Modern Orthodox Canadian Convert Denied Right to Make Aliyah by Israel's Sephardi Chief Rabbi

The question of who is a Jew is left in hands of Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar.

Next week Thomas Dohlan will end five years in a Canadian Air Force ground crew and leave his military career, at the same time breaking a commitment to serve 20 additional years. The 24-year-old has been waiting a long time to realize his dream of immigrating with his Israeli wife Ortal and their four children.

Dohlan is ready to move to Haifa, but this week he received a letter from the Interior Ministry informing him his request to be immigrate had been denied.

dohlan - Archive - February 15 2011

The denial comes in the wake of a ruling by Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar that the Orthodox conversion Dohlan undertook a year ago is "unacceptable."

He was informed that he could enter the country on a temporary visa, if he chooses, as the husband of an Israeli citizen.

In a telephone interview from his home in Trenton, Ontario, Dohlan, who converted a year ago, said he was "desperate." He spoke of undergoing humiliation in the Canadian military over the last year. Not recognized as a Jew there either, he was not released for Jewish holidays; in addition, he had to work on Saturdays, although he observes the Orthodox prohibition on working on Shabbat.

And now, when he has decided to immigrate with his family to a place he believes he belongs, he faces the same struggle.

"I define myself as a Jew, it's a significant part of who I am, and it's hard for me to express just how great my disappointment is," he said. "It hurts inside."]

Dohlan's case is part of a wider a precedent in which Amar has been made the chief arbiter of who is and isn't a Jew. The Interior Ministry, which is in the hands of the Haredi-dominated Shas Party, appointed Amar to serve as a sort of higher religious authority over all the world's Orthodox Jews, in order to determine which Orthodox conversions carried out abroad are kosher and which are not.

Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who heads Shas, told Haaretz yesterday that he had not been informed of the details of the Dohlan case, but "I have no doubt that this is a mistake which will be corrected."

In response to an inquiry by Haaretz on correcting the issue, the ministry announced explicitly for the first time that while there are no established criteria or regulations about the matter, the Chief Rabbinate is "the authorized decision making party with regard to Orthodox conversions undergone abroad."

ITIM, the Jewish Life Information Center, which is headed by Rabbi Shaul Farber and is assisting the Dohlans, is preparing to petition the High Court against the ministry's position.

Had Dohlan chosen a Reform or Conservative conversion, he would have been recognized as a new immigrant. In 1988, the High Court negated the Interior Ministry's treatment of people who underwent these conversions abroad, and obligated the population registrar to recognize them as immigrants. However, the ruling leaves the consideration of Orthodox conversions abroad in the hands of the ministry.

The situation is complicated by the lack of a body governing Orthodox policy, fragmenting the religious stream. Dohlan says he is modern Orthodox.

In 1996 the Interior Ministry formulated conditions for the recognition of foreign conversions. In 2005, Supreme Court justices struck down the conditions but permitted the population registry to determine criteria that would prevent the foreign conversion process from being exploited.

These conditions were never set, but in three different recent cases the ministry has taken a de facto stand that differentiates between one Orthodox conversion and another.

In all of these cases, representatives of Amar participated in the deliberations over immigration requests by converts, and refused to recognize them because they were converted under the auspices of rabbis and religious judges from the Modern Orthodox stream.

For immigrants from North America, the Chief Rabbinate is only recognizing conversions carried out by the Rabbinical Council of America, a primarily ultra-Orthodox group. This stand effectively leaves out all other Orthodox rabbinical organizations, including Chabad and the International Rabbinic Fellowship - the group to which Dohlan's rabbis belong.