Conversion is Not Skin Deep

Imagine making aliyah- leaving your work, family and friends behind. Making a bold journey- only to be rejected by the Israeli authorities. In the past couple of weeks we lived an intense drama with one of our brave olim (new immigrants), who was arrested and almost deported. We managed to stop the deportation just as he was boarding the plane.
Kirk Maxfield, who had a Reform conversion in 1993, was arrested at his home in Haifa for overstaying his tourist visa. Mr. Maxfield had applied for citizenship, but was not permitted to stay in the country while his case made its way through the system, as is normally the case.

While all streams of Judaism agree in principle that Jews by birth and Jews by choice should be welcome in Israel they disagree on what constitutes a “proper” conversion. In 2005, IRAC won the right for Jews who had a Reform or Conservative conversion abroad to be granted full rights of olim in Israel. In spite of this victory, many converts find themselves denied this right.

Some converts are particularly discriminated against. Each year, dozens of African Americans who converted to Judaism abroad make Aliyah. When they arrive here they go through intense scrutiny because of fears that they are connected to the Hebrew Israelites, a community of African-Americans in Dimona whose members are not recognized as Jewish. During this process, the converts are not granted a work visa, or medical benefits, like other olim. Sometimes they are deported prematurely, like Mr. Maxfield.

Through our Legal Aid Center for Olim, headed by Adv. Nicole Maor-Center, we do our very best to help them fight the system and convey to them how deeply we value their desire to become part of Israeli society.  If Israel is to remain a homeland for all Jews it must welcome all Jews.

The new Knesset will have the largest number of Orthodox members of any Knesset in history. The rights of non-Orthodox converts could be in further jeopardy depending on whom Prime Minister Netanyahu picks to head the Ministry of the Interior.