April 7, 2005
High Court Recognizes ‘Leaping Converts’
After 22 years of living as an Israeli, Justina Hilaria Chipana can finally consider herself a full-fledged member of the Jewish state.
The 50-year-old native of Peru was one of 17 petitioners who won High Court of Justice recognition of their non-Orthodox conversions to Judaism on Thursday, in what the Conservative and Reform movements hailed as a breakthrough for efforts to introduce more religious pluralism to Israel.
Orthodox rabbis and politicians disagreed.
By a vote of 7-4, the High Court ordered the state to recognize "leaping converts" -- so called because they study in Israeli institutes but then convert with Reform or Conservative rabbis abroad -- as eligible to immigrate under the Law of Return.
The ruling was a small step in a decades-long controversy in Israel over who is a Jew, who can turn a non-Jew into a Jew and who can decide whether that process was done correctly.
Thursday's ruling also broadened a 1989 decision recognizing immigrants who arrive having gone through the entire non-Orthodox conversion process abroad; those immigrants are considered to be Jews and the Law of Return applies to them.
But the ruling did not endorse Reform and Conservative conversions performed in Israel, a move that effectively would end Orthodoxy's de facto hegemony in the Jewish state and could stir up a government crisis.
In response to a demand presented by the ultra-Orthodox Shas party and signed by 25 legislators, the Knesset will meet in special session next week to debate the court decision.
Shas Chairman Eli Yishai called the ruling an "explosives belt that has brought about a suicide attack against the Jewish people," according to Ha'aretz.
The Orthodox Rabbinate, which controls the observance of life-cycle events in Israel -- including births, weddings and funerals -- also cried foul.
"There aren't two movements or three movements in Judaism. There is only one Judaism," Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar told Israel Radio. "Whoever doesn't go through a halachic conversion is not a Jew."
Yet with many Israelis increasingly concerned about the lack of a unifying religious identity in the country -- where some 300,000 citizens are non-Jews from the former Soviet Union -- the Conservative and Reform movement remained confident that their more lenient conversions would provide a solution.
"We believe that with this precedent, it is just a matter of time until alternatives to Orthodox Judaism are fully recognized," said attorney Sharon Tal of the Israel Religious Action Center, a pro-pluralism lobby associated with the Reform movement. "It could mean filing more High Court petitions, or just waiting for Israel to come to its senses."
The Jerusalem Post reported that the Reform movement was unsatisfied that the court didn't issue a more far-reaching decision, and plans to bring another petition in hopes of forcing the state to recognize Reform conversions performed in Israel.
The only way for the Orthodox to counter Thursday's ruling would be to have a new law passed defining their stream as the only legitimate form of Judaism in Israel. But repeated efforts to mount such legislation in the past failed to muster majorities for even preliminary Knesset readings.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon counts one Orthodox political party, United Torah Judaism (UTJ), in his coalition, and he has been courting Shas. Still, it seems unlikely that either party would be able to apply enough pressure on the government to push through motions against the High Court ruling.
"We have no coalition agreement regarding this," UTJ leader Rabbi Avraham Ravitz said. "I'm sure there will be discussions about what can be done, but I'm not especially hopeful."
The High Court ruling is immediately binding on the government. That's a relief for Chipana and her fellow petitioners, who filed their suit in 1999.
"We are going to implement the decision in a crystal-clear manner," Interior Minister Ophir Pines-Paz of the Labor Party told Army Radio. "I think that it provides an answer for many people who are living among us and are forced to go through a very tough journey, exhausting and tiring, that causes many to lose hope."
In the United States, reaction to the decision broke along denominational lines.
"As a Conservative rabbi, I am of course delighted that the High Court in Israel has mandated the recognition of conversions performed by Conservative rabbis in America," said Rabbi Joel Roth, a scholar of Jewish law and the former head of the Jewish Theological Seminary's Law Committee.
"I'm very much aware that some segments of the Jewish world will continue to refuse to accept as valid conversions performed by Conservative and Reform rabbis, and the court's decision will create problems in those communities," he said. "I accept as valid any conversion that complies with halachic requirements, and conversions that do not, I do not accept."
The Orthodox Union, on the other hand, said it is "deeply concerned" by the ruling.
"The decision of the court may eventually lead to the division of the people of Israel into two camps. There will be a group of halachically valid Jews and a group of people who are Jewish only by the ruling of the Supreme Court," the union said in a news release signed by its president, Stephen Savitsky, and executive vice president, Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb. "The consequences of this ruling will be tragic."
For the petitioners, however, the ruling was a long-overdue relief.
"I always dreamed of really belonging to the country," said Chipana, who first came to Israel in 1983. In 1993 she converted at a Reform congregation in Argentina, and filed the lawsuit in 1999. "Now perhaps it can really happen."
But should she want to marry to her Israeli-born boyfriend, Yosef Ben-Moshe, she will have to go on waiting or do it abroad: The chief rabbinate in Israel remains exclusively Orthodox, and its grip on life-cycle events remains unchallenged.
That's the way the UTJ's Ravitz wants it. Asked what will happen if "leaping converts" apply for marriage licenses in Israel, he said, "I imagine they will be told to take a flying leap."
Sallai Meridor, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, sees the question of Orthodox control as a larger problem than the one the High Court addressed.
"The entire acrobatic phenomenon in which people are forced to marry or convert abroad does no honor to Judaism or the State of Israel," he said.
JTA Staff Writer Joanne Palmer in New York contributed to this story.