Fears in diaspora as Israel rejects convert

By Anshel Pfeffer, March 3, 2011

The Israeli Chief Rabbinate is trying to impose its stringent conversion rules on Orthodox organisations outside Israel.

Interior Minister Eli Yishai recently denied citizenship to a Canadian convert on the grounds that the Chief Rabbi, Sholmo Amar, does not recognise the authority of the rabbi who converted him in Canada.

The case of Thomas Dohlan, a former Canadian Air Force soldier who retired from service to pursue his dream of an observant Jewish life in Israel, has brought to the fore the issue of independence of Orthodox religious courts around the world.

While in Israel, the Chief Rabbinate and most of the conversion courts are controlled by rabbis aligned with the Shas party or the "Lithuanian" strictly-Orthodox stream, in other parts of the world, especially North America, more liberal-minded "modern Orthodox" rabbis and organisations are also active in conversion.

Mr Dohlan, who is married to an Israeli, was converted by rabbis of the International Rabbinical Fellowship, a forum of rabbis in North America dedicated to "inclusive" modern Orthodoxy.

The organisation is opposed to the mainstream Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) that three years ago agreed to abide by the guidelines set out by Rabbi Amar when conducting conversions. Rabbi Amar also has the power to veto the authority of individual rabbis within the RCA to perform conversions.

Mr Dohlan's request to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return was refused on unclear grounds but sources within the Interior Ministry have confirmed that the decision was made after consultations with Rabbi Amar.

By law, the Interior Ministry is required to grant citizenship to any candidate who has been converted by a recognised Jewish organisation or community, including those of the Reform or Liberal movements, but this issue is about power struggles within the Orthodox establishment.

A group of American and Canadian rabbis sent a letter to Mr Yishai calling upon him to "amend the wrong being done to our converts, to ourselves and to the entire Jewish people". A ministry spokesman said that "we are currently re-examining the decision".

Last updated: 2:20pm, March 3 2011