A long road home: One woman’s journey through Israel’s conversion laws

Fanny Smith and her collection of religious books inside her Brooklyn apartment. Photo by Heather Higgins.

By Heather M. Higgins

The Midwood section of Brooklyn, N.Y. is reminiscent of some of the ultra-religious Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem – local businesses advertise in Hebrew, the savory smell of freshly baked challah fills the air, and young women dressed in long black skirts with their hair tucked perfectly under printed scarves walk the tree-lined streets to pick their children up from yeshiva.

However, this isn’t Israel. And many Orthodox families have an overwhelming desire to live in Israel and raise their children in the Jewish state. For one Midwood family that desire unexpectedly collided with a controversial Israeli policy on conversion.

“We know we are a Jewish family here in New York. It defines us. It’s our identity,” said Bruce Smith, 47, sitting in the living room of his modest second-floor apartment. “No Israeli bureaucrat was going to take that away from us – it was between us and God.”

Smith, who was born a Conservative Jew and is a self-described Zionist, became more observant through his best friend who taught at an Orthodox yeshiva. He said he never made enough money or fit in here in New York, so he made aliyah – that is, immigrated to Israel – in 1997. That’s where he met his olive-skinned Ecuadorian-born wife, Fanny Palacios, who is now 48. Fanny was not born Jewish – she was an Evangelical Protestant who had originally come to Israel as a tourist and stayed to work illegally as a domestic.

“I always had a feeling I was going to marry someone who spoke Spanish,” Bruce Smith said, “I just never thought I’d find her in Israel.” Smith, who earned a master’s in Latin American studies from the University of Texas in 1987, met Fanny on his second day at a temp job in Tel Aviv where she was also doing temp work as a legal secretary. He was immediately drawn to her. “I was wary of the kippah, but he was persistent,” she said, in a thick Spanish accent, as their 4-year-old daughter, Sarah, sat quietly at her feet.

As their relationship progressed, Fanny Smith learned to speak Hebrew, how to keep a kosher home and how to keep the Sabbath. She was so eager to learn the Jewish faith that Bruce Smith brought her to Jerusalem to buy prayer books from a warehouse of Spanish translations owned by the uncle of a Mexican Jew he knew.

Fanny already had some experience of Jewish observance from working as a domestic in kosher homes. “I’d been living it for other people, but now I was living it for myself – even though I wasn’t Jewish yet,” she said.

After consulting Israeli rabbis who told them that Fanny couldn’t study in a conversion course in Israel without a visa, the couple decided to marry in a civil ceremony in Ecuador and move to New York, where she could convert to Judaism under Orthodox auspices. After the wedding, Bruce Smith returned to New York to work in the garment industry while Fanny waited in Ecuador for her visa to the United States. During the 10 months they spent apart Fanny wasn’t idle. “Instead of learning English, she learned Judaism,” said her husband.

Fanny Smith underwent an Orthodox conversion to Judaism in January 2001 under the supervision of Rabbi Herschel Solnica, with the assistance of the Vaad Harabonim of Queens. The Vaad is a non-profit rabbinic organization whose members volunteer their time to serve various Orthodox communities in New York and maintain a beth din, a rabbinical court.

The Smiths married in a religious ceremony a short time after Fanny converted and have been living an observant Orthodox life in the Flatbush community, where two of their three young children attend Jewish day school. Last year, when they began preparing to return to Israel, they expected no problem: Israel’s Law of Return gives Jews the right to immigrate.

So Fanny and Bruce were in shock when a letter arrived from the Interior Ministry last August denying her application for aliyah. Fanny’s conversion had been ruled invalid, and the ministry did not regard her as Jewish.

“We were dumbstruck – what the hell happened?” Bruce Smith said. “I had to know why.”

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Conversion is a hot-button issue in Israel – a constant on the national agenda. The state-run rabbinate’s increasingly strict standards for recognizing conversions have upsetting consequences for thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union and, most recently, for Orthodox converts in North America who wish to move to Israel.

The Law of Return, enacted in 1950, gives every Jew the right to return to Israel. The law was amended in 1970 by the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, which for the first time defined the term “Jew.” For the purposes of the law, the amendment stated, a Jew was someone who was born to a Jewish mother or who converted to Judaism. However, the law also granted anyone with a Jewish grandparent the right to immigrate. It also left open the question of what constituted conversion.

The gap between the Law of Return and halachah – Jewish religious law – set the stage for the repeated controversies over conversion. The amended Law of Return would eventually allow hundreds of thousands of people, most of them from the former Soviet Union, who are not Jewish under halachah to immigrate and settle in Israel. Another group that came into question were those who were converted to Judaism in non-Orthodox ceremonies. As a result of Supreme Court rulings, these converts were also allowed to receive Israeli citizenship.

