Gathering pace, rogue Israeli conversion court racks up new Jews
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Gathering pace, rogue Israeli conversion court racks up new Jews

But independent Giyur Kahalacha movement, a direct challenge to chief rabbinate, sees a hurdle ahead -- when its converts wish to marry

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

Efrat's Rabbi Shlomo Riskin officiates at a conversion examination for the Giyur Kahalacha conversion court, November 2015. (courtesy)
Efrat's Rabbi Shlomo Riskin officiates at a conversion examination for the Giyur Kahalacha conversion court, November 2015. (courtesy)

Until about a month ago, when the men gathered themselves for prayer in his local Efrat synagogue, Michael Mostovski made sure he was out of the sanctuary. Bearded and wearing a knitted kippa and ritual fringe, the father of three girls certainly looks the part of a Modern Orthodox Jew, but he knew he couldn’t be included in a quorum. Because, although he’s lived a religiously observant lifestyle for three years, only for the past month has he been a Jew.

At least according to Jewish law.

Mostovski, born in the former Soviet Union to a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother, underwent a halachic conversion to Judaism through an independent Orthodox religious court in Israel last month. The court is unrecognized by the Israeli chief rabbinate, which means that for the State of Israel, nothing has changed in the status of Mostovski, his wife Masha — also born to a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother — and their three daughters, Keren (13), Zehava (3) and Adina (1.5), who were all also converted in the Efrat beit din.

But since the conversion ritual was conducted, much has changed for Mostovski, an entomologist who immigrated to Israel a year and a half ago. Through a longtime low-burning Zionism and the desire to give his three daughters a better future, Mostovski left a prestigious position after a decade in South Africa, where the closest synagogue was an hour’s drive away.

The conversion ceremony was another way of opening the door to a brighter future.

‘I wanted to formalize my relations with Hashem

“I wanted to formalize my relations with Hashem [God],” he said. Prior to the conversion, he said, he would attend prayer services regularly. But “to prevent a sin” in the reckoning of the prayer quorum, he felt forced to tell fellow worshipers that he was not in fact Jewish.

The Efrat congregation had welcomed him, he said, in spite of his religious status. Recently, just after his conversion, his inclusion was kicked up a notch when he was called to the Torah in a makeshift bar mitzva at age 46.

“It’s my personal relationship with Hashem. I feel myself a Jew. I feel that He also feels that I’m a Jew,” said Mostovski.

The Mostovski family, Michael, Masha, and their three daughters, Keren (13.5), Zehava (3.5) and Adina (1.5) were converted in an independent Efrat beit din. (courtesy)
The Mostovski family, Michael, Masha, and their three daughters, Keren (13.5), Zehava (3.5) and Adina (1.5) were converted in an independent Efrat beit din. (courtesy)

Having lived under Communist Russia, Mostovski has a perhaps rarified perspective on “the establishment.” He pointed out that local conversion courts in Israel are not a thing of the distant past — and may, indeed, become a reality again in the not-so-distant future.

“In my honest opinion, halacha is a bit more eternal than the ‘official’ position of the Israeli government,” he said.

In the meantime, he said, “If they [the rabbinate] would tell me I’m not a Jew — it’s their problem.”

‘In my honest opinion, halacha is a bit more eternal than the ‘official’ position of the Israeli government’

Joining the Mostovskis earlier this month were another four children and five adult converts who underwent an independent halachic conversion through the Efrat beit din under the auspices of Rabbi Shlomo Riskin. To date, some 80 converts have elected to become members of the Jewish People through these new independent courts, which are brought together through a coordinating body calling itself “Giyur Kahalacha” (conversion according to halacha).

Even the name of the organization is a call to arms. In Hebrew, it carries the connotation of “just” or “proper” conversion — in opposition to the current arduous course available to potential converts through the Israeli chief rabbinate.

