At the age of 35, I met the man who would become my husband while walking through Machane Yehudah (Jerusalem’s Jewish market) on a summer evening. Our courtship was brief, and by mid-winter Lior and I were engaged to be married.
I had always imagined I would marry in a traditional Jewish ceremony in adherence to the laws of Moses and Israel, though not by the authority of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, whose monopoly on personal status issues violates civil liberties.
Lior saw things differently. A fifth-generation Jerusalemite, he shared my distaste for the Chief Rabbinate, but wanted acknowledgement from the law of his land. Moreover, a nonrabbinate chuppah would devastate his family. After weeks of debating, arguing and crying, I conceded with a heavy heart and two conditions: I would not lie about my religious observance, nor would I convert under any circumstances.
I had reason to be concerned about conversion. I am, after all, a convert. When I was an infant, my mother embraced Judaism. She had been drawn to the Jewish people since childhood, when she would watch families walking past her house in northeast Philadelphia to synagogue, noticing fathers who spoke gently and wishing her alcoholic father could be as tender. On April 10, 1978, we were converted by an Orthodox beit din. In my baby book, my mother penned an entry that always makes me cry, “My darling, Karen. Today you and I became children of Israel.”
I grew up in a kosher home surrounded by the Yiddish of my Holocaust-surviving paternal grandparents, attending synagogue, fasting on Yom Kippur, shunning chametz on Passover. When I was 16, my parents took us to Israel. I fell in love with the country, and found myself visiting annually. At age 28, I boarded a one-way Nefesh B’Nefesh flight, landing to great fanfare on the tarmac: IDF soldiers waving flags, Jewish Agency machers offering handshakes, musicians; even Ehud Olmert and Ariel Sharon were there to welcome us home.
As one of the few olim who spoke Hebrew, I was a hit with Israeli journalists, whisked away after landing to interview on the evening news. I became an aliyah poster girl — a shot of me beaming alongside an El Al jet appeared in Nefesh B’Nefesh promos. My aliyah even proved a professional asset when, as a fundraiser for the Shalem Center, I accompanied fellows like Moshe Ya’alon, Michael Oren, Yossi Klein Halevi, Daniel Gordis and Natan Sharansky to meetings with American donors to discuss Zionism.
Fast forward six years to a call from the Chief Rabbinate’s Marriage Department: “Your conversion is unrecognized. Go to the beit din. Good luck.”
We called Tzohar, whose compassionate professionals took over our case. My parents tracked down the rabbi from our mikvah, a member of the Rabbinical Council of America, who vouched for the late dayanim who signed on my conversion papers.
Two weeks later, a Tzohar rabbi phoned, “I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that the conversion is still not recognized. The good news is that you can do a precautionary conversion.”
“But I’m already Jewish.”
The rabbi responded sympathetically that of course I’m Jewish, that the problem is not halachic but bureaucratic, that a precautionary conversion is a quick process, that I must not pass this problem on to my future children.
With two weeks to the wedding, Lior pursued back channels via influential connections. A famous, American-born rabbi from the religious Zionist movement wrote a letter; he had studied with the dayanim who converted me. A well-placed friend in the Jerusalem Municipality pulled strings. Colleagues brought the issue to the highest levels of the Chief Rabbinate.
But Rabbi Itamar Tubul, head of the Chief Rabbinate’s personal status division, deferred to an RCA official named Rabbi Michael Zilberman, who wrote that though they were Orthodox, two of the dayanim in question had served congregations that did not have a mechitza (barrier separating men and women) during prayer services. The conversion was invalid.
With three days to the wedding, I entered the beit din. A substitute rabbi sat on the bench; it was late August and most dayanim were on vacation. I answered his questions honestly: I keep a kosher home, attend synagogue periodically, even spent time in a haredi yeshiva, but drive on Shabbat. My case was deemed “too complex” and postponed until the regular dayanim were back the following Sunday.
“But my wedding is this Thursday.”
It did not matter.
Lior could no longer keep our saga from his family. His religious sister blanched, distraught. His parents were most concerned about their future grandchildren. Thankfully, they stood by us.
And then, on the morning before our wedding day, Lior’s phone rang. “Karen, you’re Jewish!”
After 2 1/2 months, I was approved thanks to powerful connections that I unfortunately cannot disclose. On Aug. 29, we had a beautiful, “recognized” chuppah.
The resolution of our story spotlights a failed system and profound injustice. Were it not for protectsia (special influence), I could not have legally married in the country that supported and celebrated my aliyah. Had I converted through a Conservative or Reform beit din, I would have had no chance whatsoever.
Interestingly, many religious and even haredi individuals helped me along the way because they see the Chief Rabbinate as a corrupt body that distorts true Judaism. When an upstanding, Orthodox rabbi offers to obfuscate on your behalf at the beit din, you know the institution has lost moral authority.
Many have asked if this saga changed my mind about aliyah and Israel. No, but it underscores my responsibility, and that of likeminded citizens, to work for change. Recent controversies surrounding the rejection of conversions by RCA rabbis like Avi Weiss and public disparagement of moderate rabbis like David Stav and Shlomo Riskin reveal just how extremist the institution has become. But this extremism is priming public opinion for the rise of an alternative system that would reflect the diversity of Israeli citizenry and the Jewish people. The time is ripe to support relevant NGOs, lobby Israeli leaders and leverage the full weight of Diaspora communal resources to break the Chief Rabbinate’s ruinous monopoly.
Karen Brunwasser is deputy director of Jerusalem Season of Culture.