Spiritual Impasse (Extract)

The saga of an Italian-born woman, who chose to become Jewish while living in Israel, reveals the obstacles faced by aspiring converts from abroad

When Emanuela Rachel Del Conte, 34, was growing up in Turin, Italy, religious observance didn’t play a major role in her secular Catholic, middle-class upbringing. But when she turned 20, a search for spirituality led her to Judaism. “I’m an artist. Maybe that explains my interest in spirituality,” she says, recalling how she also explored other faiths such as Islam and Buddhism.

For the next ten years Del Conte deepened her Jewish knowledge in private study programs in Italy and France, while also studying painting and graphic design. In 2004, she came to Israel for the first time with an eye toward deepening her knowledge of Judaism. Here the exuberant, blue-eyed DelConte decided to convert after a long period of struggling with an internal desire to be Jewish. The trip convinced her that “being Jewish was right for me. I felt it in my soul,” she tells The Report.

Today Del Conte lives outside Jerusalem and has become a part of the close-knit local Italian Jewish community. But what was supposed to have been the culmination of a spiritual dream has turned into a Kafkaesque nightmare. First came the battle against the state-backed rabbinical establishment to become Jewish. After she achieved that, came the battle against the Interior Ministry to become an Israeli citizen, which has yet to be resolved.

Del Conte is one of a few hundred foreign citizens whose attempts to live as Jews and citizens in the Jewish state have been thwarted by those two bodies. An estimated 250 foreign-born would-be converts in Israel are barred from even beginning the conversion process by the Rabbinate. An unknown number of other foreigners in Israel, who converted abroad and have conversion certificates recognized by the Chief Rabbinate, are still not granted Israeli citizenship by the Ministry of Interior – often for no clear reason.

Del Conte’s Jewish status has been confirmed by the Chief Rabbinate but the Ministry of the Interior has refused to grant her Israeli citizenship, citing an ever-changing array of reasons and, in the process, flouting High Court rulings. After four years living as a Jew in Israel, DelConte still has no permit to work and no right to national health insurance. “I never figured out why the Ministry has denied me citizenship. Whenever I went there to inquire, I was screamed at and treated horribly,” says DelConte in tears.

Her ordeal began when she arrived in Jerusalem in 2004 on a three-month tourist visa. Looking for inexpensive accommodations, Del Conte rented a modest room at the St. Claire convent on the advice of acquaintances – an arrangement that would come to haunt her. Doing housework to make a living, she lived as a Jew, studying at the Tiferet Yerushalayim Beit Midrash, an Orthodox learning institute for women, attending services at the Italian Synagogue and becoming involved in the community.

Early on, she applied to the interministerial Committee on Exceptions, which must approve the requests of non-citizens who wish to embark on a preparatory course of study leading to conversion. The Committee, which operates out of the Prime Minister’s Office, was established by the Israel Chief Rabbinate’s Conversion Authority, responsible for the religious aspect of the conversion, and the Ministry of Interior’s Population Registry, which oversees the naturalization process.

But the Committee turned down Del Conte’s request on the grounds that she had resided in the convent; it said it would review her file “in another year.” Despite that, DelConte began a nine-month course of study towards conversion at a state-approved conversion program at the modern-Orthodox Kibbutz Ein Hanatziv in the Beit She’an Valley, under the supervision of local Rabbi Eli Kahan. Winning the respect of her teachers and rabbis, in June 2006 she was warmly recommended to be tested before a special Chief Rabbinate conversion court.

But the court refused to hear Del Conte because she had embarked on the study of Judaism without the permission of the Exceptions Committee, which now refused to examine her file until January 2007 – again citing her stay at the convent. On the advice of the kibbutz rabbis, DelConte returned to Italy in July 2006, to undergo conversion there. She appeared before the rabbinical court of north-central Italy, in Venice, comprising the dayanim (religious court judges) Yosef Laras, Shalom Buhbut and Eliyahu Rikiti, a panel whose conversions are recognized by the Israel Chief Rabbinate. On July 7, 2006, Emanuela Rahel DelConte immersed herself in a stepped ritual pool and entered the Covenant of Moses and Israel. Now, she believed, she was finally Jewish and she returned to Israel hoping to become a citizen.

But for the next year and four months, the Ministry of Interior refused to respond to her request to recognize her as a Jew and grant her citizenship under the Law of Return. Though she had already supplied the relevant Italian rabbinical documentation, she was asked to produce documents, which pertain only to individuals converted in Israel. Nevertheless, to eliminate all doubt about the authenticity of her conversion, DelConte obtained a letter in March 2007, confirming her Jewish status from Jerusalem District Rabbinical Court president Rabbi Haim Rosenthal, an ultra-Orthodox dayan.

In June 2007, Mazal Cohen, director of the Registry Department which dispenses visas to non-citizens at the Population Registry, denied DelConte Jewish status, on the grounds that she had not remained in her “converting community” (Italy) for a year – a requirement that had been declared illegal in a landmark 2005 Supreme Court decision. However, in mid-February 2008, the Ministry reverted to another reason for denying DelConte citizenship: Her original request to study Judaism had been turned down by the Committee on Exceptions because of her stay at the convent.

Del Conte is being assisted in her struggle by Rabbi Seth Farber, co-founder of the Itim Jewish-Life Information Center, a Jerusalem non-profit organization, which helps individuals sort out bureaucratic difficulties with the religious authorities and the Ministry of Interior and provides information on Jewish life-cycle events. Last December, Itim attorney and co-founder Shlomit Tor-Paz filed a petition in the Supreme Court, demanding that the the Ministry of Interior show cause why Del Conte wasn’t granted citizenship and why the Ministry was ignoring the court’s 2005 ruling. A date has yet to be set for a hearing.

Currently residing in Israel on a special visa (until her case is resolved in court), Del Conte finds herself in limbo, unable to work and ineligible for health insurance, normally given to newcomers as part of the immigration “basket.” Her attempts to elicit information from Interior Ministry clerks have been met with hostility.

Del Conte’s experience illustrates the problems faced by converts in Israel, especially those who start off the process as non-citizens. The state claims it needs safety measures to ensure that individuals do not exploit the Law of Return by converting just to get Israeli citizenship; the Chief Rabbinate, which is staffed predominantly by ultra-Orthodox rabbis and bureaucrats, is interested in preserving the so-called “purity” of the Jewish people and maintains stringent demands for would-be converts, such as requiring them to live as Orthodox Jews, sometimes for three years, prior to conversion.

But the inconsistency of the state’s policies towards foreign converts is illustrated by its handling of more than 200 Shinlung tribespeople from northeastern India, who claim descent from the tribe of Menashe. They have arrived in Israel in small groups since the 1990s, and have been generally welcomed by the state. Some recent arrivals were converted in India and granted immediate citizenship under the Law of Return. Others are studying for conversion in Israel. Non-Orthodox and left-wing critics contend that the so-called Bnei Menashe are brought over with the assistance of biblical literalist-religious and politically right-wing groups and are often placed in West Bank settlements.

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