Ethiopians unable to wed in Petah Tikva, where rabbis doubt their Jewishness
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Ethiopians unable to wed in Petah Tikva, where rabbis doubt their Jewishness

Ethiopian Israelis say local rabbinate mistrusts their conversions; report marks 2nd round of discrimination complaints in city

Tamar Pileggi is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Illustrative photo of an Ethiopian Jewish couple seen posing for a wedding photographer next to the Old City Walls in Jerusalem. (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of an Ethiopian Jewish couple seen posing for a wedding photographer next to the Old City Walls in Jerusalem. (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Ethiopian Israelis in the central city of Petah Tikva allege that they are regularly denied marriage licenses by the city’s rabbinate, where rabbis question their Jewishness.

Under the auspices of the city’s Sephardic Chief Rabbi Binyamin Atias, members of the city’s 10,000-strong Ethiopian community are routinely rejected by the local rabbinical authority when attempting to register for marriage, forcing them to turn elsewhere, Army Radio reported Monday.

Shega, an Ethiopian Israeli who was recently turned down by the rabbinate’s registrar, told the radio station that after submitting paperwork proving her conversion, the registrar asked her to produce assurances from a rabbi that she was a practicing Orthodox Jew, and investigated the couple’s backgrounds before ultimately telling them to register elsewhere.

Shega said at least 30 Ethiopian Israeli couples had been through similar experiences.

While Ethiopian Jewish immigrants from the Beta Israel community are recognized as fully Jewish and did not need to undergo conversion upon arriving in Israel, immigrants from Ethiopia belonging to the Falash Mura community, which converted from Judaism to Christianity in the 19th century, are required to undergo Orthodox conversion after immigrating.

In 2014, Ethiopian Israelis in Petah Tikva leveled similar complaints of discrimination against the city’s rabbinate and Attias.

At the time, the country’s Chief Rabbinate said its regulations stipulated that local rabbis provide services to all Jewish citizens, and said it would conduct a “thorough investigation” into the claims, promising to take action if discrimination was discovered.

In Israel, the only legal route for Jews to marry is through the rabbinate.

Rabbi Chuck Davidson is one of a handful of Orthodox clergy publicly performing unsanctioned halachic marriages. (courtesy)
Rabbi Chuck Davidson is one of a handful of Orthodox clergy publicly performing unsanctioned halachic marriages. (courtesy)

In response to Sunday’s report, Tzohar — an NGO dedicated to bridging gaps between Jews in Israel and offering a more liberal Orthodox alternative to the rabbinate — accused the city of ongoing discriminatory practices.

“We are shocked. No other words can describe the affront and embarrassment toward dozens of couples who simply want to register for marriage where they live,” the organization said in a statement noting the allegations of discrimination.

Tzohar said it was considering opening an office in Petah Tikva where Ethiopian-Israelis would be allowed to register, bypassing the local religious authority.

According to Rabbi Chuck Davidson, an independent activist working for conversion reform in Israel, discrimination by state-funded rabbinical authorities extends to most converts, not just Ethiopians.

“The situation in Petah Tikva is not uncommon,” he told The Times of Israel on Monday. “Many times local rabbinates don’t recognize their own conversions.”

Despite a High Court of Justice ruling from 2013 that banned municipal rabbis from demanding further proof of a convert’s Jewishness, Davidson said the reality is that many Jewish converts in Israel regularly face what he called an “inquisition” into their commitment to Orthodox Judaism.

He said the recent measures by Israel, the Rabbinical Council of America and other groups to standardize and centralize the conversion process has made it virtually impossible to undergo an Orthodox conversion that is universally recognized.

Ultimately, Davidson said it was “the most vulnerable Jews who suffer from this, because their entire identity rests in the hands of a single converting rabbi.”

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