Voices

A ruinous monopoly

February 19, 2014
By Karen Brunwasser

At the age of 35, I met the man who would become my husband while walking through Machane Yehudah (Jerusalem’s Jewish market) on a summer evening. Our courtship was brief, and by mid-winter Lior and I were engaged to be married.

I had always imagined I would marry in a traditional Jewish ceremony in adherence to the laws of Moses and Israel, though not by the authority of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, whose monopoly on personal status issues violates civil liberties.

Lior saw things differently. A fifth-generation Jerusalemite, he shared my distaste for the Chief Rabbinate, but wanted acknowledgement from the law of his land. Moreover, a nonrabbinate chuppah would devastate his family. After weeks of debating, arguing and crying, I conceded with a heavy heart and two conditions: I would not lie about my religious observance, nor would I convert under any circumstances.

I had reason to be concerned about conversion. I am, after all, a convert. When I was an infant, my mother embraced Judaism. She had been drawn to the Jewish people since childhood, when she would watch families walking past her house in northeast Philadelphia to synagogue, noticing fathers who spoke gently and wishing her alcoholic father could be as tender. On April 10, 1978, we were converted by an Orthodox beit din. In my baby book, my mother penned an entry that always makes me cry, “My darling, Karen. Today you and I became children of Israel.”

I grew up in a kosher home surrounded by the Yiddish of my Holocaust-surviving paternal grandparents, attending synagogue, fasting on Yom Kippur, shunning chametz on Passover. When I was 16, my parents took us to Israel. I fell in love with the country, and found myself visiting annually. At age 28, I boarded a one-way Nefesh B’Nefesh flight, landing to great fanfare on the tarmac: IDF soldiers waving flags, Jewish Agency machers offering handshakes, musicians; even Ehud Olmert and Ariel Sharon were there to welcome us home.

As one of the few olim who spoke Hebrew, I was a hit with Israeli journalists, whisked away after landing to interview on the evening news. I became an aliyah poster girl — a shot of me beaming alongside an El Al jet appeared in Nefesh B’Nefesh promos. My aliyah even proved a professional asset when, as a fundraiser for the Shalem Center, I accompanied fellows like Moshe Ya’alon, Michael Oren, Yossi Klein Halevi, Daniel Gordis and Natan Sharansky to meetings with American donors to discuss Zionism.

Fast forward six years to a call from the Chief Rabbinate’s Marriage Department: “Your conversion is unrecognized. Go to the beit din. Good luck.” 

We called Tzohar, whose compassionate professionals took over our case. My parents tracked down the rabbi from our mikvah, a member of the Rabbinical Council of America, who vouched for the late dayanim who signed on my conversion papers.

Two weeks later, a Tzohar rabbi phoned, “I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that the conversion is still not recognized. The good news is that you can do a precautionary conversion.”

“But I’m already Jewish.”

The rabbi responded sympathetically that of course I’m Jewish, that the problem is not halachic but bureaucratic, that a precautionary conversion is a quick process, that I must not pass this problem on to my future children.

I refused.

With two weeks to the wedding, Lior pursued back channels via influential connections. A famous, American-born rabbi from the religious Zionist movement wrote a letter; he had studied with the dayanim who converted me. A well-placed friend in the Jerusalem Municipality pulled strings. Colleagues brought the issue to the highest levels of the Chief Rabbinate.

But Rabbi Itamar Tubul, head of the Chief Rabbinate’s personal status division, deferred to an RCA official named Rabbi Michael Zilberman, who wrote that though they were Orthodox, two of the dayanim in question had served congregations that did not have a mechitza (barrier separating men and women) during prayer services. The conversion was invalid.

With three days to the wedding, I entered the beit din. A substitute rabbi sat on the bench; it was late August and most dayanim were on vacation. I answered his questions honestly: I keep a kosher home, attend synagogue periodically, even spent time in a haredi yeshiva, but drive on Shabbat. My case was deemed “too complex” and postponed until the regular dayanim were back the following Sunday.

“But my wedding is this Thursday.”

