Shira and Emmanuel (not their real names) met a few years ago when Shira, an Israeli, was traveling in South America, where Emmanuel lived. They fell in love, came to Israel and wanted to live together in keeping with the religion of Moses and Israel, as the marriage vows say. Emmanuel had to convert, but his application was not approved. "We waited three years and then we decided to take things into our own hands," says Shira. "We are glad we did so, and we're only sorry we waited until we were pushed into a corner. If only we'd had the courage to do it earlier."
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Emmanuel, like hundreds of other Israeli "Jews by choice," went through a private conversion and became a strictly kosher, observant Jew without waiting for state authorization. Now the two are married and awaiting their second child.
More than in any other field controlled by the religious establishment, private conversion is flourishing in Israel. Hundreds of converts, mainly those who are not eligible for citizenship under the Law of Return, are joining the Jewish people outside the state rabbinic conversion courts, even though the latter are the only ones empowered to approve official "conversion certificates."
By choosing a private route to Judaism, however, these people endanger their chances of becoming Israeli citizens and risk deportation. They are being helped by Orthodox, mainly religious, Zionist rabbis who want to privatize conversion.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the rabbi of the settlement of Efrat, has been preparing candidates for official conversion at a reputable, veteran school for years; now, he has begun setting up up an independent conversion court. He wants to be able to convert his students in a beit din court like Jewish communities do abroad.
Rabbi Yisrael Rosen, a former member of an official rabbinic conversion court, also began doing private conversions last month through a non-official beit din in Gush Etzion. The court has approved nine converts so far.
Riskin, Rosen and other rabbis are relying on a year-old legal opinion written by attorney Aviad Cohen for Itim: The Jewish Life Information Center. Cohen wrote there is no legal reason why private conversion courts cannot exist.
There are two other private conversion courts - one headed by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz in Jerusalem and the other by Rabbi Nissim Karelitz in Bnei Brak. The Bnei Brak Badatz court provides a wide array of religious services, mainly for ultra-Orthodox and other observant Jews who do not want contact with the state authorities. In 2006 it performed 10 to 15 conversions, and this year it performed about 250.
"The gates of conversion need to be opened as wide as possible," says Rabbi Shaul Farber, the founder of Itim, which helps Israelis negotiate their way through the religious establishment. "In the past two and half months we've received more than 50 calls from people who have been through private conversions and want help obtaining citizenship. Most of the converts are not frustrated by the severities of rabbinic law but rather by the bureaucracy. Many are religious people who are prepared to go through ultra-Orthodox conversion, even when it is against their conscience. The state does not help them."
Some of the converts are from the more than 300,000 people who immigrated, or whose parents immigrated, under the Law of Return - meaning they have a Jewish parent or grandparent - but are not recognized as Jews under rabbinic law. The Chief Rabbinate and the state rabbinic courts have shut their doors to them. However, those who want to can easily start the conversion process in a civilian or military framework, even though these options are contracting due to political fights, which have included the reversal of conversions that have already taken place.
Rabbi Riskin would like to take responsibility for these converts. In an interview with Haaretz, he refused to say whether he was starting a conversion court, but he did say: "What is happening now in Israel is not part of the rabbinic law I know and love, neither with respect to women who are refused a divorce, nor with respect to conversions. I am frustrated by the current situation, especially regarding the conversion of immigrants from the Former Soviet Union. They make things more difficult for them and are stricter with them than is required by rabbinic law. Every time I have the opportunity to hand down a ruling in accordance with rabbinical law, I will do so."
Other converts are foreign citizens. In order to start a conversion, they have to go through a nearly impassable screening process overseen by an "exceptions committee" made up of representatives of the Interior Ministry and the Rabbinate. It authorizes only people it believes are sincerely interested in becoming Jews, in an attempt to prevent non-citizens, including migrant workers, from exploiting conversion to become citizens. But it also rejects people whose motives are pure.
Emmanuel came to Israel in 2007 in order to stay, and began the arduous conversion procedure. The process lasted nearly three years. He and Shira waited for the exceptions committee to convene and agree to accept Emmanuel to conversion school.
"We didn't want to get married before Emmanuel converted," relates Shira. "The authorities ask for contradictory things. The Interior Ministry requires you to be a couple in every respect and live together, yet the conversion system demands that you not live together, that you not marry and that you remain chaste. They force you to lie. Every couple resolves this in its own way, lying to one side or the other."
"We simply decided to stop waiting and to do it privately. At most, we would complete the legal process afterward," says Shira.
Less than two months before the wedding, Emmanuel appeared before Steinsaltz's private beit din. He described the process as pleasant, inexpensive and efficient. After the court gave its approval, Emmanuel made an appointment for a ritual circumcision at a hospital, and then visited a private mikveh for the requisite ritual immersion. Three weeks later the couple married in a private Jewish ceremony. Knowing they could not go through the rabbinate, they turned to an Orthodox rabbi who performed the ceremony without reporting it to the state.
