Non-Orthodox Jews Hail Ruling on Converts

Court Rules Says Israel Must Recognize Liberal Branches

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TEL AVIV, Israel, FEB. 22, 2002 ( Non-Orthodox Jewish groups praised a Supreme Court ruling that the state of Israel must officially recognize conversions to Judaism by Reform and Conservative groups, the Associated Press reported.

The effect of the ruling seems limited for now. It would force the Interior Ministry to identify those converted by non-Orthodox rabbis as Jews in the «nationality» clause on their ID cards, AP said. But the Orthodox Jewish establishment in charge of marriages, divorces and burials for Jews could continue to refuse services to such converts.

Still, secular and non-Orthodox religious groups called the decision an important step for equality for their movements. The Conservative, Reform and other more-liberal Jewish movements are dominant in the United States but marginal here.

American Reform Jewish leader Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch praised the decision. «For the first time in the history of Israel, the Supreme Court is compelling the government to recognize the Reform movement,» he told the AP. «We do not expect or even desire that the Orthodox elements are going to recognize us.»

The Orthodox, however, vowed to try to reverse the ruling. Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who also heads the ultra-Orthodox Party Shas, said he would prepare legislation to get around the decision; while religious groups are a minority in parliament, they have influence and such a bill might be adopted.

Chief Rabbi Israel Yisrael Meir Lau said the court had interfered with centuries of tradition and warned that «the decision will totally confuse those converts whose conversion is not according to (Orthodox) Jewish law» because it raised expectations that could not be met.

For example, Orthodox rabbis here would continue to refuse to marry couples who are not both considered Jewish by the Orthodox rabbinate, said religious legislator Rabbi Avraham Ravitz. And the ruling doesn´t change the fact that the state recognizes only Orthodox marriages and civil marriages performed abroad.

The ruling would also apparently distinguish between non-Orthodox conversions performed abroad or in Israel for purposes of acquiring citizenship, since those converted by non-Orthodox rabbis inside the country would still not necessarily be eligible for automatic citizenship under Israel´s «Law of Return» for Jews, AP noted.

Traditionally, Orthodox Judaism does not seek converts, and prospective converts usually must pass a period of study and a conversion procedure before a religious court.

Hirsch, the American Reform rabbi, saw the ruling as a step toward strengthening Jewish unity worldwide. «The last thing we need right now is a renewed international struggle over who is a Jew,» he said in a statement.

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