U.S. Orthodox convert denied Israel marriage by chief rabbi

JERUSALEM — The latest recruit in the battle over Israeli recognition of non-Orthodox converts hails from the most unlikely place — Louisiana.

An American man who underwent an Orthodox conversion in Metairie, La., was denied an official marriage in Israel a week ago on the grounds that his conversion may not have been legitimate and that the Orthodox rabbi who converted him in Louisiana is not recognized in Israel.

The incident comes amid the struggle by the Reform and Conservative movements to obtain recognition for their conversions performed in Israel and the Orthodox establishment's push to strengthen its monopoly over religious life in the Jewish state.

Moreover, the case of Avraham Elhiany appears to lend credence to Reform and Conservative leaders' claims that the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate's control over Jewish lifecycle events affects all Jews, including those who do not wish to live in Israel.

When the Chief Rabbinate refused to provide an Orthodox rabbi to officiate at their wedding, Elhiany and Ilana Ohana turned to the Reform movement just two days prior to the ceremony.

The difficulties encountered by this couple "demonstrate that even when someone has undergone an Orthodox conversion outside Israel, there is no guarantee that they will be recognized as Jewish by the rabbinate," said Rabbi Michael Boydon, chairman of the Israel Council of Progressive Rabbis.

Boydon, who married the couple on Aug. 24, said he is convinced that Elhiany had a proper Orthodox conversion.

"I have seen all the documents of conversion and circumcision," said Boydon. "The rabbinate has seen the same documents."

The saga of Elhiany and his Israeli wife began about a month ago.

The child of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, Elhiany, 29, was raised as a Jew and attended an Orthodox elementary school, although he was not officially converted until prior to his bar mitzvah.

The couple, who met in Louisiana — where the two plan to live — was married in a civil ceremony in the United States.

But they also scheduled a large Jewish wedding near Ohana's hometown of Ma'alot in northern Israel. The wedding was hastily arranged, they said, because Ohana's 36-year-old brother is very ill.

Problems began in late July when Ohana, 31, flew to Israel to complete the wedding arrangements.

She approached the local religious council in Ma'alot, which informed her that it needed at least a month to process a marriage license and find an appropriate rabbi.

Then Haifa Chief Rabbi She'ar Yeshuv Cohen became involved. He indicated the entire affair landed on his desk because Elhiany's documents "looked questionable to the rabbi in Ma'alot."

The conversion certificate," said Cohen, "was handwritten, not a formal document, and it had no official stamps."

The certificate was signed by Rabbi Lester Miller, the former rabbi of Metairie's Orthodox Congregation Beth Israel, and two other rabbis.

To verify Miller's credentials, Cohen said he contacted the office of Sephardi Chief Rabbi Eliahu Bakshi-Doron in Jerusalem, who reported that "the rabbi is not recognized in Israel."

A phone call of endorsement from Rabbi Yossi Nemes, director of the Chabad center in Metairie, where Elhiany is affiliated, did not help, according to the couple.

Cohen said that when his office suggested to Ohana that she postpone the wedding so her fiance could enroll in a conversion class, "she answered, `I don't need you, I'll go to a Reform rabbi,' and slammed the door."

Skeptical of the couple's motivations, he added, "When I asked Miss Ohana why she didn't simply have a Jewish wedding in the States, and not a civil wedding, she had no answer. Perhaps they were planning to have a Reform wedding all along."

Ohana vehemently rejected the chief rabbi's assertions.

"The Haifa Rabbinate said they couldn't verify Avraham's Jewishness, even though I'd given them the conversion certificate," Ohana maintained in a recent telephone interview from her parents' home.

"This came as a total shock because Avraham was converted by three Orthodox rabbis."

Miller, reached in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he is now a rabbi, said he found the record of Elhiany's 1980 conversion in his files. The rabbi said that since it was for a child, the beit din, or rabbinical court, conditioned the conversion on Elhiany's completion of his day-school education, which went to the eighth grade.

Miller, who is listed in the official registry of the Rabbinical Council of America, an Orthodox organization, expressed surprise that the Chief Rabbinate in Israel did not recognize his credentials.

"I've had quite a few conversions recognized in Israel," he said.

As for Elhiany's handwritten conversion document, Miller said that is the way it was done. "There are no Hebrew typewriters in Louisiana," he said.

For her part, Ohana believes the rabbinate is denying Elhiany's Jewishness because he does not lead an Orthodox lifestyle.

When Elhiany arrived in Israel several days before the wedding, the couple went to the rabbinate.

"When a rabbi asked him if he wears a yarmulke and keeps Shabbat he was honest and said, `No,'" recalled Ohana.

While Ohana said she regrets her angry threat to call the Reform movement, she added, "It was such an incredible insult to Avraham, who is so proud to be a Jew. How could they just reject the proof in front of them and ask Avraham to start all over again?"

More than a week after his wedding, Elhiany remains upset over the rabbinate's denial of his Jewishness.

"From the moment the rabbinate refused to marry us, I've felt like everything was taken away from me," he says.

"I had my bar mitzvah at the Kotel [Western Wall]," he said. "Judaism is the only thing I've ever known."

Angry at assertions that he and his wife forged their documents and lied to the rabbinate, Elhiany is demanding a public apology from the Haifa rabbinate and is considering legal action against Cohen.

"If a Jew takes away the soul of another Jew," he says, "there is nothing left."