Non-Orthodox Conversions Valid, Israeli Court Rules
Israel’s liberal Jewish movements Wednesday won a landmark court case in their long struggle for official recognition here but immediately braced for new battles in parliament.
A Jerusalem District Court judge ruled that 23 petitioners converted to Judaism by Reform rabbis, in Israel and abroad, are entitled to be registered as Jews by the Interior Ministry. The decision marked the first time that a court has recognized as valid the conversions performed in Israel by Reform or Conservative rabbis and not only by Orthodox rabbis.
The liberal movements, which claim relatively few adherents in Israel but represent the majority of American Jews, have been fighting to break a long-standing Orthodox monopoly over conversions and religious affairs in Israel. The sensitive issue has threatened to create a rift between Israel and Diaspora Jewry.
Reform and Conservative leaders here hailed Wednesday’s ruling by Judge Vardi Zeiler, the president of the Jerusalem District Court, as a “historic” and “courageous” decision that recognizes the rights of their members to practice their own type of Judaism in the Jewish state.
The ruling “restores the lost honor of scores of converts and their families” whose cases have been pending before the courts for years, said Rabbi Uri Regev, who heads the Reform movement in Israel.
Leaders of the Orthodox establishment condemned the decision, however, and vowed to fight it on two fronts. They said they will appeal the ruling in court and renew their attempts to pass legislation that will guarantee their sole right to perform conversions in Israel.
The Orthodox authorities strongly oppose allowing any recognition of the liberal movements, which they view as deviations from true Judaism. The Orthodox adhere strictly to Jewish laws.
One of Israel’s two chief rabbis, Eliahu Bakshi-Doron, warned Wednesday: “Clearly, this ruling . . . means that there will be assimilation in the state of Israel, just as the Reform and Conservative [movements] caused the terrible assimilation in the United States.”
American Reform and Conservative rabbis rejoiced at news of the court’s decision, calling it a victory for religious pluralism in a country where matters of personal status--from marriage to death--have traditionally been controlled by the Orthodox rabbinate.
“All non-Orthodox Jews throughout the world have been waiting for this day,” said Rabbi Lawrence Goldmark, a Reform rabbi in La Mirada and president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, which represents leaders from all branches of Judaism.
“This will possibly break down the all-or-nothing approach that is quite prevalent in Israel and give non-Orthodox approaches greater legitimacy,” Goldmark added. “It opens a tremendous door.”
Goldmark and other local rabbis noted the irony surrounding Wednesday’s decision: Those immigrants who have undergone Reform or Conservative conversions before they arrive in Israel are recognized as Jews inside the country because of the so-called Law of Return, while those converted by these movements inside Israel have not been recognized.
Orthodox leaders in Los Angeles ridiculed the ruling, warning that it will ultimately threaten Jewish unity by introducing lower standards for conversions and other practices.
“It’s one step in watering down Judaism and creating an atmosphere where anything goes,” said Mark Hess, vice president for the Western region of the Orthodox Union, which represents more than 1,000 synagogues in the United States. “In the long run, it means a tremendous hardship and challenge to the Jewish people to keep Judaism alive.”
Israeli Interior Minister Eli Suissa, a member of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, said he will appeal Wednesday’s decision to the Supreme Court. Hanan Porat, a lawmaker from the National Religious Party, termed it a “judicial hijacking” because the Supreme Court is scheduled to take up the issue in February.
Porat, the chairman of the Constitutional Law Committee in parliament, also said he will try to bring a pending conversion bill, which has already passed the first of three required readings, back before lawmakers as early as next week. The bill would enshrine in law the status quo, allowing the Orthodox to keep their exclusive power to perform conversions.
Representatives of the Conservative and Reform movements said they fear that the controversial bill could pass now, as various political parties jockey for position before early general elections are held in mid-May.
“We are afraid that with all the uncertainty, and the fact that nobody is really concerned about Diaspora Jewry at the moment, that the religious parties will take advantage of the situation and pass this bill,” said Rabbi Ehud Bandel, a leader of the Conservative movement.
But he and others also took a moment Wednesday to savor a rare victory, which followed a defeat on a related issue just two days before. On Monday, parliament passed the first reading of a bill that would prevent Reform and Conservative representatives from being seated on local religious councils, which oversee some religious services.
Regev said Wednesday’s ruling, if upheld, had ramifications far beyond its significance to the individual petitioners, all of whom live in Israel. “This opens a window of hope and opportunity for many new immigrants, who will now be able to have an entryway into the Jewish fold that is tolerant and inclusive,” he said.
Times staff writer Duke Helfand in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
The chasm between Orthodox and Reform Jews in Israel is explored in depth in a special report, Israel at 50: The Battles for Soil and Soul, on The Times’ Web site. Go to: