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British Jews weigh fight after court ruling on ‘Who is a Jew’

LONDON – To fight or not to fight?

That question has bitterly divided the Jewish community in Britain following the Supreme Court ruling a month and a half ago striking down a Jewish school’s policy of limiting admission to the children of Jewish mothers.

The ruling, which said that state-funded Jewish schools may not award places on the basis of whether a student’s parent is Jewish because it contravenes Britain’s Race Relations Act, went beyond forcing an expansion of admissions criteria to children whose Jewish identity is a matter of dispute between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews.

By detaching Jewishness from Jewish legal criteria, whether Orthodox or Reform, it opened up the possibility that non-Jews could qualify for admission. It also introduced the idea that the government, rather than Jewish religious authorities, can determine who is Jewish in Britain.

“This case had nothing to do with denominations or conversions,” Britain’s chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, wrote in the London Jewish Chronicle. “It focused on one simple fact: that Jewish identity is — conversions aside — conferred by birth, by the mother, or in the case of liberal Judaism, by the father if the mother is not Jewish.”

The court decision in mid-December struck down those interpretations of Jewish identity and introduced its own, Sacks said.

British Jews across the denominational spectrum have viewed the ruling with alarm as government intrusion into religion. But a bitter debate has erupted within the Jewish community over exactly how to respond, exposing deep fault lines in the community and fueling Britain’s “Who is a Jew?” debate.

For now, the umbrella organization for British Jewry, the Board of Deputies, has decided to take a wait-and-see approach on how the ruling will play out. Leaders of the non-Orthodox movements here have praised the stance, but Orthodox leaders remain unsatisfied by the process.

“We were deeply concerned that a change in legislation is not being actively pursued,” said the rabbinical council of the United Synagogue, Britain’s mainstream Orthodox movement.

The debate started with the case of a Jewishly observant 12-year-old boy, identified in court papers as “M,” whose father is Jewish and whose mother is a convert to Judaism through the Reform movement.

The boy applied to the state-supported JFS school, a flagship of North London’s Jewish community founded in 1732 as the Jews’ Free School. The school, which has about 1,900 students, rejected M on the grounds that he was not Jewish according to halacha, or Jewish law, which traditionally holds that only those born to a Jewish mother or a woman who converted to Orthodox Judaism can be considered Jewish.

Britain has nearly 7,000 state-supported parochial schools, including some 50 Jewish schools. Under the law, schools can give preference to applicants from their own faiths using criteria set by a designated religious authority.

But M’s family sued, saying the school had discriminated against him. The family lost, but the ruling was overturned by the Court of Appeals. Ultimately the case reached Britain’s newly created Supreme Court, which ratified the Appeals Court decision in a 5-4 ruling, saying that basing school admission on whether one’s mother is Jewish is by definition discriminatory and in violation of the 1976 Race Relations Act.

The decision has left British Jews divided.

On one side are the Orthodox, who advocated early intervention by seeking an amendment to legislation that effectively would nullify the court’s decision and re-establish halacha — and with it, the primacy of British Orthodoxy — as the determining criterion for school admission.

On the other side are representatives from non-Orthodox Jewish movements, who said they would support a change in legislation only if their converts henceforth would be accepted into mainstream Orthodox schools. These representatives were pleased that the court ruling struck a blow against Orthodox dominance of religious matters even as they were alarmed by the government’s level of meddling in internal Jewish religious matters.

News Analysis

To articulate a unified Jewish response to the ruling, the Board of Deputies established a community consultative committee composed of representatives from the various denominations, with the exception of the ultra-Orthodox, or haredim. Haredim generally attend Jewish schools that do not receive state funds.

The effort to forge a consensus Jewish position failed, however. “Consultations with synagogue and other leaders had made it clear that the vast majority of the community would rather see how the Supreme Court judgment impacts on their activities and then consider what kind of amendment we need rather than rush into it,” said Board of Deputies President Vivian Wineman.

Rabbi Tony Bayfield, head of the Reform movement, praised the board’s approach as confirming that Britain’s non-Orthodox movements “are now indispensable to consensus.”

But Rabbi Yitzhak Shochet of the Orthodox United Synagogue accused the non-Orthodox movements of shattering any possibility of consensus by “holding us to ransom in this matter to only agree to a change of legislation on condition that we do not revert to the status quo ante.”

Meanwhile, Jews in Britain remain concerned that the government is interfering on the question of Jewish identity. They are worried, too, that the ruling means the state views Judaism as somehow being discriminatory.

Sacks, who is Orthodox, warned that the ruling defined any distinction between Jew and non-Jew as discriminatory, which is a problem for all Jews, regardless of denomination or position on conversions.

“Any discrimination, regardless of motive, between Jew and non-Jew, unless specifically exempted by law, has now been held to contravene the 1976 Race Relations Act,” he wrote in the Chronicle.

The president of the court, Nicholas Phillips, said in announcing the verdict in mid-December that it did not mean that those responsible for the school’s admissions policy had acted in a way that was “racist as that word is generally understood.”

Some Orthodox leaders criticized members of their own movement for refusing to work with non-Orthodox leaders to find a remedy to Britain’s “Who is a Jew” problem.

