A Breakthrough on Orthodox Conversions in Israel

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(Reptrinted from The Times of Israel, September 29, 2022

Court: Orthodox conversions done outside state rabbinate acceptable for citizenship

A Jerusalem District Court on Thursday recognized Orthodox conversions to Judaism performed outside the Chief Rabbinate for the purposes of citizenship, though not religious recognition, in what is nevertheless considered a potentially precedent-setting ruling.

The case dealt with two women who converted to Judaism in Israel through Orthodox rabbinic courts not affiliated with the state rabbinate. These conversions, though performed by Orthodox rabbis, are generally seen as more lenient on certain issues than those done by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate and are therefore not recognized by the state for religious purposes. (The organizations maintain that they are fully in line with Jewish law and historic tradition.)

One of them, known as Giyur K’Halacha, is part of the ITIM religious rights group. The other is called Ahavat HaGer, which is run by Rabbi Haim Amsalem, a former Knesset member known for his idiosyncratic views.

“This solidifies Giyur K’Halacha as an alternative to the rabbinate,” Rabbi Seth Farber, the founder and director of ITIM, told The Times of Israel. “That’s a big win for us, but it’s also a big responsibility.”

Farber said that while the scope of the ruling was relatively narrow, he hoped that it would be a stepping stone to broader recognition of private conversion courts in Israel.

Both women — Bina Jessica Welmer and Silvia Ventsislavova — had applied for Israeli citizenship after converting but were initially rebuffed by the Interior Ministry, prompting them to appeal to the Jerusalem District Court.

They were represented by Asaf Weizen, Michael Cohen-Ad, and Adi Greenfeld from the Tomer Warsha Law Firm, which specializes in immigration cases.

“We are happy that we have paved the way for justice to be implemented in Israel and for the recognition of a variety of conversion frameworks in Israel. This is expected to benefit many people who converted earnestly and who want to be citizens with equal rights,” Warsha said in a statement.

Welmer, who had been living in Israel with a work visa, was forced to return to her native Germany while the case played out. Ventsislavova, who was married to a Jewish Israeli man, was able to remain in the country.

Under Israel’s Law of Return, anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent who does not practice any religion besides Judaism is eligible for Israeli citizenship, as are people who convert to Judaism. This issue of conversion, however, was left ambiguous in the law, without a clear indication of which conversions would be accepted. Would only conversions through the Chief Rabbinate be recognized for citizenship, or also Reform and Conservative (Masorti) conversions?

For more than 15 years, Israeli courts have pressed the Knesset to make a decision on the matter and enshrine it in law. After the Knesset repeatedly failed to do so, last year the High Court of Justice ruled that Reform and Masorti conversions performed in Israel would be sufficient for the purposes of citizenship, though they would still not be recognized for the purposes of marriage.

“We refrained from issuing a ruling in order to allow the state to advance legislation on the issue,” wrote Justice Dafna Barak-Erez in the 2021 decision. But since people’s “rights hang in the balance” and no such legislation was advancing, the court decided to act.

In its ruling, the court established a new criterion for conversions, writing that they must be performed “in a recognized community in accordance with its accepted standards.”

For the clearly defined Reform and Masorti movements in Israel, this was relatively straightforward, but what of non-rabbinate Orthodox conversions?

Both of the plaintiffs opted to convert through non-rabbinate-approved rabbinic courts.

For Ventsislavova, technical issues prevented her from converting through a Chief Rabbinate program, specifically that she was not a permanent resident of Israel at the time, which prevented her from being eligible.

“The fact that bureaucracy got in the way was pure absurdity,” Farber said.

It was not immediately clear why Welmer chose to convert through Ahavat HaGer instead of a rabbinate-sanctioned court.

Farber said his organization did not normally perform conversions for people who did not yet have Israeli citizenship, but that in the case of Ventsislavova and others who have clear ties to Israel, it made an exception.

As with the Reform and Masorti conversions, the court in this matter also tried to give time to the government to pass legislation to address the issue. As the government failed to do so this year, the court decided to rule.

In her ruling on Thursday, Judge Tamar Bar-Asher determined that despite Giyur K’Halacha not being part of the government conversion authority, both Ventsislavova and Welmer had gone through “recognized Jewish communities” and would therefore qualify for citizenship.

In large part, the ruling was based on the fact that there are two private conversion courts in Israel — one in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood and another in Bnei Brak — that are not part of the Chief Rabbinate but are nevertheless respected by the state, meaning rabbinate recognition was not in itself a necessary condition for validity.

The state may still decide to appeal the decision, which would force the High Court of Justice to rule on the matter, but it is unlikely it will overturn the ruling, as it is largely based on the High Court’s own 2021 decision.

Bar-Asher’s ruling drew immediate criticism from right-wing religious politicians. Avi Maoz, the head of the anti-LGBTQ Noam faction, part of the far-right Religious Zionism party, said it was part of a “regressive progressive” plot to weaken the state’s Jewish identity.

“Soon we will lead the effort to fix this and to legislate as necessary, from a coalition led by [Likud party leader Benjamin] Netanyahu,” Maoz said.

Farber brushed off Maoz’s criticism as based in ignorance.

“Not only does Avi Maoz not know what happens in Giyur K’Halacha, he also has clearly not opened the rabbinic literature to know that there is a biblical prohibition against harming legitimate converts, and I hope he is able to repent before Yom Kippur,” Farber said.