Jewish Agency gains power to approve Orthodox converts for aliyah

JERUSALEM (JTA) — The Jewish Agency for Israel will now be responsible for approving the eligibility of Orthodox converts for aliyah.

Israel’s Interior Ministry announced the change in a letter Tuesday to the Knesset. The ministry, which approves candidates for aliyah under the Law of Return, had been relying on Israel’s Orthodox-dominated Chief Rabbinate to determine the legitimacy of an Orthodox conversion in the Diaspora.

In cases where the Jewish Agency cannot verify the authenticity of an Orthodox conversion, the ministry will turn to the Chief Rabbinate, according to the letter written by Amnon Ben-Ami, director of the Population, Immigration and Border Authority in the Interior Ministry.

The decision comes following a lawsuit filed last month in Israel’s Supreme Court against the Interior Ministry demanding that it recognize Orthodox conversions performed abroad for the purposes of aliyah.

The Jerusalem-based ITIM, the Jewish Life Information Center, filed the lawsuit on behalf of Tomas Dohlan, a Canadian man who completed an Orthodox conversion in February 2010 and was denied Israeli citizenship. Dohlan, his wife and four children arrived in Israel four months ago. Dohlan’s wife is an Israeli citizen.

The Israeli Supreme Court ruled in 1988 that individuals who underwent conversions in “recognized” communities around the world would be eligible for aliyah under the Law of Return. However, the Interior Ministry consults with Israel’s Chief Rabbinate to determine which Orthodox communities are “recognized.”

When a convert presents an aliyah application, the ministry relies on the leadership of the denominations to determine eligibility. The Conservative and Reform communities are centralized and vouch for their converts.

Since Orthodox Judaism does not have a centralized leadership, the ministry had determined that Israel’s chief rabbi is the leader of Orthodoxy around the world. The Chief Rabbinate currently recognizes conversions performed by about 50 of the more than Orthodox rabbis in North America.

“This new policy is a victory for the Jewish people and Zionism,” Rabbi Seth Farber, director of ITIM, told JTA. “It re-emphasizes the strong relationship between Diaspora Jewish communities and the State of Israel, and quiets those critics who seek to distance Israel from the Jewish people.

“We look forward to the new policy being implemented immediately, and to the resolution of the plight of converts who have turned to ITIM, who are being denied their rights.”

Farber told The Jerusalem Post that his organization will not withdraw its lawsuit from the Supreme Court until it sees how the new system is implemented.

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