In First, Court Forces Israel to Recognize Jewish Conversion of Woman by Private Rabbinical Court

Ruling comes after Interior Ministry refused to register woman as Jewish because she converted via a rabbinical court that operates outside the framework of the state-sanctioned system, controlled by the Chief Rabbinate

File photo: Chief Rabbinate-run conversion court in Jerusalem, May 23, 2004.
Eyal Warshavsky

In a first-of-its-kind decision, an Israeli court has ordered the Interior Ministry to register a woman converted by a private Orthodox rabbinical court as Jewish.

The ruling, made public on Monday, came in response to a petition submitted by the woman after the Interior Ministry refused to register her as Jewish because her conversion had been undertaken by a rabbinical court that operates outside the framework of the state-sanctioned system, controlled by the Chief Rabbinate.

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The woman had been converted through Giyur K’Halakha (Conversion according to Jewish law), a private initiative founded three years by a group of prominent religious Zionist rabbis. Within the Orthodox movement, these rabbis are known to be relatively liberal and their conversion requirements are considered less stringent.

“Given that the individual went through a conversion, she should be registered as Jewish in the Population Registry,“ wrote Judge Aaron Farkash in the ruling handed down by the Jerusalem District Court.

In March 2016, the High Court of Justice had ruled in favor of recognizing Orthodox conversions performed by private rabbinical courts. Based on that ruling, the Conservative and Reform movements had petitioned the High Court for recognition of their own conversions in Israel, which are also performed by private rabbinical courts.

Hoping to circumvent Israel’s top court, however, the government tried to push through legislation a year later that would have denied recognition of all conversions performed in Israel outside of the existing Orthodox-sanctioned state system. However, facing backlash from Jewish leaders abroad, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a six-month suspension of the legislation, during which time an alternative would be drawn up by a special committee.

Netanyahu never appointed such a committee, but assigned Moshe Nissim, a former Likud government minister, the task of resolving the crisis.

Three months ago, Nissim presented his recommendations for an overhaul of the state conversion system, which included the creation of a new state-run Orthodox authority that would operate outside the auspices of the Rabbinate. His recommendations, which have yet to be discussed – let alone approved – by the government, would have denied recognition to all private conversions performed in Israel, including Orthodox conversions, like those performed by Giyur K’Halakha.

In its initial response to the petition submitted to the Jerusalem District Court, the state said that the convert could not be registered as Jewish until the government had decided whether or not to adopt Nissim’s recommendations. But seeing that the government had little inclination to move ahead with the Nissim recommendations anytime in the near future, the state informed the court a few weeks ago that it no longer had any objection to the court ruling on the status of the convert.

The convert was represented in the case by ITIM, an organization that advocates for converts in Israel.

“The court’s decision not only gives legitimacy and standing to the Giyur K’Halacha courts but also open the door to thousands of young families who wish to fully join the Jewish people and have rights in Israel like other Jews,” said Rabbi Seth Farber, the organization’s founder and executive director, in response.

Since its founding, Giyur K’Halacha has performed more than 600 conversions in Israel.