Founded by many of Modern Orthodoxy’s biggest names — Efrat’s Riskin, Rabbi Nachum Rabinovitch from Ma’ale Adumim, Rabbi Haim Amsalem, Otniel’s Rabbi Re’em HaCohen, Rabbi Shaul (Seth) Farber and head of the Tzohar rabbinical movement Rabbi David Stav — the Giyur Kahalacha movement springs out of a frustration with a stagnant official religious establishment that hasn’t properly addressed the some 400,000 Israelis from the FSU who immigrated without full halachic Jewish status.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat (right) speaks with Rabbi David Stav of Shoham on July 2, 2015. Riskin and Stav are part of a group of leading rabbis who decided to establish independent conversion courts in Israel. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat (right) speaks with Rabbi David Stav of Shoham on July 2, 2015. Riskin and Stav are part of a group of leading rabbis who decided to establish independent conversion courts in Israel. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

With a goal of 1,000 converts, a large number of them children, in its first year of operations — it went live in August — the Giyur Kahalacha movement opens up a number of deeper questions. Among them: Who will marry — and perform the marriage ceremonies of — this new mass of non-officially recognized halachic Jews?

It’s a long game of chess, with moves thought out well in advance on the part of religious rights activists.

An answer concerning who will officiate at the converts’ weddings, according to Prof. Benjamin Ish-Shalom, one of the leaders of the project, may come from within.

Allowing a small glimpse of one possible path in the movement’s long-term strategy, Ish-Shalom hypothesized that if Riskin and Stav, for example, who are also officially recognized regional rabbis of the Israeli rabbinate, were to register such a convert couple for Jewish marriage, then they would have to be recognized by the State of Israel.

Riskin and Stav ‘are the rabbinate’

Ish-Shalom has some experience in breaking down barriers. As the founder of the Israel Defense Force’s Nativ conversion program, he began with 70 soldier converts a year in a program that now has an annual cohort of some 850.

As Ish-Shalom put it recently in a brief conversation with The Times of Israel at the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, Riskin and Stav “are the rabbinate” in Efrat and Shoham.

That is just one example of the complicated relationship between the Giyur Kahalacha rabbis and the rabbinate. Indeed, Ish-Shalom said that the rabbis want to “get to 500 converts by Shavuot,” but toned down the pioneering aspect of the project, saying that at its core, the group has “come, not in place of the state authorities, but to help the state authorities complete their jobs.”

Who stands where on the marriage issue of the new converts

The idea of regional rabbis taking the next step and officially recognizing their converts’ Jewishness for marriage is viewed differently among the Giyur Kahalacha rabbis.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, right, welcomes students arriving from Uganda who will spend time at his Efrat yeshiva, January 3, 2012. Photo by Gershon Elinson/Flash90)
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, right, welcomes students arriving from Uganda on January 3, 2012. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

In an early morning phone call from New York last week, Efrat’s Chief Rabbi Riskin pondered the question of whether he could officially perform the weddings of his converts.

He said, since he was already granted the authority to marry and register individuals by the chief rabbinate as the result of a special examination, he probably could.

“Part of the process [of registering a couple] requires determining if the couple is Jewish. I have the right to make this determination,” said Riskin, who added that until about 13 years ago, he also had the rabbinate’s authority to perform conversions as a local rabbi.

‘Part of the process [of registering a couple] requires determining if the couple is Jewish. I have the right to make this determination’

For Riskin, perhaps even more than for the other rabbis involved, the issue of helping the immigrants from the former Soviet Union is extremely close to his heart. A leading social activist for the freedom of the Prisoners of Zion while he was living in New York in the 1970s, Riskin has tried to make the fight for the FSU immigrants’ Jewish status in Israel a cause celebre.

“We fought valiantly to bring close to one million Jews from the FSU,” said Riskin. At the same time, he said, among them are almost half a million — including children born since immigration — who are eligible for immigration as paternal Jews, or under the Law of Return (which requires one Jewish grandparent).

“There are many great halachic authorities who maintain that if you are paternally Jewish, you are not a gentile and that formal conversion should be expedited,” said Riskin. He added that in immigrating to Israel, there is little doubt that their children will be raised and remain Jewish.

