Old Synagogue in Tomar, Portugal
Old Synagogue in Tomar, PortugaliStock

Converts who are citizens of the State who underwent Orthodox conversion in independent religious Zionist rabbinic courts did not receive state approval to register as Jews in the population registry.

This despite Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked's past promises that these converts will be registered as Jews and the Conversion Law and Conversion Committee headed by Moshe Nissim will not deal with private Orthodox conversions.

This emerges from a recent response by the State to a petition filed by Itim, the Jewish Life Information Center, an organization that has a record of criticizing the Chief Rabbinate. The Itim petition sought to register a woman converting in the Giyur K'halakha (Halakhic/Jewish Law Conversion) independent conversion courts as a Jew in the population registry.

During the hearing, which was heard in the Jerusalem District Court in the matter of an Israeli resident's conversion, the State Attorney's Office sought on behalf of the Interior Ministry to postpone a legal decision. The petition alleges her conversion should not be recognized since the entire conversion issue, including for Israeli citizens, was discussed by the Conversion Committee headed by Moshe Nissim.

The Conversion Law came into the headlines last June, when Interior Minister Aryeh Deri brought it to the government to keep all conversion procedures in the country under Rabbinate control only - a move that led to great uproar and criticism.

In an attempt to reconcile liberal and conservative elements, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu proposed a committee headed by Moshe Nissim, a former Justice Minister, to discuss the situation of the converts and submit conclusions on the issue.

Conversion has always been in the hands of the Rabbinate, and Itim's independent court moves represent an attempt to change this. This is a direction to which mainstream religious Zionist rabbis are almost unanimously opposed.

Independent rabbinical court; Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, center.
Independent rabbinical court; Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, center.

Private conversion courts were created by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat and other rabbis. Controversial issues are involved, such as their converting Russian elementary school children both of whose parents were not Jewish. This is in Israel, while in the United States the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) has an agreement with the Israeli Rabbinate to have all private conversions vetted by a higher conversion court authorized by the Israeli Rabbinate.

Detractors of independent courts warn that once private courts become accepted, anyone might go to the Supreme Court and demand the right to open one of their own. Foreign workers could thereby convert for the purpose of staying in the country, to cite one example. "It's a pandora's box, but the Russian youngsters made Rabbi Riskin and Rabbis Stav and Rabinovitch feel it was imperative to have private courts," said an Israel commentator familiar with the issue.

Reconectar, the movement to reconnect with descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jewish communities who were forced to convert to Christianity during the Inquisition, also known as Bnei Anousim, last year welcomed Nissim's appointment to head a committee mandated with producing recommendations to solve Israel’s conversion issue.

Moshe Nissim
Moshe NissimFlash 90

Nissim is son of former Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rav Yitzhak Nissim (1955-72), who was extremely sympathetic to those Anousim who wanted to return to Judaism, writing many opinions on the subject. He contacted the head of the Aliyah Department at the Jewish Agency asking for their assistance to help those Anousim committed to Judaism to return.

Reconectar President and Director General of the Knesset Caucus for Reconnection with Descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jewish Communities Ashley Perry (Perez) said, “We hope he'll follow his father’s many rulings and include the Anousim return issue in his recommendations.” He added, “There are millions of Anousim, completely committed to Judaism, the Jewish People, and Israel, who seek official recognition. A recommendation to include them in future conversion guidelines could be a game-changing moment for the Jewish world.”

Main square (Praca da Republica) and town hall, in Tomar, Portugal
Main square (Praca da Republica) and town hall, in Tomar, PortugaliStock