While on their honeymoon - about three years after they had submitted their application - they were informed that the state, not realizing he was already a kosher Jew, would allow Emmanuel to start the official conversion proceeding. Emmanuel appeared before the official rabbinical court and received his long-awaited conversion certificate, and the couple then held another wedding ceremony so their marriage would be registered with the Rabbinate and the Interior Ministry.
Shira and Emmanuel did not tell the beit din that he was already a Jew and that they were already married. Even now they refuse to reveal their identities, fearing the conversion will be annulled. "After years of dealing with this, we are afraid and we prefer not to get into another mess," says Shira, "but it is important to us to expose the story. I very much hope that more couples turn to private conversion, because it is of greater psychological and spiritual value. It requires courage and we, to our regret, did it only when we were pushed into a corner. If only we had done it earlier."
Though it would appear to be a conflict of interests, official conversion judges sometimes recommend that couples try alternative conversion processes, and even help them do so. One rabbi who has done this is Yisrael Rosen, who was until recently an official rabbinic conversion court judge and is now a private conversion judge.
"I was interested in making the conversion system more lenient and welcoming. This was my goal as a rabbinic court dayan," says Rosen. He recalls a young woman from Colombia he converted privately, enabling her to marry the son of a settlement rabbi. The wedding also was private, although the couple is hoping it will be recognized by the state.
"It's absurd," says Rosen. "The state tries to court immigrants through the Jewish Agency, it invests millions in bringing the children and grandchildren of Jews to Israel, and now we have a not very large but very high quality group flocking to the doors and becoming citizens, yet the state is distancing them. Our rabbinic court does not seek to be contrarian. We are there to help in cases where the rabbinate should have been helping."
Ilya and Raisa-Haya Sonin-Gormay, 76 and 74, respectively, are an ultra-Orthodox couple from Bnei Brak. Both natives of the FSU, the couple met in Israel, to which both had come after each of them was widowed. Several years ago Raisa-Haya went through a private conversion with Rabbi Karelitz and a rabbi from Jerusalem, but the Interior Ministry refuses to recognize it and considers her an illegal immigrant.
"It's hard that she doesn't have citizenship," says Ilya Sonin. "Who knows which of us will pass away first. We would like to get citizenship as quickly as possible. It isn't pleasant to talk about this, but we are bothered by the question of whether she could be buried as a Jew in Israel."
Rabbi Farber is helping her obtain at least residency. Like many others, she is hoping the breakthrough will come at the High Court of Justice. Absurdly, the Population Registry is obliged to recognize Conservative and Reform conversions carried out abroad, but not Orthodox conversions, whether carried out in Israel or abroad, if conducted by rabbinic courts that are not recognized by the Israeli Rabbinate. The petition of Martina Ragachova, a former Czech citizen who went through a strict conversion with Rabbi Karelitz and is demanding the state recognize her as Jewish and grant her citizenship, is currently being considered by the High Court.
According to Shaul Farber, Itim receives hundreds of applications a year from people who are stuck in conversion proceedings and are interested in private conversion. "I try to do everything I can to help them start official conversion," he says, "but if it's not an option and if it is important to them to convert, as a rabbi, I want to help. The rabbis feel there is serious distress here."
The private rabbinical courts are free of bureaucracy and give personal attention, he says. "I am not sure the conversion with Rabbi Karelitz is stricter than the official conversion," he says. "It's simply more personal in many ways. If you come unprepared, they send you back to a teacher and tell you: 'Come tomorrow, it will work out.' It's like a shtetl attitude. The state can't operate that way, but there is something in conversion that requires a shtetl mentality. You're here? Let's embrace you. This is the ethos of conversion, and the ultra-Orthodox apparently realize this too."
The conversion department in the Prime Minister's Office states that the bureaucracy is a result of a dispute between the Justice Ministry, the Interior Ministry and the Prime Minister's Office over the country's immigration and conversion policies. The Justice Ministry wants to limit the naturalization of non-Jews, while the conversion department wants to enable conversion for foreign citizens who are not eligible to immigrate under the Law of Return.
The conversion department is currently formulating a pilot program for members of the latter group, in an effort to increase efficiency. Shmuel Jesselson, head of the department, says that when the department officials meet candidates for the first time, they will not be judged by their papers only. Jesselson also intends to change the name of the committee from "the exceptions committee" to the "committee for foreign citizens."
All this is being done with typical slowness, while hundreds of people are turning to alternative rabbinical courts. About the private conversions, Jesselson says: "I do not have an official position; these things are under discussion. We are examining the implications."