Is she Jewish? Rabbinate says yes, Israel says no

In 2012, Anna Varsanyi was married in an Orthodox Jewish ceremony conducted through Israel’s Chief Rabbinate.

Two years later, the Hungarian immigrant has made a life in Israel, settling with her husband in the central city of Modiin and working a desk job in a hospital. She is weeks away from having her first child.

But when the baby won’t be Jewish, according to the State of Israel.

Varsanyi, 30, is the victim of an unusual bureaucratic mix-up.

Israel abounds with immigrants who are considered Jewish by the state but not by the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate under its stricter qualifications. Varsanyi is the rare case in which the opposite is true.

Born to a Jewish mother, Varsanyi meets the Chief Rabbinate’s standards for who is a Jew. But Israel claims Varsanyi isn’t Jewish because her mother converted to Christianity.

Varsanyi says her mother is Jewish and it was her great-grandmother who converted — in 1930.

“It’s like they tell you, ‘Come, make aliyah, you’re Jewish, you’re one of us,’” Varsanyi said, using the Hebrew word for immigration to Israel. “But when you’re already here, they say ‘You’re second-class, you’re not one of us. So you might as well leave.’ ”

Born under Hungary’s Communist regime to a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father, Varsanyi grew up barely aware of her Jewish heritage. But a growing interest in her Jewish roots led her to study Yiddish literature and culture at university and to register for a 10-day Birthright Israel trip. Next came a year abroad at the University of Haifa, where she met her Israeli future husband. After a stint working for the Jewish Agency for Israel in Budapest, she immigrated in 2011.

Varsanyi gained citizenship under the Law of Return, which requires only one Jewish grandparent for an immigrant for automatic citizenship. Varsanyi’s maternal grandfather was unambiguously Jewish.

But when Israel’s Interior Ministry saw a document concerning her great-grandmother’s conversion, they refused to register her as Jewish, claiming she was raised Christian. To be recognized as Jewish, the ministry told Varsanyi, she needed to convert.

Except Varsanyi can’t convert because she is already Jewish according to Jewish law, which doesn’t recognize conversions to other religions. The chief rabbinates of both Israel and Hungary consider Varsanyi, her mother, her grandmother and her great-grandmother to be Jewish.

“It’s hard to imagine anybody more committed to the Jewish people than someone like Anna,” said Rabbi Seth Farber, the founder of Itim, an Israeli organization that guides people with religious status issues through Israeli bureaucracy. “They’re simply not looking at the facts. This woman’s basic rights are being violated, and those of her unborn child are being violated.”

At first, the Interior Ministry’s decision had little effect. Varsanyi already had citizenship and was married, the two areas in which issues of personal religious status are most likely to cause problems.

But last year she began petitioning the ministry for a change in status, worried that her future children would not have their marriages recognized by the government.

“I think it’s ridiculous,” Varsanyi said. “Why would they force me to convert when I’m Jewish? If I didn’t have principles or problems I’d say let them win. But I wouldn’t be able to face myself.”

The ministry has rebuffed her requests, claiming that her mother converted from Judaism before she was born. Varsanyi says this is not true, that it was her great-grandmother who converted.

The ministry also has refused to rely on the Chief Rabbinate’s recognition of Varsanyi as Jewish, despite a 2012 law allowing it to do so. Interior Ministry spokeswoman Sabin Haddad told JTA that the ministry has asked the rabbinical court that declared Varsanyi Jewish for an explanation but has yet to receive a response.

After several rejections, Varsanyi has come to feel like the ministry’s employees “don’t give a crap.” She said she once met with a ministry official, who after reading her papers said, “I don’t know what you want because you’re not Jewish.”

“It was traumatic — I almost cried,” she said. “Like, ‘Welcome to Israel: You’re not a Jew.’”

Israel moves to ease path to conversion for those not considered Jewish

The Israeli government has adopted a major reform expected to ease the path to conversion for hundreds of thousands of Israelis now prohibited from marrying in the Jewish state.

In the most significant response in decades to the estimated 400,000 Israelis who are not considered Jewish by the Chief Rabbinate, the Cabinet expanded authority for conversion beyond a small group of approved haredi Orthodox courts.

Since only Orthodox Jewish marriage is permitted in Israel, such Israelis — the majority of them immigrants from the former Soviet Union — must convert if they wish to be married in Israel.

Under the new law, which was passed Sunday and became effective immediately, the conversion process is expected to get significantly easier.

