High court in Israel accepts some non-Orthodox conversions.
Jewish Telegraphic Agency
fter 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 recogni-
tion of their non-Orthodox conversions to Judaism
on April 1, 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 con-
troversy 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.
The ruling also broadened a 1989 decision recog-
nizing 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
Orthodox Shas party and signed by 25 legislators,
the Knesset will meet in special session 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."
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 con-
fident 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 move-
ment. "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 unsatis-
fied that the court didn't issue a
more far-reaching decision, and
plans to bring another petition in
hopes of forcing the state to recog-
nize Reform conversions performed
The only way for the Orthodox
to counter the April 1 ruling would
be to have a new law passed defin-
ing their stream as the only legiti-
mate form of Judaism in Israel. But
repeated efforts to mount such leg-
islation in the past failed to muster
majorities for even preliminary
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon
counts one Orthodox political party
United Torah Judaism in his coali-
tion, and he has been courting Shas. Justina Hilaria Chipana is consoled by her boyfriend, Yosef Ben-Moshe,
after the court ruling.
Still, it seems unlikely that either
party would be able to apply enough
The Orthodox Union, on the other hand, said it
pressure on the government to push
is "deeply concerned" by the ruling. "The decision
through motions against the High Court ruling.
of the court may eventually lead to the division of
"We have no coalition agreement regarding this,"
the people of Israel into two camps. There will be a
UTJ leader Rabbi Avraham Ravitz said. "I'm sure
group of halachically valid Jews and a group of peo-
there will be discussions about what can be done,
ple who are Jewish only by the ruling of the
but I'm not especially hopeful."
The High Court ruling is immediately binding on Supreme Court," the union said in a news release
signed by its president, Stephen Savitsky, and execu-
the government. That's a relief for Chipana and her
tive vice president, Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb. "The
fellow petitioners, who filed their suit in 1999.
consequences of this ruling will be tragic."
"We are going to implement the decision in a
For the petitioners, however, the ruling was a lohg-
crystal-clear manner," Interior Minister Ophir
overdue relief. "I always dreamed of really belonging
Pines-Paz of the Labor Party told Army Radio. "I
to the country," said Chipana, who first came to
think that it provides an answer for many people
Israel in 1983. In 1993, she converted at a Reform
who are living among us and are forced to go
congregation in Argentina, and filed the lawsuit in
through a very tough journey, exhausting and tiring,
1999. "Now perhaps it can really happen."
that causes many to lose hope."
But should she want to marry to her Israeli-born
In the United States, reaction to the decision
boyfriend, Yosef Ben-Moshe, she will have to go on
broke along denominational lines. "As a
waiting or do it abroad: The chief rabbinate in Israel
Conservative rabbi, I am of course delighted that
remains exclusively Orthodox, and its grip on life-
the High Court in Israel has mandated the recogni-
cycle events remains unchallenged.
tion of conversions performed by Conservative rab-
That's the way the UTJ's Rabbi Ravitz wants it.
bis in America," said `former Detroiter Rabbi Joel
Roth, a scholar of Jewish law and the former head of Asked what will happen if "leaping converts" apply
for marriage licenses in Israel, he said, "I imagine
the Jewish Theological Seminary's Law Committee.
they will be told to take a flying leap."
"I'm very much aware that some segments of the
Sallai Meridor, chairman of the Jewish Agency for
Jewish world will continue to refuse to accept as valid
Israel, sees the question of Orthodox control as a larg-
conversions performed by Conservative and Reform
er problem than the one the High Court addressed.
rabbis, and the court's decision will create problems
"The entire acrobatic phenomenon in which people
in those communities," he said. "I accept as valid any
are forced to marry or convert abroad does no honor
conversion that complies with halachic requirements,
to Judaism or the State of Israel," he said. ❑
and conversions that do not, I do not accept."