Love the Convert

Alina Roise and Maxim Sardikov are confronting the rabbinic authorities in court, in the hope that no other converted couple will go through the bitter experience they had.

Some day, many years from now, Alina Roise and Maxim Sardikov will perhaps look back at their petition to the High Court of Justice against the Chief Rabbinate and marriage registrars in four cities as a turning point. But when they agreed a few months ago to join a petition by ITIM - The Jewish Life Information Center (which provides advice in conversion and other religious matters ) against four municipal rabbis who refuse to allow converts to marry, and against the Chief Rabbinate, which chose not to take any action against the rabbis, the couple was motivated to act simply because of a sense of injustice.

Alina Roise and Maxim Sardikov
Yuval Tebol

About a year ago, the municipal rabbi of their city, Ashkelon, Rabbi Haim Blau, refused to open a marriage file for them. The grounds were that Roise is "not Jewish enough," even though she presented a certificate showing she had completed a conversion process during her military service - one of the state's official conversion channels.

"For him we are second-class Jews," says Sardikov. "He disqualified Alina. He believed we should go to someone else."

Though they succeeded in circumventing the problem, by opening a file at Moshav Beer Tuvia, near Ashkelon, and had a kosher Jewish wedding, they decided to protest the rabbi's conduct.

In response, Blau replied that he is very familiar with converts from the former Soviet Union.

"All the greatest rabbinical authorities on the subject say that anyone who wants to convert has to accept the Torah and the commandments. As for that girl, I saw she hadn't taken the commandments upon herself sincerely. I didn't disqualify her arbitrarily. I have several years of experience with conversions," he told Haaretz recently.

Blau's stance is founded in the objection to the conversion procedure in general by the ultra-Orthodox rabbis, led by Lithuanian leader Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv. The rabbi notes scornfully: "They take a course where they're taught how to lie to the rabbis."

The even greater problem is that the state allows ultra-Orthodox rabbis to do as they please, thus undermining its own procedures. In the first High Court deliberation on the above case, in September 2010, state representative Yochi Gnessin arrantly dropped a bomb, claiming that the "military conversions" are not conducted properly. In reaction, a danse macabre began between the strict ultra-Orthodox opponents of government and military conversion, and the national religious authorities who promote and administer them.

Recently, even after Rabbi Ovadia Yosef ruled that Israel Defense Forces conversions are indeed kosher, a further brouhaha began between the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox and their Mizrahi counterparts, who favor mitzvot d'rabim - commandments that give precedence to general welfare over that of the individual. Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman then declared he would advance a bill anchoring the legal standing of conversions done within the framework of the IDF, through the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee. That panel is currently discussing the legislation.

IDF conversions are taking all the heat because opponents consider them a short, "wholesale" route. Such conversions began during the tenure of chief military Rabbi Shlomo Goren in the 1950s, the first person to hold that post, and subsequently Israel's chief Ashkenazi rabbi. They gained momentum in the 1990s after the large immigration wave from the former Soviet Union. Initially conversions were approved by a religious court run by the rabbinate, but in 2004 Prime Minister Ariel Sharon established a system within the Prime Minister's Office, which included special conversion courts. A parallel, army conversion system was also established by Maj. Gen. Elazar Stern, who has also joined the recent High Court petition.

About 30 percent of immigrants from the former Soviet Union who have come to Israel under the Law of Return are not Jews under rabbinical law, because only their father is Jewish.

"The Jewish Agency pushed people to come to this country for demographic and political reasons in order increase the size of the Jewish population," explains Rabbi Seth Farber, director of the ITIM institute. "It was only when they arrived here that a few of the immigrants realized they cannot marry because the rabbinate doesn't accept that people with only a Jewish father are Jews."

Conversion in the IDF was an efficient solution. "The idea was that people in a closed framework, without families, could devote the time to this [process]," Farber explains.

The ultra-Orthodox began to object systematically to the governmental conversions after Rabbi Avraham Sherman, who is known for his extremist positions, and is now head of the Rabbinical High Court, ruled in 2008 that the entire process is unacceptable.