The measure, which allows any city rabbi in Israel to perform conversions, is expected to pave the way for the elimination of some provisions seen as overly stringent, such as the Chief Rabbinate’s requirement that converts send their children to Orthodox schools.

Currently, only four rabbinic courts appointed by the haredi-dominated Rabbinate are authorized to perform conversions.

“Every rabbi in every city will be able to set up his own tribunal according to Jewish law,” said Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, who brought the bill to a Cabinet vote along with Justice Minister Tzipi Livni. “It also gives a choice. People will be able to choose the tribunal they want to go to, and warm, friendly tribunals will be used more than others.”

Conversion policy has dogged Israel since the 1990s, when about 1 million immigrants from the former Soviet Union entered the country. The immigrants qualified for citizenship under the Law of Return, which requires immigrants to have just one Jewish grandparent. But hundreds of thousands did not meet the Chief Rabbinate’s stricter standard for Jewishness — either having a Jewish mother or undergoing an Orthodox conversion — and thus could not marry in Israel.

The Chief Rabbinate’s stringencies led many to balk at the process entirely, in many cases choosing instead to marry abroad. Israel recognizes non-Orthodox conversions performed overseas.

The Cabinet vote on Sunday is the latest attempt at a compromise to make the conversion process friendlier.

In 1999, the government established the Joint Institute for Jewish Studies, a body intended to teach potential converts about Judaism from a range of non-Orthodox perspectives in preparation for an eventual Orthodox conversion, but the effort foundered.

In 2010, the issue heated up again after Yisrael Beiteinu became the Knesset’s third-largest party. The party, focused on Russian immigrant interests, proposed a measure similar to the one that just passed, but a provision would have given full control over conversions to the Chief Rabbinate. That provoked the ire of non-Orthodox groups and the law was shelved.

“This government resolution doesn’t give more power to the Chief Rabbinate,” said Seth Farber, the founder of Itim, an organization that aids Israelis with personal status issues. “The hope is that this bill will enable a much more understanding and friendly set of rabbinical courts to emerge without the Chief Rabbinate imposing their monolithic view on every conversion.”

The reform chips away at longstanding haredi Orthodox dominance of conversion policy. Both of Israel’s chief rabbis, who are haredi, oppose the new law. Should the chief rabbis attempt to block the conversions, Farber has pledged to petition the Supreme Court.

The passage of the law marks the end of a lengthy legislative process. Though it passed an initial Knesset vote last year, a ministerial committee vote required to move the measure along was postponed continuously until Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu removed it from the legislative agenda entirely two weeks ago, reportedly to appease haredi parties.

A group of ministers led by Bennett and Livni responded by pushing the law through the committee anyway, and a modified version passed in the Cabinet.

While the reform doesn’t go as far as recognizing non-Orthodox conversions — a step many non-Orthodox and Diaspora groups would liked to have seen — those groups nevertheless heralded its arrival. Rabbi Gilad Kariv, CEO of the Israeli Reform movement, said he supports any reform that eases conversion as long as it doesn’t hurt non-Orthodox streams.

“Now there are no more excuses for [Religious] Zionist rabbis,” he said. “Now is the time for them to deliver.”


A pioneer of the Israeli rabbinate

Tucked away at the end of a small road on Kibbutz Gezer in Israel’s dusty midlands, Rabbi Miri Gold’s kitchen smells like a bakery. On the coffee table is a plate of homemade chocolate chip cookies. As she dons her mittens to pull two enormous quiches off the rack, Gold explains that cooking has always been one of her passions. In the first article ever written about her she was dubbed “Rav Cookie,” and she even met her husband, David Leichman, when they worked together to establish the budding kibbutz’s kitchen in the late 1970s. 

After Israel’s landmark decision at the end of May to recognize Gold as a non-orthodox rabbi and pay her a state-funded salary (as Israel has done for decades with her Orthodox counterparts), she has become far better known for her passionate convictions about equality among Jews from various walks of life than for her culinary skills. 

Yet, despite all of the recent media attention and prominence as the new poster rabbi for Reform and Masorti congregational rights here in Israel, Gold remains humble about her role in inciting change and guardedly optimistic about the future.

“I can’t say I’m euphoric,” Gold said calmly. “Until we see all 15 non-Orthodox rabbis who will serve in rural Reform and Conservative communities and the actual checks are in the mail, we’re not uncorking the champagne bottles.” The recent court ruling may not be a total victory (the salaries will come from the Ministry of Sports and Culture rather than the Ministry of Religion, and an appeal by the Orthodox has already been filed), but according to many it does indicate a progression, albeit a slow one, toward democracy, dialogue and collaboration between the various streams of Judaism within Israel.