“What needs to happen now is that rabbis and lay leaders across the denominations work together in addressing new realities and furthering the interest of the community as a whole,” Rabbis Michael Harris and Naftali Brawer, the vice-chairmen of the rabbinical council of the United Synagogue, wrote in the Chronicle.

They called on “all denominations” to work together to reverse the Supreme Court’s judgment through a change in the law.

In the meantime, JFS and other state-funded Jewish schools have made some major adjustments to their admissions criteria. The criteria now focus on requiring applicants to demonstrate participation in faith-based activities, such as synagogue attendance — something Sacks characterized as “a Christian solution for a Jewish school.”

JTA

 
 

11 Orthodox converts barred from aliyah

Local rabbi signs letter to interior ministry

This time it’s an Orthodox problem.

The latest round in the never-ending battle over “who is a Jew” pits diaspora Orthodox rabbis, including one from Teaneck, against the Israeli Interior Ministry and the office of the chief rabbi.

At immediate issue is the immigration status of 11 North American Jews who underwent Orthodox conversion and whose petition to make aliyah has been denied in recent weeks by Interior Ministry immigration authorities.

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Rabbi Seth Farber Larry Yudelson

“It’s just not right that people who live in our communities, who are observant Jews, who have come to share their fate with the Jewish people and the State of Israel by making aliyah, are being denied the right to become citizens under the Law of Return, as other Jews can do,” said Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot of Cong. Netivot Shalom in Teaneck.

Helfgot was one of more than 100 rabbis who signed a letter to the interior ministry expressing concern that “conversions performed under some of our auspices and those of our colleagues are being questioned vis-à-vis aliyah eligibility.” The letter protests a new policy by which Orthodox converts are no longer automatically approved for immigration. Instead, the ministry has begun consulting with the chief rabbinate, which has announced a policy of accepting only conversions performed by certain rabbinical courts.

Had these converts been converted by Reform or Conservative rabbis, they would have been eligible to immigrate under a 1988 Israeli Supreme Court ruling that non-Orthodox converts are to be considered Jewish for the purpose of aliyah.

The letter was organized by Rabbi Seth Farber, head of Itim: The Jewish Life Information Center.

“One of the sad things for me is that one of the 11 converts converted more than 25 years ago and has been living an Orthodox life, and for the first time this person got a slap in the face. He’s basically being told he’s not Jewish as far as the State of Israel is concerned,” Farber told The Jewish Standard last week.

Farber, a Yeshiva University-trained rabbi, formed Itim in 2002 to ease the access to Jewish lifecycle services — such as weddings and funerals — that are under the purview of the Israeli government rabbinate.

Since then, Farber has found himself advocating for people whose Jewishness has been called into question by that body.

“We challenge the rabbinate when we see them either not following the policy as they define it, or see the policy they define as going against normative democratic behavor,” he said.

“I once thought that working quietly with the rabbinate wold solve every problem, that we could be the nice guy,” he added. “I’ve learned that the rabbinate is put into political positions and we’ve become a political counter-pressure against forces from the right,” Farber said.

A lawsuit filed by Itim has been shaking Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition. Itim had demanded that the rabbinate and local marriage registrars register as Jewish people converted by the Israeli army rabbinate. Without such registration, the converts will be unable to legally marry Jews in the State of Israel. The army rabbinate has converted more than 4,000 people, mostly immigrants or children of immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

The army rabbinate is considered by many to be more lenient than the national rabbinical authorities, who demand that converts observe a strict Orthodox lifestyle. This makes it a useful avenue for aliyah advocates, including many religious Zionists, who want large-scale conversion to help integrate the many non-Jewish relatives of Jews who immigrated from the former Soviet Union, but that leniency has led the national rabbinate to refuse to register the converts as Jewish.

This has resulted in political battles between the Yisrael Beiteinu party, which represents immigrants from the FSU, and the haredi Shas party, with the former offering legislation that would require the rabbinate to register military converts.

For the 11 Orthodox converts seeking to make aliyah, the question is less a struggle over who is a valid convert and more a question of who decides who is a kosher Orthodox rabbi: the Israeli chief rabbi or the local community?

This has been a gray area in Israeli law for several years, but the practice until the beginning of this year had been that the interior ministry deferred to the local community.

The Jewish Agency for Israel, which serves as the official bridge between Israel and the diaspora, particularly when it comes to aliyah, is getting involved in the matter at Farber’s behest, and Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky is raising the matter with interior ministry officials.

“Let the Jewish Agency emissaries decide who is eligible for aliyah, just as they decide concerning people who are born Jewish,” said Farber. “Halacha says we don’t treat the convert different than anyone who is born Jewish.”

Ultimately, said Farber, this all speaks to a broader issue.

“Certain forces in Israel are trying to export their version of Orthodoxy over the whole world. There are two opposite approaches, one that sees Israel as relevant to the entire Jewish people, and another ideological position that klal Yisrael — Jewish peoplehood — is only for the type of Orthodoxy that the chief rabbinate identifies with,” said Farber.

To reach Larry Yudelson, write to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

 
 
 
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