A Czech-born Single Mother Challenges the Chief Rabbinate’s Monopoly on Conversions in Israel

As Israel's cabinet rolls back years of advances in conversion reform, a court petition of one convert could be a landmark case that determines who is authorized to perform Orthodox conversions in Israel.

Moti Milrod

Martina Ragacova had never planned to become the symbol of a growing uprising against Israel’s draconian conversion laws. All this Czech-born woman wanted was to have her conversion recognized so that she could live and work in Israel like any other Jew.

Neither did Ragacova have any intention of challenging the Orthodox-run establishment that controls conversions in Israel. After all, it was a well-known and very Orthodox rabbi in Israel who converted her.

Nonetheless, Ragacova has been thrust into the center of a national debate over who gets to determine who is a Jew in this country. And last week, a nine-justice panel convened in Jerusalem to hear arguments from both sides in this landmark case triggered by a deportation order issued against her 10 years ago. The Supreme Court decision in this case, expected to be handed down within a few months, could ultimately spell the end of the Orthodox-run Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly on conversions in Israel.

The campaign of Ragacova and others like her has taken on added urgency in light of the cabinet decisions approved today (Sunday), which effectively roll back all progress achieved in recent years in conversion reform. As a result of the cabinet's decisions, the rabbinical conversion courts will be transferred from the Justice Ministry to the Shas-run Religious Services Ministry, their home until 2004. In addition, a reform that would have permitted municipal rabbis to create their own conversion courts has been quashed.

A 40-year-old single mother, Ragacova was born in Prague when the Communist regime was still in power. Her parents were “total atheists,” as she recounts, though her paternal grandmother was a Jew from Budapest. According to Jewish law, which recognizes matrilineal descent, her father is therefore Jewish.

The building of the Chief Rabbinate in Jerusalem.
Alex Levac

“I was drawn to Judaism from a very young age,” she told Haaretz. “For many years, my parents kept it a secret from me that my grandmother was Jewish, but I always felt a strong connection to other Jews and to the Jewish religion – something that was hard to explain.”

In 2001, almost on a whim, she made her first trip to Israel and decided she wanted to stay. “I was young, full of life, full of love for Israel, maybe even a bit fanatic, and I felt I belonged here,” she says.

Under the Law of Return, any individual with at least one Jewish grandparent or a Jewish spouse can qualify for citizenship in the Israel. Since her paternal grandmother was Jewish, Ragacova should have been eligible for citizenship under the law, except for one problem: She had no documentation proving her grandmother was Jewish, and there was no possibility of producing such evidence since her grandmother was long dead and all her other relatives had been wiped out in the Holocaust.

By the time she first arrived in Israel, Ragacova was already practicing Judaism and was encouraged by Orthodox friends to undergo conversion at the privately run Bnei Brak conversion court of Rabbi Nissim Karelitz, considered one of the most respected in the ultra-Orthodox world. It took her three intensive years to complete the process, during which time she lived with several Orthodox families and studied at a seminary for Orthodox girls in Jerusalem.

Arrested at the airport

But then Ragacova ran into her next hurdle: The Orthodox-run Chief Rabbinate does not recognize conversions overseen by private rabbinical courts, even if they are Orthodox. So when she returned to Israel following a brief visit with her family in Prague, she was arrested at the airport for illegal entry into the country and thrown into jail for a month.

Thus began the first of many appeals to the Israeli court system that she be allowed to stay in the country and granted recognition as a Jew. Ten years later, her case appears to have hit an important juncture.

Ragacova is the first person to test the validity of Orthodox conversions conducted inside Israel but outside the state-sanctioned rabbinical court system. In recent years, dozens of others have followed suit, all of them now anxiously awaiting the final word of the Supreme Court.

The non-Orthodox movements also have a vested interest in the outcome of this case, as it could affect the validity of conversions performed by Conservative and Reform rabbis in Israel.

Ironically, individuals like Ragacova who go through private Orthodox conversions in Israel have no legal status, whereas those who go through Conservative and Reform conversions are recognized as “Jewish” in the Ministry of Interior's Population Registry, under a special Supreme Court ruling dating back more than 10 years. Still, none of these conversions performed outside the state-sanctioned rabbinical courts are recognized as valid for the purpose of marriage in Israel.

Another important front in this battle was opened last week when the Jewish Agency announced plans to set up its own rabbinical courts that would dispatch emissaries to Jewish communities overseas either unable or unwilling to perform their own Orthodox conversions.

Ragacova says her drawn-out battle against the system has drained her. “For five years, I didn’t leave Israel because I was told that if I left, I wouldn’t be able to come back,” she says. “So I wasn’t able to see my family all that time, and I even missed my brother’s wedding. But it’s not that they wanted me to stay either. Since I was refused official status here, I had no social benefits and it was difficult for me to find work.”

Two years ago, while on a trip back to Prague, she got pregnant unintentionally and remained in the country. Visiting Israel now in order to tend to court matters, Ragacova has brought along her 14-month-old son, who is staying with her at the apartment of a friend. “Even though it wasn’t what I intended, it’s been a real blessing at my age to finally become a mother,” she says, as she bounces him on her lap.

Her son was circumcised by the chief rabbi of Prague, and the Jewish community in her hometown has welcomed her and the child into their midst. “They took up a collection to pay for the ceremony and to buy us all sorts of essentials,” she says. “That’s the irony. In Prague, we’re considered full-fledged Jews, but here we’re not.”

Fighting the good fight

Having a young child to care for, acknowledges Ragacova, makes living in Israel not a practical option at the moment. “In the Czech Republic, I get three years of maternity leave, yet here I can’t even work, so how can I really afford to stay?” she asks.

Still, she says she’s determined to fight the good fight, noting that “even if I won’t benefit personally, others will.”

Ragacova blames most of her situation on the Ministry of Interior, which continues to reject her requests for permanent status in Israel. The Ministry of Interior, in turn, blames the Chief Rabbinate. “The role of the Population Registry is not to recognize conversions but to authorize status following conversions that have already been recognized by the certified authorities,” said Sabine Haddad, the ministry spokeswoman, when asked to comment on the case. “If the certified authorities do not recognize the conversion, then the Population Registry cannot authorize status.”

ITIM, a non-profit that helps individuals challenged by Israel’s religious bureaucracy, has been following the Ragacova case closely because of the possible implications for many others. “It is our hope that individuals like Martina will pave the way for hundreds or even thousands of Orthodox converts to be able to receive the rights that are guaranteed to them,” said Rabbi Seth Farber, the founder and executive director of the organization. “It is forbidden, according to Jewish law, to persecute the convert and make him or her feel different. Martina and the others have suffered enough. They are Jewish, and the state should recognize this once and for all.”