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Ki Tissa 5781 ~ March 6

These words are quite familiar to us. We sing them at Friday evening services and as the opening words of our kiddush at the end of our Shabbat morning services. These words, found in this week’s Torah reading, are reflective of so many valuable lessons of Judaism. The word אות, “ot,” sign, is what many of us seek in our Jewish expression. We want that אות at the center of our spiritual traditions and customs; to be at the heart of our religion. We understand the strength and legitimacy of not only the אות  as the spiritual core, but also the halachic requirements of Judaism. Each one is an אות.  Our reading maintains that Shabbat is a weekly אות.

In that regard we could study why we don’t wear tefillin on Shabbat. We could learn about what the word לעולם, l’olam, means. We might spend time trying to understand the group of  39 av melachot, types of actual labor, which we are forbidden to do by Rabbinic law on Shabbat, simply because they were done in the Beit Hamikdash, the Temple in Jerusalem.  Examples that  might be somewhat  familiar are the prohibition of hitting a nail with a hammer, dyeing fabric, knitting or sewing, planting or making grooves in the earth for planting. There have become extensions to these rabbinic restrictions. Were you aware that one might not be permitted to drag a chair in the sand on Shabbat for fear that one would be making ruts that ultimately a seed may germinate from within?  Or, we could find meaning in the positives found within the אות of Shabbat.

I marvel at my “New to Jew” students and how they internalize the signs, the אות of so many aspects of Jewish life. They internalize the uniqueness of Jewish life with its many dimensions from celebrations and observance of mitzvot to its prohibitions.

By now most of us are aware of the stronghold that the Orthodox world holds not only on Israeli politics, but who is considered a Jew in Israel. Until a few days ago, someone who did not hold a teudat zehut, a document of residency, and was converted in Israel by a non-Orthodox rabbi in Israel, was not considered Jewish, even by the State itself.  

This week, the High Court in Israel ruled on the status of specifically that individual who converted in Israel by a non-Orthodox beit din.  That individual may now apply for a  teudat zehut and may now be recognized as being Jewish with regard to the law of return and the right to Israeli citizenship. (Non-Orthodox converts from the Diaspora, on the other hand were already considered Jewish for immigration and citizenship purposes only. The sponsoring rabbi has to be listed as a member of the Rabbinical Assembly or the CCAR.  As of the ruling, converts to Judaism in Israel are now to be considered as Jewish by the State.)

This ruling did not change any other reality.  The Orthodox are under no obligation to accept  Conservative gerim, converts. For the most part, non-Orthodox converts from the Diaspora and from Israel are still not able to marry in a religious ceremony in Israel that is recognized by the State, since the Ministry of Religion is controlled by the Orthodox. Their children are also not considered to be Jewish. For the moment, the ruling of the Israeli High Court partially corrects that wrong solely related to citizenship.

Rabbi Andrew Sacks, one of the leading Masorti rabbis in Israel explains that:

 …until now, we abstained from converting those without an Israeli ID or needed to send them abroad. This would include students and those here with work visas. 

The ruling will not dramatically increase the number of conversions that we perform. It will, however, make the lives of some of our Gerim less complicated. 

Scenario Number 1: Helga came to Israel from Norway, with a student visa, to work on a doctorate in Jewish thought. While here she attended a Masorti shul, spent Shabbatot and holidays with Jewish friends, became fluent in Hebrew, and inquired about joining the Jewish people. Conversion in Israel would leave her open to deportation upon completion of her academic studies as she did not have a Teudat Zehut. Thus, in cooperation with our Masorti Beit Din in Europe, Helga needed to travel to London to complete her conversion. Upon returning to Israel, and a subsequent waiting period of nine months, she became eligible for citizenship. Now, that trip to a Beit Din abroad will no longer be necessary. 

Scenario Number 2:  An intermarried couple from North America decided to make Aliyah. The husband, Jack, was Jewish and the wife, Jill, was not. Both received a Teudat Zehut (Jack as a Jew and Jill as partnered with a Jew). A year after making Aliyah Jill converted to Judaism through the Masorti movement.  Jill then changed her registration in the Interior Ministry to “Jewish.”   A year later Jack and Jill separated. Until yesterday’s ruling Jill was eligible for deportation. Her right to be in Israel was contingent upon her marital relationship with Jack. The fact that the State recognized her as Jewish did not mean that she was entitled to citizenship. That changed with yesterday’s court ruling. 

The victory in court can be savored but need not be celebrated as a triumph over the Orthodox monopoly – although it is that, too. It may be seen as moving Israel closer to the more inclusive Zionist reality for which we all strive. 

Not surprisingly, the ruling will be challenged by new legislation. Overturning the ruling will become part of the platforms of the religious parties at the polls in the upcoming election.

Truthfully, their stronghold on religion in Israel is a reflection of a need to hold tight onto their legitimacy, rather than to build upon the אות that has brought those prospective converts into our Jewish world.

We  are proud of the work of Rabbi Andrew Sacks and others in Israel who continue to work with those who choose non-Orthodox conversions to ensure that they are recognized as Jews in the State of Israel.

As I wish you all a Shabbat shalom, I share with you stories from just this past week in Israel, written by Rabbi Peretz Rodman, from Jerusalem:

We only get a few requests each year for giyyur from people without permanent resident status or citizenship. But it has been painful to turn them away. 

Today I got a call from a Darfurian refugee who has been here a decade, since age 14, who was educated at the excellent dati youth village Yemin Orde, did a BA and MA at the Indisciplinary Center in Herzlia, and wants to be a Jew. It’s the culture he has lived in since he was a young teenager. He has a court-ordered temporary residency status here, but he is not at risk of expulsion. He concentrated on Tanakh and rabbinics in high school, because it’s what he found interesting. He has a mother alive but stuck in a refugee camp in Chad, and his brother, who made it to the US, was murdered recently back in Sudan visiting his family.  

I got another call from an Egyptian national living here in Israel who gave up on us a year or so ago and did his conversion with a “private” Orthodox bet din here that isn’t covered by yesterday’s court decision. Bad move, perhaps, in retrospect, but we both hope he’ll gain recognition.

And then there’s the Russian woman who moved here about 6 years ago to study modern Hebrew, fell in love with Israel and Judaism, married a guy from a prominent Moroccan rabbinic family and began to study with us for conversion — but then she divorced him, losing her spousal visa and her right to do conversion here (until yesterday). She stayed here on a student visa, and we proceeded with the conversion anyway, declaring her a “special case” and knowing we’d wind up having to defend that in court someday. She later married a (different) Israeli Jew, but only now do we have a shot at getting her status changed in the population registry to “Jewish” (by nationality and religion). That makes a difference for future children, of course. 

Those are some of the types of situations that are affected by yesterdays’ decision. 

Bivrakha, 

Peretz

Sat, June 25 2022 26 Sivan 5782