Let Them Get a Reform Conversion

Nothing in the life of the girl who grew up in a bourgeois home in Cologne foretold the unlikely path she would take. But 29-year-old Michal Janietz says she had never felt at ease with her German indentity. The history of her people was part of it, she admits, but mostly she says it was her attraction to Judaism. She finds it hard to recall when she first became aware of her sense of alienation in Germany and whether she deliberated before deciding to live as a Jew in Israel.

About half a year ago, shortly after she came to Israel to study at the Kibbutz Yavneh conversion ulpan in the south, she changed her name from Alyn to the definitely Israeli Michal. No one asked her to do this. She sees the defiant name change as marking the end of a long, deep process of searching for an identity.

Her first visit to Israel came after high school, when she volunteered to work at an old-age home in Jerusalem's Kiryat Ha'yovel neighborhood. And she kept returning to Israel throughout the years.

"I can't say that I developed a religious interest or an attraction to Judaism on my first visit, nor on the second," says Michal, "because I was never a religious person. My interest in religion developed only later." Yet, every visit she felt herself becoming more distanced from there, and closer to here.

Why did she choose to study Semitic languages at university? Why did she write her master's thesis on revived words in Hebrew? Looking back, she says these were just more things that brought her closer to her decision to convert.

She researched the material for her thesis over several months at the Academy of the Hebrew Language. On returning to Germany, two years ago, she started drawing closer to the Jewish community of Cologne, attending a synagogue on Shabbat and keeping kosher. She later began studying for her Ph.D. far from Cologne, and relocated to a lush, green and very peaceful village not far from the university where she studied.

"The village was so remote," she says without a shred of irony, "that the Jewish congregation was too small for a minyan." And the university faculty was "too Christian" for her. Its approach to biblical interpretation bothered her. And so, in March, she left it all and landed at Kibbutz Yavneh to study Judaism.

"Judaism provides me with answers to all the profound questions I had about life and death," she says.

The gate closes

Janietz already feels Jewish. Her ulpan advisers say she is ready for conversion. The representative of the Conversion Court (the person coordinating between the conversion ulpan and the court) is also convinced. During her studies she met her fiance, Yehuda Shmuel, also a conversion candidate, from South Africa. They plan to marry soon. In the summer, at the end of the course, her path to a life in Israel as a kosher Jew seemed clearer than ever. She was then disappointed to learn that the gates to the country are shut to her.

Janietz belongs to a group of people who wish to convert but are unable to receive citizenship under the Law of Return; hundreds each year apply for conversion with rabbis and conversion ulpans in Israel. The candidates arrive on a tourist visa. The conversion ulpan then directs them to a committee for exceptions - a joint committee of the Interior Ministry and the conversion administration. Each candidate's case comes before the committee members twice: Before the conversion course they determine if the person should be accepted to the course, and after it, they decide if he or she advances to the court for the conversion ceremony.

Shlomit Tur Paz, a lawyer who heads the Jerusalem Itim Institute (a body assisting would-be converts), says that until recently a recommendation such as the court representative gave on the Janietz case was all that was needed to be accepted. However, she says that today the policy has changed to an arbitrary and strict one: "Rabbis in many countries throughout the world send their serious candidates for conversion to Israel, since they cannot provide them with adequate Jewish education. However, upon arriving here, they cannot study and advance on their way to conversion, since they are not citizens. The committee that is supposed to examine the exceptions has ceased to function. It's a catch."

Rabbi Seth Farber, founder of Itim, says: "Now we have chaos. The office treats converts cynically. Its officials are apathetic to the serious efforts converts undertake for periods of two years ormore. It goes against Jewish tradition that talks of empathy toward converts."

About a year ago, new regulations were set for the committee, and legal experts from the Interior Ministry and the Prime Minister's Office were introduced into the panel. Its chair is Rafi Dayan of the conversion administration. But the feeling among conversion professionals is that the new policy, which prevents some converts from starting the official conversion course and others who have passed the course from coming before the Conversion Court, is directed by the Interior Ministry.