His followers believe the IDF conversions are an even more accelerated, "superficial" route to Judaism. The ultra-Orthodox press scornfully calls them "conversions done with a wink," because they say the soldiers do not intend to lead a religious lifestyle and the rabbinical judges look the other way - as ultra-Orthodox journalist Moshe Glasner explains.

Why, then, is there no doubt regarding the Judaism of secular Jews? According to Rabbi Blau, "We believe everyone who was present at Mount Sinai took the yoke of Torah and strictures on himself."

The IDF conversion program is very intensive. It lasts three months, and all the participants who complete the process - many drop out in the middle, especially before the ritual circumcision - receive a conversion certificate from a rabbinic court.

Every year about 900 soldiers take this route. About 30 percent are immigrants from the former Soviet Union; the rest are from Ethiopia and other countries. But these converts face a barrier when they want to get married.

Farber tells of dozens of cases that have come to his attention. "Even if they do manage to get married, they don't want there to be a note questioning their Judaism. Anyone who casts doubt on their Judaism makes the converts suffer, and rabbinical law is clear on this point. It states: 'And thou shalt love the convert.'"

Fear of exposure

In the living room of their Ashkelon home, Roise and Sardikov make an effort to evince courage and confidence, but look like hostages in a power struggle between forces greater than they are. They are 25 years old and have been inseparable since second grade. A few weeks ago, they celebrated their first wedding anniversary.

Both came to this country as children, straight to Ashkelon. Roise was born to a Christian mother and Jewish father. Now she and her husband see themselves as responsible for other converts in their situation. Sardikov, who as a teenager was the Israeli long-distance running champion, says he will not drop the issue until it is resolved.

According to the petition, four marriage registrars are refusing to open files for converts who have undergone an IDF conversion: the rabbis of Ashdod, Rehovot, Rishon Letzion and Ashkelon. All these cities have sizable communities of Russian-speaking immigrants.

In contrast to the petitioners, most of the couples in a similar situation fear being exposed.

"People are afraid," says Y., 31, of Rishon Letzion. "The country is small. They know everyone. No one knows whom this might hurt and what will happen in the future. I had a daughter three months ago. I don't know what will happen to her when she wants to get married, God willing. If I publish my name they will put me on the Rabbinate's black list," he says.

According to Y., the process he went through in the 2005 conversion course was very meaningful. "You understand that you can't live the same life you've been living until now," he notes.

In 2007 he received his conversion certificate, not before he underwent ritual circumcision. "This is a pretty painful process," says Y. "It touches you physically and a person can't go through this casually."

He is not religious nowadays. After his wedding, when his wife went to pick up their marriage certificate, she was told it could not be issued because "there was a mistake - your husband is not Jewish."

Y.: "During my military service I contributed a lot to this country. Nowadays I am doing a lot in the reserves. Along comes a person whose salary I am paying through taxes. The state tells him to sign and he says no. This is more than chutzpah."

Y. is more cynical now: "I don't understand why the state isn't straightening out the conversion issue. This simply hurts. You shouldn't treat a member of your nation this way. My identity is not a driver's license that can be revoked."

Maxim Olinsky, 24, a resident of Petah Tikva, will also be getting married soon. He already knows he has a problem registering the marriage and intends to postpone the wedding if he is not allowed to do so in his city. After the conversion process Olinsky became religiously observant and nowadays wears a skullcap and observes the Sabbath.

"I felt lost," he says of his reaction to the conversion crisis. "All of a sudden I didn't know whether I am part of the Jewish people, and whether the fact that I observe the Sabbath counts."

Rabbi Ovadia's ruling encouraged him. "It all depends on the person," says Olinsky. "If a person wants to go through this conversion as a joke it is a joke, but if a person takes it in a deep way, it is deep. Maybe it's an abbreviated process but I know I have accepted the yoke of commandments before three rabbinical judges and this is what makes the difference."