Noa Sattath
Noa Sattath
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One small step for the court, one large step for converts

This week's High Court ruling can help heal the Israel-Diaspora rift on conversion – and help dismantle the harmful ultra-Orthodox monopoly
In this Nov. 2, 2016 photo, the heads of the Reform and Conservative movements carry Torah scrolls as they march to the Western Wall. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner, File)
In this Nov. 2, 2016 photo, the heads of the Reform and Conservative movements carry Torah scrolls as they march to the Western Wall. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner, File)

The ultra-Orthodox monopoly in Israel regularly generates injustice in the lives of Israeli citizens. One example among many is the harm it causes to the freedom of religion and the freedom of choice of Israelis who cannot marry in Israel or are forced to marry in a way that does not reflect their beliefs or their lifestyle. Attempts by ultra-Orthodox leaders to extend this monopoly to conversion affects a smaller number of Israelis, but brings this injustice to an absurd height. The sages already said that “there is no joy like the resolution of doubts,” and thus the High Court’s decree this week granted justice to converts and added one more chink in the monopoly’s armor.

The Law of Return, a central pillar of the State of Israel, determines that those who converted are eligible to “make aliyah” to Israel. The law doesn’t exclude any type of conversion. Since most Jews around the world belong to the progressive movements, it is natural that a large number of those who choose to tie their fate to the Jewish people in the Diaspora would convert through the progressive movements.

Despite the clear definition in the law, the ultra-Orthodox monopoly seeks to expand and intensify its control: The Chief Rabbinate’s rabbinical court for conversion uses the conversion process to try to impose an Orthodox lifestyle on converts; secular adoptive parents who convert their children are required to send their children to the Orthodox school system; converts are required to be Sabbath observant, and other ridiculous demands that are contrary to democratic principles. Thus, in reality, many converts begin their Jewish lives with a lie to the rabbinical court with the hope, often unfulfilled, that they can uphold the required Orthodox standard. In this way, as in many other ways, the monopoly distances Jews from Judaism.

The Reform Movement believes there is more than one way to be Jewish. It is a great privilege for us to guide and assist converts as they join our people. At the rabbinical court, converts express their identity and their commitment to Judaism in a variety of ways. After long and comprehensive study, each convert brings their belief, their deep and authentic connection to Judaism, and their desire to join the Jewish people to the rabbinical court. Converts describe their connection to holidays and lifecycle events, how they decide to observe the Sabbath, and the religious texts to which they feel a connection.

Since the 1980s, there has been a legal battle against the State of Israel’s recognition of Reform and Conservative converts. This battle has been accompanied by political storms, and by difficult and dramatic crises with Diaspora Jewry, which emphasize the widening rift between Israel and world Jewry. The stance of the State over the years has been characterized by intimidation and fake news about the mass conversion of asylum seekers and migrant workers, and disregard for the Reform and Conservative movements’ conversion process.

Following repeated High Court decisions in favor of recognition for Reform and Conservative conversions performed outside of Israel (1989), conversions performed in Israel for the purposes of registering as Jewish (2002), and of private Orthodox conversions performed in Israel (2016), the most recent ruling on this topic was issued this week. The ruling concerns a small and weak group of converts, people who are not citizens of the State of Israel but converted in Israel. It determines that they, like other Reform and Conservative converts from outside Israel, are eligible for aliyah and Israeli citizenship. This decision changes the reality, and grants citizenship to dozens of petitioners, all Jews by choice who have been waiting upwards of 15 years on a grueling and sometimes humiliating journey for the State of Israel to recognize their Judaism.

This victory, although symbolic, finally ends the court discussion on conversion in Israel and establishes the decision made decades ago that there is more than one way to convert. This decision can serve as the first step in healing the rift between Israel and Diaspora Jewry on conversion, and is an additional step towards dismantling the corrupt and harmful ultra-Orthodox monopoly in Israel.

About the Author
Rabbi Noa Sattath is the Director of Israel Religious Action Center, the Social Justice arm of the Reform movement in Israel. She is a graduate of the Hebrew University and Gratz college. She was ordained by the Hebrew Union College in 2014. She is a member of Congregation Kol Haneshama in Jerusalem.
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