Ministry Also Fails to Recognize Private Haredi Conversions

Raisa Germai-Sunin, 67, a married woman who converted to Judaism and leads a Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) lifestyle, has learned that when dealing with the state authorities, she needs a miracle. In 2003, she underwent a private conversion through a Haredi rabbi in Bnei Brak - a conversion that is not recognized by the state. Since then, she has been trying without success to have the conversion recognized by the Interior Ministry, in order to receive Israeli citizenship.

Yesterday, in the wake of a request by Haaretz, the Population Registry announced that it would grant her temporary status.

Germai's case indicates that the ministry does not recognize private Haredi conversions - a situation that is familiar from Reform conversions.

Germai arrived in Israel in 1997 from Ukraine for a visit to her daughter, an Israeli citizen by virtue of the Law of Return (her father is Jewish) who lives in Bnei Brak. In 1998, Germai filed a request to extend her tourist visa, which had expired. However, due to foot-dragging by the Interior Ministry, the visa was not extended.

During her stay here, she developed a sympathy for Judaism, and met Iliya Sunin, an Israeli citizen. The couple decided to marry. In 2003, she was converted in the rabbinical court of Rabbi Nissim Karelitz in Bnei Brak, and subsequently married Iliya in the same court.

In 2003, the Interior Ministry decided that to receive citizenship, Germai would have to leave Israel and remain in Ukraine for an undefined period of time - a practice the ministry calls a "spousal procedure" - before returning to Israel and receiving immigrant status. Since that time, Germai's requests that the Interior Ministry not demand this procedure in her case have proved fruitless.

Germai's story is complicated, because throughout the period of her contacts with the ministry, she remained in Israel illegally, a fact that prompted the state to distrust her motives. In addition, the state conversion system did not agree to a discussion of her case by its "exceptions committee." Yesterday's decision, however, means that the rabbinical conversion court will be able to examine the conversion she underwent.

The Interior Ministry recognizes only conversions through state institutions, which is done though special courses and rabbinical courts identified with religious Zionism. Private conversion ceremonies are not recognized. Even persons who have chosen private conversion in a Haredi framework - usually as a result of a lack of information on the legal means of converting - are met with skepticism from state authorities.

Absurdly, unofficially speaking, the rabbinical judges (dayanim) in the state conversion system recognize Haredi courts like that of Rabbi Karelitz, and offer these converts an accelerated conversion process. Rabbi Shaul Farber of the Itim institute in Jerusalem, asserts that these cases only prove the arbitrariness of conversion, with government clerks determining policy and practice. He claims that in the event of a Haredi conversion, the solution is often to undergo another conversion, in a state framework, thus meaninglessly duplicating a religious act only to satisfy the state's demands.

Rabbi Shmuel Karelitz, the son of Rabbi Nissim Karelitz, says that his court receives requests from 10-15 people every year who want to undergo a Haredi conversion. Rabbi Farber explains that these are individuals who have joined the Haredi community and wish to convert within it, except that the Haredi framework has not supplied them with information about the institutional route to a civilly recognized conversion.

A Population Registry spokesman responded: "The issue is now being examined with the aim of looking into the validity of the couple's marriage. When the marriage was recognized, it was decided to grant Mrs. Germai temporary status, as part of the graduated procedure, since she is the spouse of an Israeli citizen. At the same time, her conversion has not been recognized, and to that end she should apply to the special rabbinical court for converts."