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Threat of suit pressures Rabbinate to reopen conversion annulment issue
By Cnaan Liphshiz
A local nonprofit assisting Jewish converts is for the first time planning to take the Chief Rabbinate of Israel to court for not preventing the retroactive annulment of conversions, Anglo File has learned. The organization's founder asserts "back room" talks convinced him such outside pressure would give rabbinate leaders the impetus to address the issue on its own.
"We've cooperated with the rabbinate for years, building a dialogue and trust with them, but the situation cannot be allowed to go on," said Rabbi Seth Farber, the U.S.-born founder of the Jerusalem-based assistance organization ITIM, which is preparing a petition to the High Court of Justice against the rabbinate.
Numerous Jews over the past years whose conversions had already been approved by the rabbinate, have encountered officials - primarily municipal rabbis and rabbinical judges - denying their religious status, asserts Farber. In the petition's draft, Farber asks the court to order the rabbinate to ensure that all of its employees and representatives fulfill their duties, namely recognizing all Jews with rabbinate-approved conversions as such.
Sources inside the rabbinate said the outside interference called for by the petition could be "harmful" and said they would "address internally and possibly change" the treatment of converts as early as next week.
Farber, who moved to Israel in 1995 from New York and founded ITIM in 2002 said he would go ahead with the petition unless "the current reality changes." ITIM has a staff of 11 people and assists people in dealing with Israel's religious institutions. "I will do so with a heavy heart, but if we don't stop this now, the ramifications could be far worse."
The decision to litigate came after Farber "saw that the rabbinate would just not confront the rabbis and rabbinical judges who refuse to recognize converts," he said, explaining that when ITIM complains to the chief rabbinate, the chief rabbinate refers ITIM "right back to the rabbi in question - to work it out with him."
This week, Farber sent to Israel's respective Sephardic and Ashkenazi Chief Rabbis, Shlomo Amar and Yona Metzger, a letter detailing the basis for the planned petition. In the letter he recounts recent cases where officials retroactively nullified conversions or refused to process marriage requests for converts.
In the letter - which Farber calls a "last plea for action" to avert litigation - he asks what the rabbinate intends to do regarding the actions of Rishon Letzion's chief rabbi, Yehuda David Wolpe, who last summer ruled that four converted couples could not be wed because they were not really Jewish. So far, the rabbinate has not answered his letter.
Hod Hasharon's chief Ashkenazi rabbi, Reuven Hiller, speaks of "a rift within the chief rabbinate" between "National-Orthodox pragmatists," who seek to facilitate the integration of Israel's 300,000 non-Jewish Russian-speaking immigrants into its Jewish population, and ultra-Orthodox, Haredi ideologues. Hiller does not support getting the High Court of Justice involved, because he believes it has "no jurisdiction over Halakhic issues" and is therefore legally futile at best and antagonistic at worst.
Still, he says the petition could be "an effective tactical move which will give the rabbinate's leadership an excuse to clean the stables and lay down the law." Such a solution, however, will be short-lived, he says, because "there is a strong radical contingent that will eventually find ways of making its presence in the rabbinate felt."
Hiller says the "strategic solution" is to bypass the "radical contingent" with Tzohar, a nonprofit of hundreds of volunteer rabbis working to "bridge the gap between religious and secular Jews," as the organization's mission statement says.
"Over the past year, we have set up a network of municipal rabbis who are sympathetic to our cause and can be trusted to fairly process all applicants - converts or not," said Rabbi David Stav, Tzohar's chairman and Shoham's chief rabbi. "In so doing we hope to insulate converts from rabbis who aim to obstruct their path."
Stav and other key figures in the field do not expect conversion-nullifying rabbis to be punished, an idea raised in a recent Knesset discussion. A senior adviser to Sephardi Chief Rabbi Amar said: "If the rabbis who nullify conversions thought for one minute they might get fired for it, then they would not be nullifying conversions."
Amar's advisor also said that "there are other internal means and devices to pressure radical rabbis, who for political reasons decided they needed to show their congregations that they were 'more Catholic than the Pope' by reversing conversions sanctioned by Rabbi Amar and Rabbi Metzger."
The advisor said some of the rabbis in question - including Wolpe of Rishon Letzion and Ashkelon's chief rabbi, Yosef Haim Bloi - will on Monday be called in to explain their decisions to the Supreme Rabbinical Council, presided by the two chief rabbis of Israel and over a dozen city rabbis. "This meeting could change that which needs changing," said the advisor.
He noted that Amar is considering appointing rabbis to oversee and approve the decisions of "problematic" municipal rabbis. "This is a sort of death blow to any municipal rabbi. They fear it like the plague," added the adviser.
Queried by Anglo File for a comment on Farber's intention to petition the High Court of Justice, a spokesperson for the rabbinate said: "The treatment of converts will be discussed on Monday, at a discussion which will yield practical steps - including revoking the authority of rabbis who have misused it."