Israels high court opens door to non-Orthodox conversion

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JERUSALEM — In a landmark ruling, Israel's Supreme Court has opened the door for recognizing Reform and Conservative conversions performed in Israel.

In a 6-1 decision this past Sunday, the court ruled that a person who asks the Interior Ministry to be listed in a civil population registry as a Jew does not require approval from the chief rabbinate, which only recognizes Orthodox conversions in Israel.

However, the court did not explicitly recognize Reform conversions, saying that it would be up to the Knesset to pass the appropriate legislation.

Passage of such legislation, leaders of the Reform movement said, would be difficult given the expected opposition by members of the religious parties.

Nonetheless, leaders of the Reform movement hailed the ruling as historic — while Orthodox groups rejected it."There is no way now that anyone will be able to block the recognition of Reform and Conservative conversions in Israel," Uri Regev, head of the Reform movement's Israel Religious Action Center in Israel, told Israel Radio.

Israel's Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau rejected the decision, saying that the Orthodox establishment would never accept what he called "the fiction of Reform conversions."

The court's decision was described as a "devastating blow to the Jewishness of the `Jewish state'" by Agudath Israel of America, which represents fervently Orthodox Jews. "By enabling the recognition of conversions in Israel by Reform rabbis, the Supreme Court ruling represents a giant step forward toward the ultimate import to the Holy Land of the `religious pluralism' syndrome which has wreaked havoc in the United States," Agudah's president, Rabbi Moshe Sherer, said. The organization's international body, Agudath Israel World Organization, recently launched a campaign aimed at combating efforts by liberal Jewish groups to attain religious pluralism in Israel.

The Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative movements are all attempting to erode the Orthodox monopoly on religious affairs in Israel as well as Orthodox control over personal-status issues such as marriage, divorce and burial.

The Supreme Court's decision came as a result of a petition brought by Hava Goldstein, a Brazilian immigrant who underwent a Reform conversion after marrying an Israeli. The Interior Ministry refused her request to register her as a Jew, citing an ordinance that requires anyone who wishes to be registered as a Jew to first receive approval from the rabbinate.

The high court ruled that the ministry's reason for refusing Goldstein's request was invalid, because the ordinance applies only to matters of personal status, such as marriage and divorce.

It does not apply to civil issues, such as how a person is listed in the population registry, the court said.

Former court president Meir Shamgar wrote in his majority opinion: "It is possible that a man could be considered Jewish for the sake of one law, but not be considered Jewish for the sake of another law."

He added that the court was asked to consider only whether the state's reason for rejecting the request was wrong, not whether Reform conversions are valid.

Therefore, Shamgar wrote, the court could not state that a Reform conversion enabled Goldstein to be registered as a Jew.