‘There are many great halachic authorities who maintain that if you are paternally Jewish, you are not a gentile and that formal conversion should be expedited’

The focus of Giyur Kahalacha is on FSU immigrants and their children. But when asked by The Times of Israel, Riskin said he would include in this model of expedited conversions Reform and Conservative Jews who were raised Jewish and made aliyah to Israel, but are not considered halachic Jews by the chief rabbinate.

If the Giyur Kahalacha initiative succeeds in obtaining state recognition, that may be good news for many Diaspora immigrants who come from a Liberal Jewish background and are “observant enough” for these rabbis, who unlike the chief rabbinate don’t have an expectation of full halachic observance for their converts.

The rabbis are well aware that today, for this group of Jews, the issue of marriage in Israel is laden with such angst and bureaucratic unpleasantness that it often leads to a severing of any budding interest in religious observance.

A ‘game changer’ for Diaspora Jews in Israel

Currently in Israel there is a trend among many liberal-minded Orthodox couples to bypass the rabbinate and marry in illegal, unauthorized wedding ceremonies.

Shoham’s Stav, also the head of the Modern Orthodox Tzohar rabbinical organization whose rabbis officiate at a large percentage of secular Israelis’ weddings, is firmly against such practices.

Rabbi David Stav, June 20, 2013. (photo credit: Flash 90)
Rabbi David Stav, June 20, 2013. (photo credit: Flash 90)

“I am a citizen who observes the law,” said Stav, who added that he “would do everything that the law allows me to do.”

On the question of marriage between two of the Giyur Kahalacha converts, one knowledgeable religious rights activist told The Times of Israel that it would likely not be illegal to perform the wedding because neither would be recognized as Jewish by the rabbinate, and therefore not eligible for a state marriage.

For Stav, although he told The Times of Israel last week that it has been discussed among the rabbis, the question of marriage for the Giyur Kahalacha converts is not yet relevant. Most of the children who have been converted are not of marriageable age, he said.

Additionally, Stav said, it is not clear whether the state would accept such a marriage, or whether it would be legal to perform one.

What is clear, he said, is that since the establishment of the independent courts, there has been progress on two levels: The rabbis are organizing themselves, and candidates are increasingly seeking out their services for this new conversion option.

“In the rabbinic courts, they haven’t converted in the past ten years the number we’ve done in two months,” said Stav. “We believe that within the next couple of months there will be 1,000 converts for the first year.” And in the next five years, the group hopes to double the rate.

‘The American people have to realize that what we are dealing with is a game changer in Israel’

Stav flew to the US last week to explain the Giyur Kahalacha initiative and garner support for it.

“I want to emphasize that the American people have to realize that what we are dealing with is a game-changer in Israel,” he told The Times of Israel. “Suppose, with God’s help, we bring a change in this area — we’ll be able to bring a tremendous change in… the approach of the religious establishment to people who are not exactly like they are.”

‘I don’t just want to live as a Jew, I want to be one’

So far, all of the Giyur Kahalacha converts have tried to convert through the state rabbinate.

‘My whole life I felt Jewish. I always felt a deep connection with Judaism and I prayed for the moment I could pray and hear a shofar in the Holy Land’

One convert from Kazakstan, like many FSU immigrants, didn’t succeed in proving her Jewishness because all of the documents had been burned in World War II. “My whole life I felt Jewish. I always felt a deep connection with Judaism and I prayed for the moment I could pray and hear a shofar in the Holy Land,” she said.

Another Giyur Kahalacha convert had already lived in Israel with her husband for the past 14 years. “I don’t just want to live as a Jew, I want to be one. To live as a part of the People of Israel and raise my children with Torah values,” she said.

American immigrant to Israel Rabbi Seth Farber is no stranger to stories such as these. The trials and tribulations of immigrants and other Israelis in navigating the rabbinate’s bureaucracy is one of the reasons why he founded the nonprofit Itim in 2002. He said the organization helps some 4,000 couples a year who are “just stuck.”

