TEL AVIV (JTA) — M., a 35-year-old American woman who has been living an Orthodox lifestyle for years, thought she was doing everything right.
She studied Judaism in Los Angeles, had her conversion approved there and moved to Israel to officially start her life as a Jew.
But then, she says, the Israeli Interior Ministry changed the rules on her.
Five months after arriving here, M. is still awaiting Israeli citizenship despite being eligible under the Law of Return, which guarantees Jews worldwide the right to Israeli citizenship.
“The Interior Ministry has so many rules, and they keep changing," said M., who asked not to be identified by name for fear it would jeopardize her bid for Israeli citizenship. "Everyone you speak to there gives a different story for what you need. "It seems people like me are kept deliberately in the dark.”
M., a professor of Chinese literature who is married to an Israeli, is one of a growing number of recent converts to Judaism from the Diaspora running into problems in Israel due to a new set of protocols at the Interior Ministry.
Critics say the new rules are too stringent and are disenfranchising Diaspora Jewish communities that approve the conversions, ultimately making it harder than ever for converts from the Diaspora to immigrate to Israel. Supporters say the new rules are meant to separate genuine converts from those interested in little more than a quick path to Israeli citizenship.
The new regulations are the latest chapter in the long-running battle over who is a Jew — a question that repeatedly has strained Diaspora-Israel relations.
According to the new regulations — they have not been approved officially but already are being employed, according to advocates who deal with converts — converts to Judaism from the Diaspora must remain for at least nine months before and after their conversions in the community where they converted before they can immigrate to Israel.
The rules also mandate 350 hours of classes and hands-on practice for converts in the Diaspora (modeled on standards set in Israel for its official conversion institute) and bar any convert who has a non-Jewish relative living in Israel and anyone whose stay in Israel was previously deemed illegal for any period of time.
The rules, proposed by the previous interior minister, Meir Sheetrit, are awaiting approval by the attorney general’s office and are being reviewed by the Justice Ministry.
Rabbi Uri Maklev, a Knesset member from the United Torah Judaism party, said through an aide that the rules are meant to protect Israel from those who seek to wrongfully enter as inauthentic Jews.
“We want to safeguard the quality of the Judaism," Maklev said. "There may be many who would like to join, but there are certain standards that need to be maintained and that seems to be the intention of these criteria. Even if one person gets into the country under false pretenses that is a problem, as it can affect generations down the line.”
Critics say the regulations constitute an attempt to wrest control over conversions away from rabbinic authorities in the Diaspora.
“The state has always maintained at least a modicum of respect for the integrity of local Jewish communities. And now, for the first time, in order to protect their immigration policy, they are trying to impose arbitrary standards on the Jewish communities of the Diaspora,” said Shaul Farber, an Orthodox rabbi and founder of the Jerusalem office of the Jewish Life Information Center, which seeks to help Jews navigate the religious bureaucracy in Israel.
“Instead of welcoming converts, Israel seems to be scrutinizing them in a draconian way,” he said. “In my estimation this is something that ought to have the American Jewish community in an uproar.”
M. she said she could not stay in Los Angeles for another nine months after her conversion for financial and personal reasons. She said she had thought she was free to immigrate without any more conditions once a 2005 Israeli Supreme Court panel struck down a one-year waiting period for would-be immigrants following a conversion.
In response to questions from JTA, Interior Ministry spokeswoman Sabine Hadad said the new criteria are under review. Hadad did not elaborate on the reasoning behind the new guidelines.
Rabbi Andy Sachs, head of Israel’s Conservative movement, took specific issue with the 350-hour instruction requirement.
“It’s an abuse of power and it essentially creates a papacy headed by the chief rabbis who determine how rabbis abroad must act,” Sachs said. “It completely castrates the authority of the local rabbinic and Jewish communities to make a determination of when a person is ready to become Jewish.”
Israel does not recognize non-Orthodox conversions unless they are conducted abroad. Orthodox conversions are accepted only if they are performed by one of nine specific rabbinical courts in the United States.
This has raised the ire of some American Orthodox rabbis who are publicly questioning why such a narrow band of courts are considered legitimate.
Rabbi Barry Freundel, chairman of the conversion policies and standards committee of the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America, called it “troubling” to have the Interior Ministry making decisions on conversions.
His colleagues have discussed the issue, Freundel said, but they were unsure with whom to speak because they generally deal with the Chief Rabbinate and these rules are coming from the Interior Ministry.
The Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, the group’s public and legal advocacy, has been handling the legal cases of both Conservative and Reform Diaspora converts who have been rebuffed by the Interior Ministry.
“The criteria of the process is not the business of the Israeli government, it’s the business of the religious communities themselves,” said Rabbi Gilad Kariv, who heads the Israel Religious Action Center.
Among those waiting to become an Israeli is Rachel, a 22-year-old woman whose mother converted to Judaism when Rachel was a child. Rachel grew up in the Jewish community of Budapest and attended a Jewish high school.
She’s been waiting for three years since she moved to Israel after having a Conservative conversion in London.
“I’ve lived my whole life as a Jew,” said Rachel, who has a renewable visa to remain in Israel for now only because her husband is a Jewish American who made aliyah. “It’s very frustrating.”
(JTA staff writer Ben Harris contributed to this report from New York.)