Decision 'paves the way for thousands,' rabbi-activist says

In first, Israeli judge recognizes conversion to Judaism by private court

New ruling says becoming Jewish even outside auspices of state rabbinate entitles one to be recognized in population registry

Convert 'Katya' and her daughter sit before the independent Giyur K'halacha conversion court, led by Rabbi Nahum Rabinovitch (center) on August 10, 2015. (courtesy)
Convert 'Katya' and her daughter sit before the independent Giyur K'halacha conversion court, led by Rabbi Nahum Rabinovitch (center) on August 10, 2015. (courtesy)

In a groundbreaking decision, a court on Thursday ruled that someone who converted in Israel outside the auspices of the state rabbinate can be recognized as Jewish.

The woman named in the ruling was one of hundreds who converted to Judaism through the Giyur K’Halacha organization, which operates independently of the chief rabbinate. Until that organization opened, the rabbinate was the only body permitted to carry out conversions in Israel and only its converts were considered Jewish by law.

Judge Aaron Farkash of the Jerusalem District Court wrote in his decision: “Given that the individual went through a conversion, she should be registered as Jewish in the population registry.”

Rabbi Seth Farber, director of the ITIM group, which filed the lawsuit, welcomed the decision, saying that it “not only gives legitimacy and standing to the Giyur K’Halacha courts but also open the door to thousands of young families who wish to fully join the Jewish people and have rights in Israel like other Jews.”

He said that, though the private court was Orthodox, it did not insist that converts commit to fully observing Jewish law.

“The court’s decision paves the way for thousands who seek state recognition to turn to Giyur K’Halacha,” Farber added.

Rabbi Seth Farber, head of Itim organization in undated photo. (Itim)

The decision only relates to the woman’s legal status.  The conversion does not necessarily mean she would be recognized for purposes of Jewish status by the rabbinate, which overseas all life cycle events, including marriage, divorce and burial.

Thursday’s ruling follows a March 2016 decision by the High Court that non-Israelis who were converted in Israel by private Orthodox rabbinical courts outside of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate could seek Israeli citizenship.

In then-court president Miriam Naor’s decision, she wrote that, at least for secular civil purposes, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel cannot be the only recognized conversion body.

However, immediately following that landmark decision, the Orthodox parties in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition began renewed attempts at legislation and regulation of conversion through state auspices alone. The prime minister appointed former justice minister Moshe Nissim to head a committee to make recommendations on the issue, but after months of delay the committee was frozen.

In late August, due to the committee’s long delays, the State Attorney’s Office said it had no objection to the court ruling on whether the converts could be listed as Jewish.

Giyur K’halacha’s rabbinical courts, which follow the precepts of Jewish law, were founded by Farber along with many of Modern Orthodoxy’s biggest names — Efrat’s Rabbi Shlomo Riskin; Rabbi Nachum Rabinovitch from Ma’ale Adumim; Rabbi Haim Amsalem; Otniel’s Rabbi Re’em HaCohen; head of the Tzohar rabbinical movement Rabbi David Stav; and Prof. Benjamin Ish-Shalom, the founder of the Israel Defense Force’s Nativ conversion program, which now has an annual cohort of some 850 converts.

Yesh Atid MK Aliza Lavie at a joint Knesset and Constitution Committee meeting in the Knesset in Jerusalem, on July 16, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

MK Aliza Lavie (Yesh Atid) welcomed the ruling.

“This ruling was the unavoidable result of a longstanding reality in which the state completely abandoned the conversion system without providing any solution,” she said in a statement.

Lavie said that there are hundreds of thousands of people living in Israel who are descended from Jews and connected to Judaism but whose Jewish status is not recognized by the state.

“This is not only a matter of religious law,” she said. “This is a national social issue of the highest order, which impacts on the identity and future of our society and defines who we are.”

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