Court Says Israel Must Recognize Reform Conversions Conducted Abroad

A ruling Sunday by the Jerusalem District Court is being greeted in Reform quarters here as a victory for religious pluralism and the movement’s quest for legitimacy.

The court ruled that a non-Jewish citizen or resident of Israel who undergoes Reform conversion to Judaism abroad must be recognized as Jewish in Israel upon his or her return.

“It is part of our legal struggle to obtain recognition and to promote pluralism,” said Rabbi Uri Regev, head of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center here. The center had petitioned the court on behalf of an Israeli citizen who had converted to Judaism in Amsterdam.

Regev said the decision marked the “second round of the ‘Who Is a Jew’ issue” and that he planned soon to challenge the courts to a third round.

The first round for Regev was the 1989 Supreme Court ruling that new immigrants who have converted to Judaism before coming to Israel may obtain citizenship here as Jews under the Law of Return even if their conversion was not an Orthodox one.

The next round, said Regev, is to petition the Supreme Court for recognition of Reform conversions carried out in Israel. Regev said he planned to file a joint petition with the Association for Civil Rights.

“We will ask whether the policy of the Interior Ministry, to make a distinction between foreign Reform converts and Israeli reform converts, is based in law,” said Regev. “We will claim it is artificial and illegal.”

The plaintiff in this week’s case, Elsina Birach, had been a kibbutz volunteer who, in 1988, traveled to Holland to marry an Israeli in a civil ceremony, according to the attorney for Religious Action Center, Anat Ben-Dor.

Upon Birach’s return to Israel, she became an immigrant whose religion was “unspecified,” Ben-Dor said.

In 1990, the couple returned with their baby to Holland, where Birach studied Judaism. She and her daughter converted in 1992. Upon the family’s subsequent return to Israel, she was forced to petition the court to have the Interior Ministry change her religious registration and that of her 4-year-old daughter.

Until her petition was granted, Israeli authorities did not recognize such conversions as legitimate.

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