Thursday, July 26, 2007

Waiting To Go Home

Outdated Interior Ministry rules stymie and delay converts who wish to make aliyah.
Michele Chabin - Israel Correspondent

Jerusalem — The minute Kami Barker, who recently converted to Judaism, laid her eyes on Tel Aviv in May, she knew it was the place she wanted to call home.

“I was at home spiritually, but I also felt at home because it was a place where I could do more and be more accepted in places,” Barker, who has muscular dystrophy and uses a wheelchair, said this week by phone from her Manhattan apartment.

In New York, Barker, who is an attorney, explained, “I often have to go a block or two out of my way to find an accessible sidewalk. In Tel Aviv there were a lot more curb cuts and people were very warm and very friendly. They would all come out and help, which hasn’t always been my experience in New York.”

Because her mobility challenges require her to live way downtown, close to her workplace, Barker, who was raised in an Evangelical Christian home in the Bible Belt, said she feels relatively isolated from mainstream Orthodox life in the heart of the city. She moved to New York in May 2005.

“While I’ve made genuine friends in the [downtown] community that regularly host me for Shabbat, I often spend Shabbat alone,” she confided. “When I visited Tel Aviv, I realized with every curb cut and accessible bus, restaurant and grocery store, that regardless of where I live in Israel I will be in a community. Hopefully, with time, I will no longer spend Shabbat alone, for Israel is, after all, one big Jewish community.”

Exactly a week after Barker returned to New York, she made an appointment with a Jewish Agency aliyah emissary to begin the process of immigrating to Israel.

While she expected to encounter some bureaucracy, the determined 27-year-old never anticipated the shaliach’s response.

“He told me I could submit my application but that the Interior Ministry would ignore it for a year,” Barker said, her voice catching. “He said I could appeal the process but that no one wins their appeal.”

The problem, Barker discovered, is an outdated Ministry of the Interior policy that forbids overseas converts from all streams of Judaism from making aliyah within a year of their conversion. Though the High Court of Justice has deemed the practice illegal, the ministry continues to enforce it.

Barker, who underwent a Rabbinical Council of America/Beit Din of America Orthodox conversion at a well-known Manhattan synagogue at the end of March, is one of the many converts who have been forced to put their plans on hold due to the ministry’s policy.

Although some politicians and other interested parties are trying to force the ministry to welcome the converts unconditionally, it’s proving to be an uphill battle.

In June, the Knesset Committee on Immigration and Absorption convened to discuss the issue, which affects “hundreds” of converts, according to testimony by Mazal Cohen, the Interior Ministry official charged with approving visa permits.

The rule stipulates that, once they become Jewish, all new converts must reside in the communities where they converted for at least another year.

The ministry introduced this protocol in 2002 ostensibly to prevent foreign workers with no real interest in being Jewish from receiving immediate, automatic Israeli citizenship. The Palestinian uprising was raging, and Palestinian laborers who were no longer permitted into Israel were being replaced by workers from the Philippines, Romania and China.

In response to a petition filed by 11 shut-out converts, in 2005 the High Court ruled that conversion constitutes full membership in the Jewish people and that converts are eligible to immigrate immediately. Then-Interior Minister Ophir Pines-Paz stated that the one-year rule was cancelled until such time as new criteria to determine a convert’s sincerity were established.

So far, no such criteria have been approved.

Rabbi Seth Farber, the director of ITIM, a Jerusalem organization that helps people tackle the bureaucracy of Jewish life in Israel, stresses that the current roadblock has nothing to do with the rabbinate.

“This is purely an issue with the Interior Ministry. In cases like Kami’s, this has nothing to do with the validity of the conversion. The Israeli rabbinate will approve her conversion, no questions asked. If Moshe Rabbenu himself had performed the conversion, the Interior Ministry wouldn’t allow her in!”

To underscore the difficulties facing newly minted converts, Farber leafs through reams of paper bursting out of a thick file folder on ITIM’s conference table.

