Conversion issue still muddled after court ruling

Now the Magens, with the Reform movement's backing, are trying to register Tal as a Jew in Israel's Interior Ministry.

Joined by Carmen Avrouskine, another Reform convert, the Magens met an Interior Ministry clerk last week who took their conversion certificates and told them it would take "a couple of days."

The two parties were not so easily placated.

"I would expect a minister in the State of Israel to accept the ruling of the High Court," said Ora Magen, referring to Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who also leads the fervently Orthodox Shas Party. "This is a democracy."

They may finally have some satisfaction, after Yishai this week announced that he will register the converts as Jews — under pressure from the attorney general to implement a High Court of Justice decision recognizing Reform and Conservative conversions as binding.

But the matter is still not black and white.

Yishai said he will list the converts as Jews on their Israeli ID cards, with a qualifier noting that the Jewish designation is only according to the High Court.

Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg, who has previously negotiated with the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox parties over the conversion issue, then offered a compromise solution Wednesday.

He proposed that the "nationality" designation, in which citizens are designated as Jew, Arab, Russian or other, be taken off Israeli identity cards, Israel Radio reported.

"We are not for deleting the nationality clause in the Israeli ID card," said Rabbi Ehud Bandel, president of the Conservative movement in Israel. "As a Jewish state, this is an important symbol that people should be proud to have on their ID."

Burg's proposal also follows a response to the recent High Court ruling sponsored by a fervently Orthodox politician from Shas, Yair Peretz. The Knesset may vote on a new version of the conversion law validating conversions only if authorized by the Chief Rabbinate.

"Any future compromise that may or may not be achieved has nothing to do with the fact that Mr. Yishai must register the converts as the court ordered, without any tricks," Bandel said. "This is a question of the democratic character of the state."

Nevertheless, both the Reform and Conservative movements welcomed the tone of Burg's plan.

Israel Radio said both sides had agreed to grant Burg a week to formulate his compromise solution, which would skirt the debate over non-Orthodox conversion.

"His intention is praiseworthy, but the final product is a little problematic," said Rabbi Uri Regev, director of the Israel Religious Action Center. "It doesn't address the right under the Law of Return of those converts who are already Israeli citizens."

In the nearly two weeks since Israel's High Court of Justice recognized Reform and Conservative conversions as valid and binding, converts from both movements have tried to put this ruling into action, with little success.

In the High Court case, there were 50 converts seeking to be identified as Jews on their ID cards. For many, their only issue was registration.

For others, there also was the matter of the Law of Return, which grants automatic Israeli citizenship to all Jews. These converts were already Israeli citizens through a family member, but couldn't reap the benefits of returning to Israel as a Jew.

The court only addressed the registration issue, and said it would rule at another time regarding the question of the Law of Return for converts.

Last week, in fact, a representative of the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate asked the Knesset Law Committee to revise the Law of Return to exclude all converts — including those who converted outside Israel — from receiving new immigrant rights until approved by the rabbinate.

Yishai initially had expressed vehement opposition to the High Court ruling, saying he would not honor it.

"I will not act against my conscience, and I won't do anything that will destroy the Jewish people," he told Israel Radio. "I would rather go to jail than register converts who aren't Orthodox."

On Tuesday, Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein ordered the Interior Ministry to register citizens who underwent Reform or Conservative conversions as Jewish population lists, according to Israel Radio.

For some of the converts and their families, however, it's already been a long wait.

In 1991, Jaime Glottman, originally from Colombia, moved to Israel with his four children, who were born to his former, non-Jewish wife. After converting them at birth in Reform and Conservative ceremonies, Glottman reconverted them in Israel in a Conservative ceremony.

Five years later, when Glottman's son Ya'akov reported for army service, he was told that he would be enlisted as a volunteer because he wasn't Jewish.

"It was a huge blow to him, to his identity," Glottman said. "He didn't want to go to the army; he didn't want to go to synagogue anymore; he talked about marrying a non-Jew."

Now Glottman is fighting the conversion battle in court, with the help of the Conservative leadership.

"I came to this country with four Jewish kids and now one daughter is married to a non-Jew and another is living with a Christian," he said. "Coming to Israel, instead of making them more Jewish, it's made them less so."

The Magens see their involvement in the issue as a fluke. They converted Tal outside of Israel, but were later told by the Interior Ministry that it wasn't acceptable.

At that point, they decided to reconvert her through the Reform movement in Israel.

"We believe we're not less Jewish because we're Reform," she said.

That's similar to the outlook of Carmen Avrouskine, the daughter of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother, who immigrated from Romania at age 19.

Now 35, she began her conversion process through the rabbinate, studying twice a week for three years with an Orthodox rabbi. When she felt that he might never convert her, she gave up.

After meeting her husband, an Israeli who introduced her to the Reform movement, Avrouskine began studying two to three times a week for one year with a local Reform rabbi.

She's been Jewish since 1996, but not according to the Interior Ministry. Now that she has a 3-year old daughter and another child on the way, she feels it's time to clarify matters.

"This is the only place where Jews can't practice Judaism freely," said Avrouskine, who found out that she wasn't halachically Jewish only when she arrived in Israel. "It's a very strange reality."