Israeli High Court Decision on Conversions Brings Long-awaited Relief and Validation

For people who had Conservative or Reform conversions in Israel, the verdict, which will grant them citizenship, is the end of a bureaucratic nightmare that challenged their identities. But the struggle isn't over

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U.S. and Israeli Reform rabbis pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, in 2016.
U.S. and Israeli Reform rabbis pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, in 2016.Credit: Sebastian Scheiner,AP

For years, Erika Belovai has dreamed of opening her own bakery in Israel. But residing in the country on a volatile immigrant visa, she knew it was not a realistic option. A High Court decision on Monday changed her fate: She was finally eligible for Israeli citizenship.

“I started to cry like a baby, I couldn’t stop,” she told Haaretz Wednesday, recalling the moment she heard the news.

The High Court had ruled that the state must recognize non-Orthodox conversions performed in Israel for the sake of immigration, a verdict that came after a 16 year battle. It began in 2005 when the Israel Religious Action Center – the advocacy arm of the Reform movement in the country – petitioned the High Court.

It did so in the name of 11 temporary residents who had been converted by Reform and Conservative rabbis, but whose request for citizenship under the Law of Return had been denied by the Interior Ministry. The case dragged on for many years, during which time several unsuccessful attempts were made by the state and the non-Orthodox movements to reach an agreement outside the court.

Originally from Hungary, Belovai, 50, first came to Israel in 2001. She met her Jewish husband in the country and got married the following year. In 2005, she started studying for her Reform conversion, which she finished a year later. Shortly after, she went through a divorce and ultimately left Israel to go back to Hungary.

“After six years, I didn’t find my place there,” she said, adding that she decided she would eventually return. For three years she shuttled between the two countries until she decided to make a permanent move in 2010.

But when she got to Ben-Gurion Airport, authorities confiscated her Israeli ID, detained her for the night and deported her back to Hungary. To this day, she finds the episode hard to discuss: “It’s hurting me.”

With the help of the Israel Religious Action Center, Belovai was back in Israel four months later. It was only in 2018, and after being diagnosed with cancer and undergoing treatment without proper documentation, that her ID was returned to her. She also received a work visa that required yearly renewal. “Every year we go to the ministry, every year we are asking,” she said. “It makes you go crazy.”

Belovai said that the High Court decision, for her, “means I can stand on the ground. I don’t have to be up in the air, I can plan for more than one year, because my life was always just for one year at the time,” she said. “For me it’s a very big change.”

Under the Law of Return, anyone who converted abroad is allowed to immigrate to Israel and obtain citizenship automatically. The verdict handed down on Monday affects only a very small number of people who have been converted by Reform or Conservative rabbis in Israel, but are not citizens of Israel. They are temporary residents, in most cases the spouses of Israelis. They, too, can now access Israeli citizenship.

Erika Belovai.Credit: Courtesy of Erika Belovai

For Emie Genty, 36, the journey to Judaism started with a trip from her native France to Thailand, where she met an Israeli man. After traveling together for a while, she decided to move to Israel to continue the relationship. When she arrived in 2010, everything felt unfamiliar.

“I didn’t speak Hebrew, I spoke English very badly,” Genty recalled. She had many questions that her boyfriend’s family couldn’t always answer, “so I went to a Conservative synagogue, where I was welcomed with open arms,” she said.

“They took the time to explain things, it took a while,” she said. “One day the rabbi asked me if I was interested in conversion. I took a little time to think about it – it’s a very personal decision.”

Genty decided to undergo her conversion in Hebrew, despite having the choice of English as well. She wanted to learn the language and fully understand the scriptures she was studying. The process took two years, and in 2016, she was approved by the rabbinical court.

“I wanted to do this in Israel because I’m really attached to this country,” she said, adding she picked “Israela” as her Hebrew name.

Despite now being Jewish, Genty struggled with her immigration status in Israel. She was required to remain on her relationship visa and was even stripped of her Israeli ID and insurance for over six month once when she tried to renew it. The Israel Religious Action Center began representing her.

“There was always a little percentage missing for me to be able to say I really belong here,” she said. “I’ve been in this country for 11 years, I caught Israeli chutzpah, I’m always last at the cashier and first to pay,” she joked.

“That’s what the decision changes from me: I am recognized as I am,” Genty said. “I can vote… That’s it, I am 100 percent Israeli.”

A Torah dedication ceremony at the Mazkeret Batya Conservative congregation, in 2019.Credit: Louis Weyl

“Our clients waited for over 15 years for the justice and the equality that they deserve,” Anat Hoffman, the Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Center said. “Our converts will now become Israeli citizens, enjoying the rights of all citizens, and most importantly at this time – health insurance.”

Hoffman said the court “delivered justice, and also challenged the Orthodox monopoly.”

“In line with the Declaration of Independence, the Law of Return, and previous decisions, the court was explicit in stating that the law of return calls on all Jews – by birth or by choice, from all streams of Judaism – to make aliyah and become citizens of Israel,” she continued.

When the decision came on Monday evening, Orthodox leaders roundly criticized the move. Arye Dery, the leader of the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party Shas, pledged to repeal the ruling so that "only conversion according to halakha [Jewish law] will be recognized in the State of Israel."

The far-right Religious Zionism party described the decision as "dangerous,” while Naftali Bennett's Yamina focused its criticism on the justice system: "The recognition of conversions in the State of Israel will be determined by the democratically-elected representatives of the people, and not by jurists."

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud said that "The High Court handed down a verdict that endangers the Law of Return, which is a foundational pillar of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state."

“I don’t think I’m a worse or better Jew than another one,” Belovai said. “I keep the holidays, I believe in the same God. It’s about what you have inside in your heart: I belong here, I am a Jew.”

Her conversion process, she said, was far from easy and included the study of some Orthodox teachings. “It was a lot of work and blood and sweat,” she said. “We deserve it."

Although Belovai is happy and relieved with Monday’s court ruling, she also believes the struggle isn’t over. “With what is going on right now on television, the radio, with the comments [of Orthodox lawmakers], I think they want to make a really big war,” she said. “I will be tough like they are, I will fight for the rights that the Supreme Court gave us now.”

Genty said that she has “never had an issue” in conversations with Modern Orthodox people. “They couldn’t tell the difference because the difference is only on paperwork,” she said. But as soon as she reveals that she went through a conservative conversion, the looks change.

“I am no longer recognized as Jewish,” she said. “It’s something I struggle to understand because there is no good and bad Jew.” She added, “I find it really too bad that we can’t work together. It’s horrible the way they treat us.”

For Genty, there is much symbolism in Monday’s court decision: “The first time I came to this country was during Passover and I knew nothing. It’s like I’ve been in the desert as a nomad for 11 years. My conversion was finalized around Passover, and this High Court decision also comes close to Passover.”

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