In Israel, A SolutionTo Conversion Woes?


Thomas Dohlan, a Canadian who moved to Israel in February with his wife and four children, said he never would have gone had he known of the hassle he would face.

“It’s a dream come true to be here, but I have just been caught up in bureaucracy,” said Dohlan, referring to the refusal of Israel’s Interior Ministry — at the behest of the country’s Chief Rabbinate — to recognize his Orthodox conversion to Judaism despite promises to the contrary before he arrived.

But this week the Jewish Agency for Israel announced an agreement with the Interior Ministry that paves the way for converts like Dohlan to be recognized so they can receive automatic Israeli citizenship. Under the agreement, any convert recognized by his or her own diaspora community is eligible for Israeli citizenship.

On Monday, Dohlan was notified that his request for citizenship was granted, after a lengthy battle with the government. Dohlan sued the Interior Ministry last month, demanding that it give him immediate rights as an Israeli citizen, which he planned to pursue before his citizenship was granted.

Because he was not an Israeli citizen, Dohlan, 24, had to buy a car and register it in his wife’s name. He said he was able to register for health insurance “but not use it because I don’t yet have an ID number.”

Rabbi Seth Farber, director of ITIM, an organization that helps people deal with citizenship and religious issues in Israel, and who has been helping Dohlan since January, said Dohlan is one of 20 people whose conversions have not been recognized by the Interior Ministry for the purpose of obtaining automatic citizenship.

“These are people we have been working with for the last four and a half months who had Orthodox conversions in North America and Europe,” he said.

The reason is because since 2006 the Interior Ministry has been referring Orthodox conversions to Israel’s Chief Rabbinate for approval; Conservative and Reform conversions performed overseas are automatically accepted.

Rabbi Farber said that until 2006, the Interior Ministry had worked with the Jewish Agency for Israel regarding Orthodox conversions. But that year, he said, it inexplicably began seeking the Chief Rabbinate’s approval.

Misha Galperin, president and CEO of external affairs and financial resource development for the Jewish Agency, said the new agreement once again gives the Jewish Agency the lead role in recognizing overseas Orthodox conversions for the purpose of aliyah from everywhere except the former Soviet Union, which is handled by the prime minister’s liaison office.

“There were instances where full fledged RCA-affiliated rabbis were not confirmed [by the Chief Rabbinate],” he said, referring to the Rabbinical Council of America.

The RCA did not respond to calls for comment. Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky issued a statement saying the agreement gives his organization a role that is a natural fit because it has been “the driving force in aliyah since before Israel’s founding.”

The Chief Rabbinate will continue to oversee all marriages and divorces in Israel.

Rabbi Farber said he is happy with the new agreement except for the inclusion of what he called an “exit clause” that permits the Chief Rabbinate to intervene should a case arise in which there is doubt about the authenticity of the conversion.

“The agreement does not say who raises such doubts, only that the Interior Ministry has to go to the Chief Rabbinate,” he said. “I’ve been assured the Chief Rabbinate will not use this [clause]. Since they acknowledge the Chief Rabbinate has no jurisdiction over this issue, why is it even involved at all?”