Aliyah Magazine has learnt of new developments concerning the question of recognizing Reform Judaism conversions for Aliyah purposes. First, we reprint a letter sent from IRAC to its members, over a year ago, there follows a June 2012 update:
As you probably know, over the years, the Reform and Conservative Movements have won important legal battles in Israel’s Supreme Court regarding the recognition of our conversions by the State of Israel. The last major judgment in our favor was in 2005, when the Supreme Court reiterated that the State of Israel must recognize non-Orthodox conversions performed overseas, even if the study leading up to the conversion did not take place within the framework of the converting congregation. This allowed courts to approve, for the first time, conversions performed overseas after study within the framework of the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel.
However, the Supreme Court also ruled that the Interior Ministry of Israel had the right (and responsibility) to determine that the conversion process was not abused solely in order to obtain Israeli citizenship.
It should be understood that conversion by non-Israeli citizens is the only way in which a person who was not born a Jew (or the child of a Jew, the grandchild of a Jew or the spouse of one of the former) can receive automatic citizenship in Israel. Israel does not allow naturalization by virtue of residence (unless the resident is married to/in a de-facto relationship with an Israeli citizen). Even if a non-Jew is the spouse/partner of an Israeli, the naturalization process is long and arduous. So conversion, which is recognized under the Law of Return, can be seen as the gateway to the receipt of Israeli citizenship. Because of this fact, the Interior Ministry is constantly suspicious that converts who have converted a short time before requesting Aliyah status are in fact not “true” converts, but rather are abusing the religious process for the purpose of obtaining citizenship.
As a result, the Interior Ministry has become very strict in its demands on converts who apply for Aliyah status. Although the Ministry cannot interfere with the autonomy of the congregations regarding the conversion process, it can and does demand information about the convert’s actions before and after the conversion, in order to determine whether or not the motivation was “genuine”.
The purpose of this letter, therefore, is to provide practical information both to those who are performing conversions and to the converts themselves. The information and suggestions below are in no way an attempt to undermine each and every rabbi’s prerogative regarding potential converts and conversion programs but rather aim to make the Aliyah process for converts as smooth and as easy as possible.
Jerusalem, י”ח אדר, תש”ע 4 March 2010 The motivation behind the conversion:
It is clear that the Bet Din verifies the motivation of the convert. Whilst living in the Diaspora, the motivating factors behind conversion would usually be purely religious or for family reasons (non-Jew marrying Jew). However, it is important to check whether the convert intends to live in Israel, in which case, there needs to be an awareness of the extra motivating factor of receiving civil status in Israel. This extra motivating factor is viewed as invalid by the Israeli authorities. Thus, when you are approached by a convert who plans on making Aliyah after the conversion, we would recommend that you are aware of the current policies of the Interior Ministry regarding overseas conversions when deciding on the conversion process. It is vital to ask the convert whether or not he or she has lived in Israel previously, and if so, with or without a visa. In the latter case the Interior Ministry will be even more suspicious of improper motivation.
Participation in the congregation: As mentioned above, the Supreme Court ruled that a convert does not need to study in the same congregation in which the conversion takes place. However, the Interior Ministry demands written proof that the convert participated in congregational activities (Shabbat and festival services at least) for a serious period of time both before and after the conversion. It is expected that, if the convert doesn’t move to another location, s/he continue to be active in the converting congregation after the conversion. If the convert moves to Israel soon after the conversion, participation in a congregation in Israel definitely receives great weight. In all cases, the congregation will be asked to provide a detailed letter explaining the level of the convert’s involvement in the congregation.
Period of Study before the conversion: We insist that all congregations are autonomous in this regard and that the State of Israel must honor conversion practices in each congregation. However, a short period of study, with no explanation, and entrance into Israel shortly afterwards, is seen by the Interior Ministry as a potential abuse of the system in order to achieve status. We would suggest that, if the convert is considering making Aliyah following a conversion process where the period of study was relatively short and did not encompass the Jewish yearly cycle, that the Bet Din records its reasons (previous knowledge of Judaism etc).
Converts who have studied in Israel prior to converting overseas: As mentioned, the Supreme Court has recognized the validity of studying in Israel and finalizing the conversion overseas. However, the Reform and Conservative Movements in Israel have undertaken not to support this practice in the vast majority of cases, while we fight for recognition of conversions performed in Israel. Thus, if a person approaches your congregation and states that s/he has studied in Israel previously, please contact us, so that we can make sure that we are aware of the case and can advise accordingly.
Location to serve Aliyah request: Although in theory, one can request Aliyah status both in the country of origin and in Israel, the processing period usually varies between six months and a year and is sometimes longer. If in Israel, the convert is forced to remain with a tourist visa, with no rights to work or to receive health insurance. Also, if the convert waits for one year after the conversion in the country of origin, even though there is no legal requirement for this waiting period, the Jewish Agency has the authority to process the request, which may in the end be an easier and quicker process than working with the Interior Ministry.
(a) Conversion certificate – please ensure that the names (and positions if relevant) of the members of the Bet Din are clearly registered.
(b) Affidavit signed in the presence of a notary public or the Israeli consul, by the converting Rabbi – if the converting Rabbi was actively involved in the study process and can give witness as to the study process and procedure, and the convert’s participation in the congregation. The declaration must include a summary of the subjects studied, the period of study, connection with the congregation and any other information that the Rabbi can give about the motivation of the candidate, etc. If the Bet Din is a regional one, then there needs to be an additional declaration by one of the Rabbis who signed the conversion certificate.
(c) Affidavit signed in the presence of a notary public or the Israeli consul by the convert, giving details about the personal reasons leading up to the conversion, the conversion process, membership in the congregation (or other congregations)
(d) A document from the congregation attesting to the convert’s membership (including dates etc), with contact details of the congregation. All additional information about the convert is always helpful.
June 2012 Update
The Israel Religious Action Center, in consultation with the Bet Din of the Israel Council of Progressive Rabbis (MARAM), helps Reform and Conservative converts from around the world receive Aliyah status under the Law of Return on the basis of their conversion to Judaism.
Our involvement includes legal action and representation, and also procuring statements from MARAM’s Bet Din, which is recognized by the Interior Ministry for this purpose, declaring that the converting rabbi and congregation are recognized members of the Reform Movement around the world, and that their conversions should be recognized for the purpose of the Law of Return.
Recently we have had difficulty in supporting some of the conversions performed overseas, because of practices that are deemed unacceptable in Israel. For example:
a. The conversion was performed by a single rabbi, with no Bet Din;
b. The convert’s wife was one of the witnesses signed on the conversion certificate;
c. The conversion was performed for a spouse, when neither his partner nor children converted with him.
d. The conversion procedure was very short, with no continued involvement in the Jewish community following the conversion.
e. The study program took place over the internet.
f. The conversion was completed without “mila” or “tevila”.
Not only do these situations put the converts in a problematic situation, because they believed that their conversion was valid and acceptable but they received a negative response when they wished to make Aliyah. Furthermore, they gave the Interior Ministry grounds to claim that Reform conversions are not serious and justification for seeking to check the process, something that we have successfully fought until now.
We would please ask you to take extra precautions if a prospective convert is considering making Aliyah following conversion.
Please contact – firstname.lastname@example.org – for any questions you may have regarding this issue.