TEL AVIV (JTA) -- A recent rabbinic court
ruling in Israel is prompting thousands of converts in the
country to worry if their conversions to Judaism are at risk
of being revoked.
The ruling by Jerusalem's supreme
rabbinical court upheld the decision by an Ashdod rabbinical
months ago to retroactively annul a woman's conversion
conducted 15 years ago after she acknowledged that she is not
religiously observant today.
The Jerusalem court ruling also cast doubt
on the validity of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other
conversions by suggesting the annulment of those converted by
Rabbi Haim Druckman, the state-appointed rabbi who has been
charged with overseeing a more tolerant, open conversion
process in Israel.
"Our phone has been ringing off the hook
with people who have gone through conversions who are deeply
concerned about their status and potential converts who are
trying to figure out if this whole process is worth the
effort," said Rabbi Seth Farber, who runs the Jewish Life
Information Center, or ITIM, which runs a 24-hour hotline for
those seeking assistance on Jewish issues in Israel.
One of the callers was Florence Rouaux, 27,
who converted to Judaism two years ago with the assistance of
ITIM after moving to Israel from her native Belgium.
"I am angry, sad and disappointed -- all
the things you can imagine. It's very hurtful," she said. "It
reminds converted people that they are converts when you are
trying to build your life as a Jew."
The ruling prompted an emergency Knesset
hearing Tuesday, and public outrage and confusion both in
Israel and the Diaspora.
It again has laid bare the politically
charged ideological struggle between more moderate and more
zealous Orthodox rabbis within Israel's religious
Many of the more moderate rabbis seek to
ease the process of bringing Israelis who are not Jewish
according to Jewish law, or halacha, into the Jewish fold
--especially immigrants from the former Soviet Union. The more
zealous rabbis want to block the conversions of anyone who
does not comply with strict Jewish religious observance.
"The ultra-Orthodox, who don't see
conversion as a possible solution, are willing to sacrifice on
the altar of Jewish history not only those non-halachic Jews
but even legitimate converts who would be accepted by any
standard,” said Farber, a Modern Orthodox rabbi. “They are
essentially engaging in an anti-traditional and, in my
opinion, an anti-halachic battle.”
In New York, the Rabbinical Council of
America, an organization representing moderate Orthodox rabbis
in North America, issued a stinging rebuke to the court
A statement from the group said the Israeli
rabbinic court ruling, its language and tone, "are entirely
beyond the pale of acceptable halachic practice, violate
numerous Torah laws regarding converts and their families,
create a massive desecration of God's name, insult outstanding
rabbinic leaders and halachic scholars in Israel, and are a
reprehensible cause of widespread conflict and animosity
within the Jewish people in Israel and beyond."
Rabbi Shlomo Amar, the chief Sephardic
rabbi who has jurisdiction over Israel's religious courts,
reportedly has tried to quell the fears of the decision's
opponents. His office issued a statement that the ruling would
not signify a new precedent in religious law.
Rabbi Nahum Eisenstein, a fervently
Orthodox former rabbinical court judge aligned with those in
favor of the stricter interpretation of conversion law, said
the matter was not one of invalidating so-called "valid"
conversions but of nullifying those that were granted
erroneously -- when prospective converts tricked rabbinical
court judges into thinking they would live an Orthodox
“If this commitment never took place, the
whole process was never valid,” he said.
Eisenstein takes issue with the notion that
conversion to Judaism should be a tool for nation building.
"Conversion is a halachic issue," he said.
"It cannot be used to solve a demographic problem in the
country. That's a big mistake.
Critics said the court ruling was part of a
trend at some marriage registry offices -- overseen by the
fervently Orthodox-dominated Chief Rabbinate -- to cast doubt
on the validity of conversions done under the auspices of the
Some marriage registry offices, including
those in the cities of Ashdod,
Ashkelon, Petach Tikvah and
Rechovot, reportedly question one-time converts about their
observance levels when dealing with marriage or divorce
proceedings, according to Farber.
Although the Conversion Authority has exclusive legal
jurisdiction over conversion issues, the Chief Rabbinate
oversees marriage and divorce.
"Even years after living as a Jew people
are now being told they are not Jewish. It's a terrible
thing," said Rabbi Rafi Feuerstein, the chairman of Tzohar, a
group of religious Zionist rabbis that seeks to present to
Israelis a more tolerant face of Orthodox Judaism.
Feuerstein cited a commandment in Leviticus
that forbids Jews from harassing a convert: "You shall not
oppress the convert in your land."
Tzohar rabbis were among those present
Tuesday at a stormy four-hour session of the Knesset's law
committee. At the meeting's end, a call was made for
legislation that would secure the status of converts.
At the meeting Zevulen Orlev, a member of
the National Religious Party, made an unprecedented
declaration that he would consider revoking the Chief
Rabbinate’s authority on personal-status issues such as
marriage and divorce if they proceed to nullify past