Ultra-Orthodox Conversions in Israel Also Being Challenged by Chief Rabbinate

High Court of Justice expected to deliver landmark ruling on legitimacy of private halakhic conversions this November.

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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A candidate for conversion sits before a special conversion court in Jerusalem.
A candidate for conversion sits before a special conversion court in Jerusalem.Credit: Haaretz
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Believe it or not, ultra-Orthodox conversions performed in Israel are not always considered kosher. That could change in the near future, though, if the High Court of Justice rules in favor of several individuals born outside of Israel who were converted by prominent ultra-Orthodox rabbis here, but whose requests to be recognized as citizens under the Law of Return were rejected by the Interior Ministry.

The reason cited for the rejection was that the conversions were performed by private rabbinical courts rather than state-sanctioned ones.

The converts’ cases will be heard by a nine-justice panel scheduled to convene on November 4 and announce a landmark decision on the matter. At this point, only three cases will be heard, but dozens more could be affected by the judicial ruling that is handed down.

Several of the individuals in question, represented by attorney Yael Katz-Mastbaum, were converted by the Bnei Brak rabbinical court of Rabbi Nissim Karelitz, considered one of the most respected in the ultra-Orthodox world.

Under the Law of Return, all Jews who are recognized as such by the Interior Ministry are eligible for automatic Israeli citizenship.

According to existing regulations, non-Jews who are not citizens or permanent residents of Israel are prohibited from converting in the country, unless they have been granted special approval by an exemptions committee headed by the ministry.

The original purpose of the prohibition was to prevent asylum seekers and illegal foreign workers from legitimizing their status in the country through conversion. Because the process of obtaining approval from the exemptions committee can take years, many candidates for conversion have preferred to circumvent the system by opting for the services of private rabbinical courts.

But since the Interior Ministry does not recognize these private rabbinical courts, the converts are not eligible for citizenship in Israel and, therefore, are denied many basic rights. Some are forced to leave and, in at least one case, a convert was arrested for residing in the country illegally. In addition, those who marry Israelis cannot do so in the country and are forced to hold their wedding ceremonies overseas.

The Interior Ministry did not respond to repeated requests from Haaretz to explain its policy on the matter.

Katz-Mastbaum is representing more than 20 other converts whose status has been challenged by the ministry, among them citizens of the United States, Canada, The Netherlands, Belgium, Britain, Colombia, India and The Philippines.

“The court has an historic opportunity here to declare, once and for all, that the Israeli Rabbinate does not have a monopoly on halakhic Judaism, in Israel or around the world,” said Rabbi Seth Farber, the founder and director of ITIM, an organization that helps individuals navigate Israel’s religious bureaucracy. (Farber also writes for Haaretz occasionally.)

“The time has come for the court to ensure the rights of converts and send a strong message to the Rabbinate: You don’t have a monopoly on who is a Jew,” he added.

Farber described as “ironic” the fact that individuals who go through private Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox conversions in Israel have no legal status, whereas those who go through Conservative and Reform conversions are recognized as “Jewish” in the Population Registry, under a special Supreme Court ruling dating back more than 10 years.

However, despite their “Jewish” status, these non-Orthodox converts cannot be married in Israel, as they are not considered Jewish under Orthodox law, which rules on issues of marriage and divorce in the country.

Attorney Yael Katz-Mastbaum.Credit: David Bachar

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