It did not matter.

Lior could no longer keep our saga from his family. His religious sister blanched, distraught. His parents were most concerned about their future grandchildren. Thankfully, they stood by us.

And then, on the morning before our wedding day, Lior’s phone rang. “Karen, you’re Jewish!”

After 2 1/2 months, I was approved thanks to powerful connections that I unfortunately cannot disclose. On Aug. 29, we had a beautiful, “recognized” chuppah.

The resolution of our story spotlights a failed system and profound injustice. Were it not for protectsia (special influence), I could not have legally married in the country that supported and celebrated my aliyah. Had I converted through a Conservative or Reform beit din, I would have had no chance whatsoever.

Interestingly, many religious and even haredi individuals helped me along the way because they see the Chief Rabbinate as a corrupt body that distorts true Judaism. When an upstanding, Orthodox rabbi offers to obfuscate on your behalf at the beit din, you know the institution has lost moral authority.

Many have asked if this saga changed my mind about aliyah and Israel. No, but it underscores my responsibility, and that of likeminded citizens, to work for change. Recent controversies surrounding the rejection of conversions by RCA rabbis like Avi Weiss and public disparagement of moderate rabbis like David Stav and Shlomo Riskin reveal just how extremist the institution has become. But this extremism is priming public opinion for the rise of an alternative system that would reflect the diversity of Israeli citizenry and the Jewish people. The time is ripe to support relevant NGOs, lobby Israeli leaders and leverage the full weight of Diaspora communal resources to break the Chief Rabbinate’s ruinous monopoly.

Karen Brunwasser is deputy director of Jerusalem Season of Culture.

14Comments
  1. Gitel wrote:

    I’m very happy your story had a happy ending. I know of a lot of people who have had similar problems and had much difficulty getting them resolved (if they were resolved at all).

    However, I didn’t understand part of what you wrote. How does having a rabbi obfuscate help things? I would think that would only make it worse.

  2. Mark wrote:

    It truly saddens and troubles me that this woman, even “playing by the rules”, going to an Orthodox Beit Din, still had such trouble marrying and making aliyah. Yes, I have Jewish ancestry, been studying the religion for 3 years, have papers showing my Jewish origin. But sadly that’s not good enough for some… I understand the Jewish instinct to safeguard the boundaries, to put a fence around Torah, to protect the tribe. But why should the tribe reject the sincere? How will I become a halakhic Jew if no one is interested in helping me become a halakhic Jew?

  3. Matt Friedman wrote:

    Why is is harder to become Jewish in Israel than anywhere else? We should make entry into the Jewish people based on commitment to Jewish belief and the Jewish people, not based on the whims of an unneeded group of corrupt gate keepers. It’s time to drastically change the rabbanut and get rid of chief rabbis.

  4. IRA GRUSSGOTT wrote:

    Mazal tov, Karen. For a number of years, now I’ve been referring to you as my “Karen Kayemet L’yisrael”:).Besides feeling a sense of vindication, thanks for continuing to give me (personally) lots of nakhes. Love to your parents and particularly to your new -and very lucky Hatan!!!
    Beyedidut,
    Rabbi Ira G.

  5. Brian wrote:

    The author disagrees with traditional or orthodox conversion standards, but that doesn’t give her the right to libel the Israeli Rabbinate – accusing it without substantiation of corruption. It’s the Rabbinate’s job to perform careful verification, prior to marriage, of conversions done decades earlier in foreign countries; that is what helps to maintain and ensure the Jewish status of Israelis in this and future generations.

  6. YM Goldstein wrote:

    Your story is unfortunate, but even judging from earlier comments it is clear that many Jews undervalue their Jewish identity and believe that anyone who wants to declare themselves Jewish or who feels Jewish should be recognized as Jewish.

  7. Marcia Pine wrote:

    the Israeli Rabbinate is shameful! the Nazis would have killed Karn as well as these holy Rabbis, so who is more Jewish? As a “real” Jew, they are impossible to defend.