A free service, Itim is called upon during life cycle events and works to untangle halachic knots and come up with a positive solution for all sides. Its website, available in Hebrew, Russian and English, proclaims, “When you feel lost within the religious establishment, we’re there for you.”

In many respects, Farber has been the Wizard of Oz-like man behind the curtain for Modern Orthodox religious rights activists. Now he is very deliberately trying to raise awareness of the need for the independent halachic courts.

In a conversation ahead of a panel discussion at the American Jewish Committee last week, Farber said the Giyur Kahalacha movement is “a rebellion from within.”

“I think the whole Giyur Kahalacha movement really highlights the complete failure of the rabbinate to recognize a modern Israel,” he said. It’s been 20 years since the massive FSU aliyah, but, he said, there’s “a greater sense in the last 10 years of the rabbinate putting their heads in the sand.”

“This is the first time that we have Orthodox rabbis going head to head with the rabbinate in a real confrontation,” he said. “The moment you have performed an independent conversion, you have crossed the rubicon of recognizing that the rabbinate has failed.”

There have been seeds of rebellion for some time, he acknowledged, including the illegal halachic weddings. “The number of Orthodox who choose not to marry through the rabbinate is in the dozens, maybe a hundred a year,” he said.

“The personal status issue is the pivot, the hinge. This is really a game changer in many respects,” he said.

For Farber, and for Riskin, “civil disobedience is something that’s in our blood,” said Farber, who was involved in rallying for the freedom of the Soviet Prisoners of Zion since he was five years old.

‘I’m devastated that we fought this incredible battle to bring them here, and slapped them in the face’

“I think the notion of being willing to fight for our brothers and sisters, in particular this population, is something that is motivating me. I’m devastated that we fought this incredible battle to bring them here, and slapped them in the face, proverbially,” he said.

On the question of what options will the Giyur Kahalacha converts have for marriage, Farber said there were several conversion candidates for the Giyur Kahalacha courts who are recognized as Jewish by the Ministry of the Interior, but cannot prove it to the rabbinate.

“Those people could in principle be married through the local rabbis,” he said, if they were satisfied of the candidates’ Jewishness. Today, however, even if you are registered as Jewish in the state’s population registry — “the rabbinate still wants to check you” and all candidates must go through a strict certification process.

The overwhelming majority of the Giyur Kahalacha candidates, however, are not recognized as Jewish by the Interior Ministry, so Farber foresees a series of battles in the Supreme Court in the future.

Getting the population registry to acknowledge the converts as Jewish is “on the business plan for the spring,” said Farber, and he has little doubt that an eventual Supreme Court case will evolve — one that he is almost certain he will win based on the fact that in 2002, the Israeli Reform and Conservative movements won the right to register their members who converted in Israel under their formal auspices as Jewish. (They are not, however, considered Jewish by the rabbinate.)

Head of Itim Rabbi Seth Farber and Supreme Court petitioner Martina Ragacova at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, June 30, 2015. (courtesy Itim)
Head of Itim Rabbi Seth Farber and Supreme Court petitioner Martina Ragacova at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, June 30, 2015. (courtesy Itim)

Farber, in his work at Itim, is already party to several Supreme Court cases, including one petition with two issues at stake: whether the Interior Ministry should recognize conversions in Israel completed through independent conversion courts outside of the state’s Conversion Authority, and whether those potential converts who were rejected by the rabbinate because they didn’t enter the country under the Law of Return may convert in an independent court in Israel and subsequently petition for citizenship.

In the meantime, in conversation with The Times of Israel, Farber said he would counsel rabbis such as Stav and Riskin to wait a while before officiating at the weddings of the independent conversion courts’ converts, suspecting the rabbinate would withdraw their licenses.

“One of two things is going to happen — either the rabbinate will capitulate and recognize the converts, or they will render themselves useless and have a massive Orthodox rebellion,” said Farber.

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