Lavi, Aviad Hacohen and Guy Carmi against the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and four chief rabbis - of Rishon Letzion, Rehovot, Ashdod and Ashkelon. According to the petition, these rabbis "raise many difficulties for converts seeking to register their marriages; they step beyond their authority and commit serious injury to the principles of equality and human dignity, the freedom to marry and religious freedom."

Alina, who like her husband served in the Israel Defense Forces, converted during her army service. Serdukov says this fact is being used as an excuse by Ashkelon Chief Rabbi Yosef Haim Bloi to prevent registration of the marriage, even after, she said, she provided all the required documents, including a special certificate from the rabbinical court. "At one of the most moving moments in her life, while entering into the covenant of marriage, Alina's request was refused, severely injuring her dignity," the petition reads.

The couple is joined in the petition by the Itim Center, an Orthodox organization for converts headed by Rabbi Shaul Farber; Elazar Stern, who, as head of the adjutant general branch of the IDF, helped broaden the path to conversion in the army; and Dr. Aliza Lavie of the political studies department at Bar-Ilan University, among others.

Rabbi Farber of the Itim Center, who married the Serdukovs, told Haaretz, "After years of experience, we came to the conclusion that we could no longer allow militants in the rabbinate to control Judaism in the State of Israel. Not registering converts does harm to their basic rights, especially on the eve of Passover, when we are supposed to remember that we were once strangers in Egypt, and we have a moral obligation to care for those whose position in society is fragile."

The phenomenon has become more widespread over the last two years. Because they have the authority to register marriages, ultra-Orthodox rabbis have the power to object to marriages by converts. According to the petitioners, this authority is persistently exploited as a matter of policy by the chief rabbis of Rehovot (Simcha Hacohen Kook), Rishon Letzion (Yehuda David Wolpe), Ashkelon (Yosef Haim Bloi) and Ashdod (Yosef Sheinin).

The petition says this "new custom is a bad one, which prevents the marriage registrars from carrying out their duties and injures thousands of people - converts who have tied their fate to that of the Jewish people and the State of Israel and who pay a heavy price, personally and emotionally; it does them injury, and injures their partners, who seek to enter into marriage with them, and their families. The [rabbis'] deviation from [the bounds of their] authority and the pretension of deciding a 'new Halakha,' in opposition to legal instructions, the instructions of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and the decisions of rabbinical courts prevents hundreds and perhaps thousands of converts from exercising their basic right to marry, doing injury to their freedom, their dignity and the other basic rights to which they are entitled."