Why Israel’s New 'Traveling' Conversion Court Never Took Flight

Jewish Agency head Natan Sharanksy to consider legal action if Interior Ministry continues foot-dragging on effort to ease conversions abroad.

Natan Sharansky.
Tomer Appelbaum

A year after its official launch, a bold plan meant to facilitate conversions performed outside Israel appears doomed.

Spearheaded by Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, the initiative called for establishing a special conversion court that would dispatch rabbis from Israel to communities overseas increasingly challenged by the stringent requirements and vetting powers of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate.

A key condition for getting it off the ground was obtaining an agreement from the Ministry of Interior that individuals converted by this special “traveling” court would be eligible for automatic citizenship in Israel under the Law of Return. But to date, the Jewish Agency has failed to receive such a commitment.

The Law of Return stipulates that anybody who converts abroad – regardless of the affiliation of the rabbis supervising the process – is eligible for citizenship, providing that the conversion is undertaken in a recognized Jewish community and by recognized local rabbis. In the past, the Ministry of Interior has challenged conversions undertaken by rabbis who were not local, but rather, flown in.

Speaking with Haaretz, Sharansky said that two former interior ministers – Gideon Sa'ar and Silvan Shalom, both of the Likud party – had agreed in principle to recognize conversions performed by the new court for the purpose of immigration. Yet each resigned from their posts before any deal could be finalized.

Aryeh Deri, the current interior minister, heads Shas, an ultra-Orthodox party very resistant to challenging  the Chief Rabbinate.  More than 15 years ago, Sharansky founded a political party that set as its goal wresting control of the Interior Ministry from Shas, which had been known to raise difficulties for Russian-speaking immigrants not considered Jewish under religious law. For this reason, relations between Sharansky and the ultra-Orthodox party have long been strained.

Sharansky said he not yet met with Deri on the matter. “We have points of debate with Aryeh Deri on this issue,” he said.

Asked to comment, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Interior said: “To the best of our knowledge, this issue has not been approved, and when it becomes relevant, we assume that the Ministry of Interior’s position will be made known.”

Sharansky did not rule out the possibility of taking the matter to court if the ministry continued to drag its feet. As grounds for a legal suit, he cited a recent Supreme Court ruling that broke the monopoly of the Chief Rabbinate on conversions performed in Israel.

In that ruling, the Supreme Court authorized conversions performed by private Orthodox rabbinical courts in Israel – in defiance of the Chief Rabbinate, which had held that only conversions performed by its own state-sanctioned rabbinical courts were valid. “That ruling makes our case very strong,” said Sharansky.

A resolution to establish the special conversion court was passed by the Jewish Agency Board of Governors in late June 2015.  The initiative was widely hailed around the Jewish world.

In recent years, the Chief Rabbinate has been blacklisting certain Orthodox rabbis, both in the United States and in Europe, considered too progressive in their approach to Judaism, and has refused to recognize conversions performed by them. The most recent example was Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, a prominent Modern Orthodox rabbi.

The spiritual leader of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in Manhattan and the former principal of the Ramaz School, Lookstein has converted, among others, Ivanka Trump, the daughter of Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican candidate for November's presidential election. The Supreme Rabbinical Court is now considering an appeal in the matter.

Because of the increasingly stringent requirements of the Chief Rabbinate, many Orthodox rabbis abroad have stopped performing conversions, according to Seth Farber, founder and executive director of ITIM, an organization that advocates on behalf of converts.

The new Jewish Agency-sponsored conversion court was meant to address this problem by filling in for those rabbis unwilling to set themselves up for disappointment and humiliation.

In some communities, particularly in Europe and South America, the problem is also that there are not enough certified local rabbis to perform Orthodox conversions. Jewish law requires a conversion court to be comprised of three rabbis. In those communities where there are only one or two rabbis on the ground, the new conversion court could have filled in the gaps.