Dozens of Orthodox rabbis back High Court ruling on non-Orthodox conversion

Letter expresses support for decision recognizing Reform, Conservative conversions for citizenship, cites democratic need for freedom of religion

Illustrative photo of a man wearing a kippa headcovering, June 07, 2020. (Mendy Hechtman/FLASH90)
Illustrative photo of a man wearing a kippa headcovering, June 07, 2020. (Mendy Hechtman/FLASH90)

Dozens of Orthodox rabbis and educators, members of a group that encourages Jewish pluralism, on Wednesday published a letter in support of a recent High Court of Justice ruling recognizing Reform and Conservative conversions to Judaism for the purposes of citizenship.

Among those who put their names to the letter were Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, activist Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz, Rabba Dr. Carmella Abraham, and Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopez Cardozo.

“We share the broad Zionist commitment to Israel as both a Jewish and a democratic state,” the letter said. “This decision strengthens the democratic character of the state by treating all Jewish denominations as equal in this particular matter.”

The letter came followed the court ruling earlier this month that people who convert to Judaism in Israel through the Reform and Conservative movements must be recognized as Jews for the purpose of the Law of Return, and are thus entitled to Israeli citizenship.

In this Nov. 2, 2016 photo, the heads of the Jewish Reform and Conservative movements carry Torah scrolls as they march to the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray, in Jerusalem’s Old City (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner, File)

The ruling has been rejected by the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties, which have said they would only join a coalition, after the upcoming elections, that will overturn the ruling via legislation.

In the days that followed the ruling, ultra-Orthodox parties published election campaign videos that drew condemnation for mocking non-Orthodox conversion. An ultra-Orthodox lawmaker was also forced to apologize after criticizing a conversion program run by the IDF for soldiers.

“In a democracy, there should be freedom of religion and the right of all citizens to join a denomination or religion that they choose without suffering discrimination,” the rabbis wrote.

“We are deeply disappointed that some community, rabbinic and political leaders have reacted hostilely,” they wrote. “We condemn the words spoken vituperatively and degradingly about liberal Judaism and Reform and Conservative Jews. We urge everyone to turn from the way of religious coercion and suppression to accepting the spirit of democracy, extending equality and dignity for all.”

Those who signed the letter were all members of the liberal Orthodoxy Torat Chayim organization, though they stressed they were voicing individual opinions and not speaking on behalf of the US-based group.

On Tuesday Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who relies on support from the two ultra-Orthodox parties, called for preventing “fake conversions” to Judaism, appearing to suggest asylum seekers and migrant workers from Africa would “overrun” Israel by undergoing non-Orthodox conversions to gain citizenship.

Netanyahu did not comment directly on the recent ruling, but asserted that he was “very liberal” on conversions.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and then Health Minister Yaakov Litzman hold a press conference about the coronavirus, at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on March 8, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“I think we have to be very careful… about tampering with the Law of Return,” he said, referring to legislation allowing anyone who is Jewish or who has a Jewish parent or grandparent to immigrate to Israel.

The ruling only applies to conversions in Israel. A previous court decision forced the state to recognize non-Orthodox conversions abroad for purposes of immigration, but not those performed in the country.

Ultra-Orthodox leaders do not view the Reform movement as an authentic form of Judaism and do not recognize Reform rabbis.

Israel is holding its fourth election in two years on March 23. Netanyahu will need the support of both ultra-Orthodox parties in order to have a chance of forming a coalition.

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