“There’s a young and very sincere European woman who arrived in Israel as a tourist and decided to convert to Judaism,” he relates. “She studied for conversion in a recognized Orthodox program in Israel but when it became apparent that there were too many bureaucratic obstacles preventing her from doing the actual conversion in Israel she went back to her home country, where she converted in a rabbinical court recognized by the chief rabbinate. This was the summer of 2006 — exactly one year ago.”

Since then, Farber says, the woman has repeatedly been refused citizenship and sent first to the conversion court — which denied any jurisdiction — and then to the rabbinical court, which formally certified her Judaism. In the meantime, she was threatened with expulsion. Only after ITIM lobbied on the convert’s behalf did the Interior Ministry grant her a B1 work permit.

“Last week we received two conflicting letters from the Ministry of the Interior,” Farber says, with the look of someone who doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry. “One intimated she would continue to be denied citizenship until new criteria are formulated and another sent her case back to the conversion court — the very same court that denied jurisdiction nine months ago.”

A spokeswoman for the Interior Ministry defended its handling of the European convert’s case, stating that it “did not deny any of the requests, but [rather] approved a temporary B1 visa until the regulations will be set ...When the regulations are approved, all [citizenship] applications will be checked again, as the court has decided.”

The spokeswoman could not comment on Barker’s case because the New Yorker, at the advice of the Jewish Agency emissary, has not yet formally requested citizenship.

Farber, who plans to petition the High Court to force the ministry to abide by the court’s 2005 ruling, says the ministry has “illegally taken upon itself the role of deciding who is a Jew and who isn’t a Jew. Hundreds of converts are being denied their Jewish status. This goes against a key principle of Jewish tradition.”

But Knesset member Moshe Gafni from the fervently Orthodox United Torah Judaism Party, defends the ministry’s practice.

“It’s impossible to know which converts are truly sincere and which converted simply to receive the government benefits that come with citizenship,” Gafni said.

When reminded that the High Court had struck down the protocol, the Knesset member responded: “The court’s decision was incorrect.”

Like Farber, Rabbi Maury Kelman, one of the rabbis who sat on the New York rabbinical court that converted Kami Barker, believes the ministry’s policy goes against Jewish law and values.

“A convert is Jewish in the exact same way that Abraham, Sarah, Moshe and the most learned rabbis of today are Jewish. To treat converts otherwise is, in plain words, to discriminate against them and to trample upon the most fundamental teaching of our Torah,” Rabbi Kelman told The Jewish Week.

Rabbi Kelman said he was “stunned” when Barker related her experience with the Jewish Agency aliyah emissary.

“I understand the Interior Ministry is justifiably concerned about foreign workers and I’m not advocating open borders,” Rabbi Kelman stressed, “but to discriminate against wonderful people who against many obstacles and odds decide to join our Jewish family is unconscionable.”

The rabbi urged the ministry “to find a way to deal with the workers that does not infringe on the rights of sincere converts.”

Rabbi Kelman, who personally taught Barker for more than a year at an Upper West Side synagogue, calls her “a wonderful person who has overcome tremendous obstacles to become Jewish.

“She could have easily decided that all the efforts in becoming Jewish — the three-to-four-hour journey to attend our weekly classes, the difficulties of keeping Shabbos and other mitzvot in a wheelchair, the [physical] challenge of immersing in the mikveh — weren’t worth it. And yet she persevered, and not only that, she’s decided to fulfill the fundamental mitzvah of making aliyah at a time when Israel needs talented and educated immigrants such as herself.”

Barker called her experience “incredibly frustrating and upsetting because I went through a long and rigorous Orthodox conversion, part of it to ensure my sincerity as a Jew. Now that I have proven to three rabbis that I’m sincere, committed and knowledgeable, I’m being treated differently than other Jews.”

As hundreds of North American Jews immigrate to Israel this summer with Nefesh B’Nefesh and the Jewish Agency, Barker can only sit on the sidelines and recall the same “unknown magnetic connection” toward Israel that brought her to Judaism.

“It’s not just the issue of waiting seven or eight months, though that’s very important, but the fact that if one of my friends who was born Jewish wanted to make aliyah immediately, he or she would be able to do so.

“The big deal is that according to Jewish law a convert is supposed to be treated equally to other Jews,” Barker said, “but this isn’t happening.”

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