“Change takes time, but freedom of religion also means freedom from fanaticism,” Gold said. “I’m not claiming that people aren’t allowed to disagree with my way of being Jewish, but we all have a common interest to protect Israel and celebrate Judaism in all of its different forms.”

The petition to provide rural communities that are part of a regional council with non-Orthodox rabbis in order to better meet their needs, which was initiated in 2005 by the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) for Reform Judaism in Jerusalem, marks the first time that the government has ever agreed to recognize a non-Orthodox person — or a woman — as an official rabbi.

Until now, Israel’s Reform and Conservative congregations have never received official recognition of either their institutions or their leaders. And although these streams of Judaism make up a large part of the population, the movements received only $60,000 total in 2011, while the Orthodox congregations were allotted $450 million.

This inequality, which Gold calls “taxation without representation,” has sparked fiery debates within Israel and among Diaspora Jewry for decades. But so far, little progress has been made on some of the major issues, such as civil marriage and recognizing conversions from abroad. So while Reform and Conservative congregations have 250 rabbis and more than 100 congregations in Israel, they are often marginalized, ignored and even accosted by Orthodox Jews and Zionists alike.

After the court’s decision was announced earlier this summer, some opponents even went so far as to claim that this ruling will weaken the fabric of Judaism in Israel and promote anti-Zionist policies — statements that Gold firmly rejects as senseless bashing.

“We live on a secular kibbutz, but we have a wonderful Jewish culture,” she explained. “We brought our Reform and Conservative roots and found our own way. As the plaintiff in the petition, I was originally chosen to serve [Kibbutz] Gezer, because I am also a founding member of the kibbutz.”

What exactly Gold’s new role will require of her, however, remains unclear. To date, Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein (who ultimately ruled that funds from the Ministry of Culture and Sport will support the Reform and Conservative rabbis on an even par with Orthodox rabbis) has yet to define either the new roles for the 15 new positions or exactly how they will be chosen and divided among the rural Reform and Conservative congregations. Gold understands that her position will require that a certain number of hours be devoted to synagogue activities, but whether she will be paid a full or partial salary and exactly how her life will change remains uncertain.

Since 1999, she has served at the Kehilat Birkat Shalom congregation on Kibbutz Gezer, where she settled after making aliyah 35 years ago from Detroit.

Raised in a liberal Jewish home where she was taught to accept and respect others for who they are without prejudice, Gold said she never dreamed of becoming a rabbi. Only the third female rabbi to be ordained in Israel, the 62-year-old mother of three decided to go to rabbinical school in her mid-40s.

“The kibbutz couldn’t find anyone appropriate to come and do services, and I was looking for a new career,” she said. “I’ve always liked social work, and I think of my job as being more of a pastoral counselor and a listening ear than an officiator of ceremonies.”

From a family of staunch American Zionists who emigrated from Russia to the United States in the early 1900s, Gold first came to Israel at the age of 16 with a Zionist youth group. “My mother was a Hadassah lady, and she always wanted me to love Israel, but she never in her wildest dreams thought I’d move here,” she said with a smile.

When Gold returned to Israel for her junior year abroad in 1969, skirmishes in Jerusalem were commonplace. Despite living here during the War of Attrition, she never felt afraid. Within three months of retuning home to finish her bachelor’s degree in philosophy at the University of Michigan, she found herself feeling starved for Israel.

“I was never very sophisticated politically, but I liked being part of the Jewish holidays, and I always felt comfortable here,” she said. After another five trips here on various missions, Gold finally decided to make aliyah in 1977.

“The process just evolved, and when I eventually came, I knew I wouldn’t be alone.” And although leaving her large, close-knit family behind was intimidating at first, she quickly settled into life on the kibbutz.   

Today, Kibbutz Gezer is in the midst of privatization, and its early pioneering days are a distant memory. In the fields surrounding the cluster of modest homes, wheat, beans, sunflowers and cotton are now grown. For the members of this small rural community, having a place to celebrate their liberal Judaism enriches their connection both to each other and the state.

This, in essence, is why Gold and many others like her are fighting for religious pluralism and equal rights.

“Israel is a democracy, so it’s important that some of its funding be allotted to the Reform and Conservative communities,” Gold said with conviction. “We’re not a cult. We’re mainstream. Despite the setbacks, in the long run this is a step in the right direction.”