U.S. Jewish Leaders Praise Israel's High Court Ruling on Reform and Conservative Conversions

Reform Judaism leader says landmark decision finally shows acceptance for the movement's 'commitment to bringing more Jews into the Jewish People.'

Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri
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Anat Hoffman, right, leader of the Israel Religious Action Center, at the Western Wall in 2018.
Anat Hoffman, right, leader of the Israel Religious Action Center, at the Western Wall in 2018.Credit: Hadas Parush
Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri

U.S Jewish leaders praised Israel’s High Court ruling on Monday affirming that people who underwent Reform and Conservative conversions to Judaism in Israel are eligible for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return, calling the move “wonderful” and “welcomed” although there is still “a lot of work to do.”

“We are very enthusiastic about it and very happy to have it come at this moment,” Rabbi Josh Weinberg, Vice President of the Union for Reform Judaism for Israel and Reform Zionism, told Haaretz on the phone. “We had individuals who were waiting in limbo for status to be recognized so we’re very glad for this decision.”

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"This decision was years in the making and reflects the diversity and vibrancy of Jewish life in Israel and around the world," said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism. "Today, the Court has affirmed the reality that the Jewish people are stronger because of the contributions of Reform and Conservative Movements and their commitment to bringing more Jews into the Jewish People."

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Monday’s verdict comes after a 16 year battle. It began in 2005 when the Israel Religious Action Center – the advocacy arm of the Reform movement in the country – petitioned the High Court in the name of 11 temporary residents who had been converted by Reform and Conservative rabbis, but whose request for citizenship under the Law of Return had been denied by the Interior Ministry. The case dragged on for many years, during which time, several unsuccessful attempts were made by the state and the non-Orthodox movements to reach an agreement outside the court.

“This was a very long time coming,” the Rabbinical Assembly of Conservative/Masorti movement rabbis said in a statement. “Not swift justice, but sweet and righteous just the same.”

Under the Law of Return, any individual converted abroad is allowed to immigrate to Israel and obtain citizenship automatically. The verdict handed down on Monday affects only a very small number of people who have been converted by Reform or Conservative rabbis in Israel, but are not citizens of Israel. They are temporary residents, in most cases the spouses of Israelis. The Law of Return now applies to them as well.

Anat Hoffman, the Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Center, which led the battle in Court, said the outcome was a “historic victory and a cause for celebration.”

“The Supreme Court stands in solidarity with these men and women who chose to be Jewish by once again ruling that the State of Israel is a homeland for all Jews, and that the ultra-Orthodox monopoly may not control conversion in Israel,” she added.

On average, the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel convert about 300 people per year. The vast majority of these converts – about 90 percent – are eligible for citizenship under the Law of Return.

“I see this as a step towards the unity of the Jewish people” Weinberg added. “This helps remind us that the state of Israel is in fact the state of the Jewish people.”

While the move “gives us room to be cautiously optimistic”, Weinberg said, “I think that as we’ve seen the reaction of Haredi parties to Rabbi Gilad Kariv’s candidacy at the Knesset we know we have a great deal of work to do.” He was referring to threats by ultra-Orthodox parties to shun the Labor candidate who is set to become the first reform Rabbi in the Knesset.

Six Jewish women taking religious roles normally reserved for men, photographed in Jerusalem in 2013.Credit: AP

While the political leaders of Yesh Atid, Yisrael Beiteinu, Labor and Meretz welcomed the ruling, others were not pleased.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud said, "The High Court handed down a verdict that endangers the Law of Return, which is a foundational pillar of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state."

The leader of the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party Shas, Arye Deri, pledged to repeal the ruling so that "only conversion according to halakha [Jewish law] will be recognized in the State of Israel."

The far-right Religious Zionist Party also criticized the decision, describing it as "dangerous,” while Naftali Bennett's Yamina focused their criticism on the justice system: "The recognition of conversions in the State of Israel will be determined by the democratically elected representatives of the people, and not by jurists."

Reform Rabbi Joshua Davidson of Temple Emanu-el in New York told Haaretz that the announcement is “a wonderful development in the struggle for religious pluralism in Israel”. According to him it is “an affirmation in the Court's eyes that Israel should be home to all Jews, and all expressions of Jewish life.”

“Now we look to the Knesset to accept the ruling, and not undermine it,” he added. “Those of us who champion the causes of religious and civil liberties in Israel will continue to speak out against the ultra-Orthodox establishment's stranglehold upon them, which this ruling does not do enough to address.”

The Reform Judaism movement in the United Kingdom also called the ruling “a very positive step for Israeli society” and vowed to “continue to support the work of progressive Jews within Israel to ensure full legal and societal rights for Jews of all denominations.”

Jewish Reform and Conservative movements leaders near the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City in 2016.Credit: Sebastian Scheiner,AP

“This is a historic day,” said Rekefet Ginsburg, the head of the Conservative-Masorti Movement in Israel. “There is more than one way to be a Jew in the State of Israel. Again and again, we are forced to fight for our rights in the courts instead of having a dialogue,” she added.

“I call on our elected representatives to restore the State of Israel’s relationship with Reform and Conservative Judaism, in Israel and abroad,” she also stated.

Conservative Rabbi Ayelet S. Cohen, who also serves as the Director for New York/Tri-State area of the New Israel Fund said the Court’s “commendable” decision “celebrates and honors the rigorous process of conversion that so many undergo; people who are deeply committed to becoming a part of the Jewish people and who we should welcome with equal enthusiasm.”

“It is true that Israel still privileges Jewish identity as a central avenue towards citizenship, and that the path towards equal rights for all, regardless of faith, remains long,” Cohen said. “Yet today we celebrate one small but significant step towards pluralism, towards a society in Israel that views all as equal.”

"This decision by Israel’s Supreme Court was a necessary and obvious ruling for Israel as well as for the Jewish People," said Prof. Yedidia Stern, President and CEO of the Jewish People Policy Institute. "It is indeed unfortunate that the Supreme Court was compelled to make this decision rather than the Knesset. However, the court rightly noted that the issue had been stymied for fifteen years since a 2005 petition put before them demanded citizenship for several non-Israeli nationals who converted in Israel and wished to claim citizenship under Israel’s Law of Return."

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