  8. Yossi Ginzberg wrote:

    While I think everyone can agree that the Chief rabbinate is broken, this case doesn’t prove it. She admitted to public Shabbat violation, so her “Orthodox conversion” is no longer Orthodox- a condition of Orthodox conversions, one she must have agreed to at the time and repeated at her Bat Mitzva, was to keep the mitzvoth, and especially the Shabbat, marrying Jewish, and family purity laws. I sympathize with those who get caught in the unpleasant web of the process, but you cannot have it both ways: Either you are Orthodox or you are not.

  9. Solyesh wrote:

    Yossi – perhaps you should refresh your halachic understanding on conversions. If one goes through an Orthodox conversion with the full kavanna of being Orthodox (as you put it “keeping the mitzvoth”) – then one is a fully recognized halachic Jew. If later in life, one strays from the path and is no longer keeping the mitzvoth – it does not mean that one is no longer Jewish – just as the case with any born-Jew. As long as the intention was pure/right at the outset one becomes Jewish – once Jewish (more or less with few exceptions) – always Jewish.

  10. Alex Buchinger wrote:

    Karen, two questions; did your Mother’s conversion apply to you as well? Did she accept to keep the laws of Judaism, including one of the main ones , to observe the Sabbath? Did she and did you keep the Sabbath at any time. You say “I grew up in a kosher home surrounded by the Yiddish of my Holocaust-surviving paternal grandparents, attending synagogue, fasting on Yom Kippur, shunning chametz on Passover ” . This is a nice “traditionalist” approach to Judaism but I doubt that it satisfies the requirements made from a Torah observant convert.

  11. concerned wrote:

    BS”D
    I think your article highlights the need for a powerful, unified Bet Din with the authority and guts to do what’s right. Clearly there is a need for improvement in the experience and customer service and this is something that we as a nation should all work to support and assist, but considering that Judaism is not a “religion” or a club or an ideology but rather an actual reality defined and determined by an entity (G-d), your example highlights how easy it would be for this reality to be diluted and how difficult it would be for small localized bet dins or orgs to withstand the pressure and protectzia and maintain the accuracy of our heritage for ours and future generations.
    Thank G-d I am not in a situation that would need to have a ‘precautionary conversion’ and I can only imagine how insulting and hurtful it would be, but Judaism, like any other reality, has it’s definition and protocol and the central bet din is our backbone to support it.
    [keep in mind, without this very backbone, you may have needed to make ‘Aliya’ not to home, but to Uganda…]

  12. Eliahu Gal-Or wrote:

    I have been personally hurt beyond belief by this state of affairs.
    I am a Jew by birth, but the lady I was going to marry went through harrowing experiences, and was eventually goaded into marrying someone else out of fear that our relationship prior to her conversion might invalidate it by making it less than totally לשם שמיים.

    I am preparing a feature film script to expose the monstruosity perpetrated on about 200 innocent converts in Hvutzat Yavne Conversion Ulpan in 2004, when for a political vengeance on Rabbi Druckman their completed conversions were annulled. I have no proof data but it is alleged that some of the victims committed suicide and some gave up on their dream of joining the Chosen People… The treatment of the movie is available upon request to pizzarebbe@gmail.com and all feedback will be appreciated.

  13. Chaim V wrote:

    Is the Chief rabbinate broken or not I don’t know, but I think this case here prove’s that the rule’s they have in place for conversion (and Marriage)are doing there job, they may have been incorrect about this particular case but still need to check everything out especially when the writer herself says that she does not keep Shabbos!!! The broken part is the fact the she managed to get it pushed through with “protectsia”.
    With regard to “civil liberties”, by definition is an oxymoron when talking about religion, you are either religious and follow all the rules that the Torah dictates, or your not, and don’t get mad when the religious court treat you that way.

  14. kafzchut wrote:

    but consider , that for a non-jew driving on shabbat is fine; and al pi halacha , maybe liable to the death penalty. one who tries to convert orthodox on condition to not keep shabbat would never be accepted; invalidating it retroactively keeps her out of the Divine liability that Halacha violation portends…

ADD COMMENTS