At the same time, the Chief Rabbinate has always had sole authority in Israel over religious procedures concerning personal status such as marriage and divorce. Someone who is not Jewish under the rabbinate’s interpretation of halachah cannot marry a Jew in Israel. About six years ago, the state rabbinate started to scrutinize Orthodox converts who wanted to marry, but the rabbinate never had the power to make decisions about the eligibility of converts for immigration – until recently. The Interior Ministry, run by the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, has authority over accepting immigrants. About a year ago it began referring cases to Shlomo Amar, the Sephardi chief rabbi of the country. Amar, whose office did not respond to numerous inquiries seeking comment, has been vocal in the media about his suspicions concerning Orthodox conversions carried out abroad.

The implication of this change was that some of the American modern Orthodox rabbis who were doing conversions in the United States were not rigorous enough in the demands that they made of new converts. In effect, Rabbi Amar became the judge of the authenticity of Orthodox conversions performed abroad.

In the Diaspora, the Interior Ministry’s policy has infuriated many rabbis belonging to the modern Orthodox community. They are offended that the Israeli rabbinate is acting as a policeman and casting doubts on whether they have been sufficiently strict in following religious law on conversion. They also believe the policy is discriminatory against would-be-converts, who may be discouraged from pursuing conversion.

Rabbi Avi Heller, the director of education at Manhattan Jewish Experience and a member of the Rabbinical Council of America, an association of Orthodox clergy, stressed that Judaism is not a religion that pursues converts. “There is no need to make the whole world Jewish,” he said in a phone interview, “But the political nature of this debate is very galling.”

Public opposition to the new standard has been spearheaded by Rabbi Seth Farber, 44, an American-born Israeli Orthodox rabbi. Farber, who has been outspoken about the need to take conversion out of the hands of any institution which can’t rise above politics, is the founder of ITIM: The Jewish-Life Information Center. ITIM helps people dealing with marriage, divorce and conversion in Israel navigate the hurdles of the state rabbinate bureaucracy. He believes that the Interior Ministry’s conversion policy is dividing, rather than uniting, the Jewish people. In February, Farber sent a letter signed by 100 American Orthodox rabbis to Interior Minister Eli Yishai urging him to recognize their conversions for immigration purposes. Yishai did not respond to requests to comment for this article.

The letter, which called the Interior Ministry’s policy unjust, has also highlighted the divide between modern Orthodox and haredi, or ultra-Orthodox rabbis, in the United States. Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for Agudath Israel, a major haredi communal organization, refrained from explicitly endorsing the rabbinate, but he maintains that lowering conversion standards is a recipe for societal disaster in a country that wants to maintain a Jewish identity. He believes that leniency in conversion has already effectively split the American Jewish population into two; with halachah-respecting Jews unable to assume that non-halachah-respecting members of the community are in fact Jews. He warns that the same thing could happen in Israel.

“The injustice is a phantasm,” Shafran said. “Not everything that discomforts one is a violation of one’s human rights. It might be a violation of one’s desires or feelings, and that should be avoided when it can be.” He added that modern Orthodox rabbis in America should “make your case and move on.”

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David Rotem, a member of Knesset from a right-wing party called Israel is Our Home, has been pushing a solution that would address the conversion crisis in Israel. Advocates expect the bill to ease the problem of converting more than 300,000 Russian immigrants who are not halachically Jewish. Critics say provisions in the law would strengthen the hand of the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate, so the legislation has gone nowhere. In an interview in his office in Jerusalem, Rotem blamed the impasse on the influence of the Reform and Conservative movements in the U.S. Both movements oppose the Rotem Bill because they say that it will lead rabbis in Israel to automatically reject all non-Orthodox conversions.

“This brought about a situation where conversions being done by Orthodox rabbis in the U.S. are now null and void in this country,” he said.

While the political battle continues, one woman’s conversion has finally been accepted. Farber didn’t explain exactly how he got the rabbinate to approve Fanny Smith but his organization successfully overturned her second rejection for aliyah. “I don’t know what he did, but he pulled a rabbit out of his hat and it all led to this visa – I picked it up this morning fresh from the Israeli Consulate,” said Smith on April 13. “It is Fanny’s legal visa to go to Israel and live as a Jew in the Jewish state and raise our family there.”

Fanny Smith's official aliyah visa to Israel. Photo by Heather Higgins.

“There is an inner feeling – almost like salmon swimming upstream – drawing us to Israel as our homeland,” said Bruce Smith. As he explained the attraction to the Holy Land, his wife sat on an old wooden chair given to them by a congregant from their synagogue, almost unaware of the conversation around her. In her pale yellow sweater, one hand covering her mouth, she stared down in silence at the aliyah visa stuck inside her Ecuadorian passport.

I asked Fanny what she was feeling.

“This is good news. I’m just so happy. This means we are going home,” she said.

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