Complaints about the committee's work, or lack thereof, abound, and also come from senior officials in the conversion administration, who make no attempt to hide their frustration. "The committee's conduct is scandalous," says one of them. "It rarely meets, it is cumbersome due to the legal nature of the proceedings, their work hours are too limited, and they don't handle the workload. In this way the committee creates injustices and delays of justice." The same official says: "The Interior Ministry's people have the perspective that everyone is a liar. They try to determine the person's sincerity in the religious process. It's absurd." He claims that in the past 25 cases were dealt with every week, and today they manage only 10.

Farber talks about foot-dragging. "When they're kind enough to give an answer, it usually points to an unprofessional and probably intentional attitude designed to make things more difficult." Of 11 from the south who received the rabbinical court's recommendation, he says eight were rejected by the exceptions committee.

Janietz was rejected on the pretext that the course she took was too short. This argument seems outrageous. She gave up a comfortable academic life for a demanding program where she lives and studies. There is nothing heroic or adventurous in menial kibbutz work. Her week is divided into three days of work and three days of studying. On work days she wakes up early in the morning to go clean in the Kibbutz kitchen or spends her day endlessly chopping vegetables. The three days of studying are busy and full.

The head of the Kibbutz Yavneh conversion ulpan, Rabbi Meshulam Shvat, is outraged by the pretext for rejecting Janietz. His conversion ulpan is among the oldest and most famous in the country, and is known for its strict selection and serious reputation. How can they say that his course is short when at other conversion ulpans they study only two afternoons, he asks, and adds that the new converts take part in kibbutz life and can be scrutinized outside studying hours. "Undoubtedly the Interior Ministry is worried that foreign workers will take advantage of conversion and therefore they make the procedures stricter, but closing the gates is not an option," says Shvat.

No work, no marriage

Conversion candidates are unable to carry on with their lives. They cannot work or get married until they complete their conversion. Some of them fall into poverty during the long process. Such is the case of Anna Maria Kalviano from Romania, who also studied at Kibbutz Yavneh and was rejected by the exceptions committee. Kalviano, who has a doctorate, wrote her dissertation on the Jewish communities of Romania.

The Hebrew University has given her library job, but until she receives a work permit she cannot start working. Meanwhile, she has no financial resources, and to keep a roof over her head, she volunteers at the kibbutz clothing warehouse.

It seems that the Orthodox conversion for non-citizens has gone bankrupt. The absurdity is that the only route available today for converts is the Reform path, this following the Supreme Court ruling to grant citizenship to those who underwent conversion in recognized Reform communities or fast-track conversion abroad. Rabbi Shvat claims that the Hebrew ulpan at the Kibbutz now has a group of blue identity cardholders from South America who do not know much about Judaism: "Reform conversion requires less selection. Some of these people studied on the Internet and were converted in a Reform process. I am pained that this is the game we have to play."

Sharon Harel and his wife, Olga Gendelman, encapsulate this absurdity. He is an Israeli and his wife is from Ukraine. After Gendelman was rejected by the exceptions committee, the frustrated (and generous, it should be said) court representative directed her to a Reform conversion. Rabbi Moshe Klein, deputy head of the conversion system, is appalled by this story, but he admits that changes must be made to the structure of the committee. "The Interior Ministry says that those who convert receive, in effect, the keys to their citizenship, and we want to make sure that the conversion is not a blunt instrument used on their way to citizenship," he says, justifying the ministry's conduct.

However, according to a proposal to be presented next week to the Justice Ministry by Klein and by Rabbi Haim Druckman, the head of the conversion administration, the role of the exceptions committee should be limited to examining the candidate's civic qualification, and in no way interfere with determining the person's religious motives or sincerity. This part falls under the aegis of the conversion administration. In addition, to regulate the converts' legal status, they propose to grant candidates student visas and examine their seriousness during the process.

In the meantime, Janietz is frustrated. After severing ties with her family, who were not supportive of her decision, she feels suspended in mid-air. She lives in Jerusalem and cannot work. Until she gets married, she has to be separated from her fiance in line with the strict religious law she accepted. She is waiting. How long, she does not know: "Not having a legal status, it's no life," she says.

The Population Registry's response: "Representatives from the Interior Ministry take part in the meetings of the committee of which they are members, and their position is taken as a recommendation. The conduct of the committee and its final decision is in the hands of the people heading it - the conversion administration."