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North American rabbis protest conversion policy

JTA

February 23, 2011 | 11:03 am

Dozens of North American Orthodox rabbis protested to Israel’s Interior Ministry following reports that converts under Orthodox auspices are being denied the right to immigrate.

“We are concerned that conversions performed under our auspices are being questioned vis-à-vis aliyah eligibility,” said a letter delivered to the ministry on Tuesday. “We find this unacceptable, and turn to you in an effort to insure that those individuals whom we convert will automatically be eligible for aliyah as they have been in the past.”

On Wednesday, a meeting was held in Jerusalem to discuss the issue. Participants included representatives of the Jewish Agency for Israel, Nefesh B’Nefesh, ITIM—The Jewish Life Information Center, the Jewish Federations of North America, Israel’s Interior Ministry and the chief rabbinate, according to Rabbi Seth Farber, ITIM’s director. Farber, a central figure in organizing the letter, told JTA that the Interior Ministry, led by the Sephardic Orthodox Shas Party Chairman Eli Yishai, did not agree during Wednesday’s meeting to retract its policy of consulting with the chief rabbinate on issues of Orthodox conversions, but did agree to consider each aliyah request by Orthodox converts on a case-by-case basis and to continue the discussion.

The Chief Rabbinate has become the defacto central body in determining the validity of Orthodox conversions, and it only recognizes about 20 religious courts in North America, mostly affiliated with the Rabbinical Council of America. Conservative and Reform converts are certified as Jewish by the central bodies of their respective movements.

In response to the letter, the plenary of the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors adopted a resolution brought by the Unity of the Jewish People Committee calling on the Israeli government to confirm the Jewish Agency’s role in determining the eligibility of new immigrants.

The resolution passed Tuesday on the last day of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors meeting in Jerusalem and was initiated by Chairman Natan Sharansky, who told the board that Israel’s chief rabbinate should not be involved in determining who can be allowed to immigrate to Israel.

“I want to separate the argument about conversion from the recognition of Judaism for the sake of citizenship-eligibility under the Law of Return,” Sharansky told Haaretz. “It’s so important that a person who undergoes conversion according to the tradition of his community and who the community accepts as a Jew be eligible to make aliyah under the Law of Return.”

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