Comment: My battle for the converts will run as long as there is discrimination

By Seth Farber, December 10, 2009
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I founded ITIM seven years ago to help secular Israelis navigate the labyrinths of the Israeli rabbinate and rabbinical courts. Though I had heard some horror stories about the chief rabbinate, I was determined, as an Orthodox rabbi, to work within the establishment, primarily in order to maximise my effectiveness helping secular families celebrate (or mourn) within the context of their Jewish lives.

During the past seven years, ITIM has developed joint projects with the rabbinate related to brit milah, marriage, divorce and burial.

So, it is with a heavy heart that ITIM finds itself at the centre of a controversy related to the recognition of Orthodox conversions, which may turn into a Supreme Court case against the Chief Rabbinate.

In Israel, in order to marry, couples have to register with the local rabbinate. During the past six months, at least five marriage registrars have refused to register converts who converted through an IDF scheme, which is sponsored by the Chief Rabbinate. Since 2005, the army has been converting approximately 600 soldiers a year.

Three weeks ago, a couple appeared in the Ashkelon rabbinate and asked to open a marriage file. The couple was sent to the rabbinical court, which certified the conversion and wrote explicitly that the convert in question was observant. Nonetheless, the Ashkelon rabbinate refused to register them.

Now, I respect the personal right of any rabbi to challenge the authenticity of another rabbi’s conversions. However, it seems highly immoral for a local rabbi registering marriages to draw a salary from a rabbinate whose authority he refuses to acknowledge.

Jewish tradition is exceptionally sensitive to the plight of converts and mistreatment of a convert is a biblical prohibition. The rabbi in Ashkelon has stated that he categorically will not register converts — even if they appear before him with additional certification from a rabbinical court.

No one would expect a rabbi who blatantly ignored other Torah prohibitions to maintain his office. And yet, when I initially turned to the Chief Rabbinate on this issue, the response was muted at best.

Two weeks ago, this issue was brought before the Knesset Immigration and Absorption Committee. During the hearing, I suggested that not every rabbi can unilaterally decide to accept or reject someone’s Jewishness.

The 11 MKs who supported my call for the Chief Rabbinate to discipline the rabbi from Ashkelon included rabbis and secularists alike, highlighting the fact that I am not trying to argue a halachic case, but simply a moral one.

Following the meeting, I began preparing for a lawsuit, both to allow the particular couple from Ashkelon to marry (their wedding is scheduled for January 14), but also to demand that conversions performed under the auspices of the Chief Rabbi be accepted automatically.

I do not enjoy being in this position, but the injustice is too great to bear.

This week, the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi wrote that should he determine that the rabbis in question refuse to register converts, he plans to appoint alternative registrars. Essentially, he has accepted the basic notion that his authority is being undermined by a set of extremists.

But will this protect Orthodox converts? And will there be guarantees that can allow legitimate converts to rest easy again, as they once did, before conversion annulment became part of the Jewish world’s lexicon? Honestly, I don’t know. And until I’m convinced, ITIM will continue to fight, even at the risk of being confrontational.

Rabbi Seth Farber is the founder and director of ITIM: the Jewish Life Information Centre (www.itim.org.il) and the rabbi of Kehillat Netivot in Raanana

    Last updated: 3:39pm, December 10 2009