High Court Recognizes ‘Leaping Converts’


After 22 years of living as an Israeli, Justina Hilaria Chipana can finally consider herself a full-fledged member of the Jewish state.

The 50-year-old native of Peru was one of 17 petitioners who won High Court of Justice recognition of their non-Orthodox conversions to Judaism on Thursday, in what the Conservative and Reform movements hailed as a breakthrough for efforts to introduce more religious pluralism to Israel.

Orthodox rabbis and politicians disagreed.

By a vote of 7-4, the High Court ordered the state to recognize “leaping converts” — so called because they study in Israeli institutes but then convert with Reform or Conservative rabbis abroad — as eligible to immigrate under the Law of Return.

The ruling was a small step in a decades-long controversy in Israel over who is a Jew, who can turn a non-Jew into a Jew and who can decide whether that process was done correctly.

Thursday’s ruling also broadened a 1989 decision recognizing immigrants who arrive having gone through the entire non-Orthodox conversion process abroad; those immigrants are considered to be Jews and the Law of Return applies to them.

But the ruling did not endorse Reform and Conservative conversions performed in Israel, a move that effectively would end Orthodoxy’s de facto hegemony in the Jewish state and could stir up a government crisis.

In response to a demand presented by the ultra-Orthodox Shas party and signed by 25 legislators, the Knesset will meet in special session next week to debate the court decision.

Shas Chairman Eli Yishai called the ruling an “explosives belt that has brought about a suicide attack against the Jewish people,” according to Ha’aretz.

The Orthodox Rabbinate, which controls the observance of life-cycle events in Israel — including births, weddings and funerals — also cried foul.

“There aren’t two movements or three movements in Judaism. There is only one Judaism,” Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar told Israel Radio. “Whoever doesn’t go through a halachic conversion is not a Jew.”

Yet with many Israelis increasingly concerned about the lack of a unifying religious identity in the country — where some 300,000 citizens are non-Jews from the former Soviet Union — the Conservative and Reform movement remained confident that their more lenient conversions would provide a solution.

“We believe that with this precedent, it is just a matter of time until alternatives to Orthodox Judaism are fully recognized,” said attorney Sharon Tal of the Israel Religious Action Center, a pro-pluralism lobby associated with the Reform movement. “It could mean filing more High Court petitions, or just waiting for Israel to come to its senses.”

The Jerusalem Post reported that the Reform movement was unsatisfied that the court didn’t issue a more far-reaching decision, and plans to bring another petition in hopes of forcing the state to recognize Reform conversions performed in Israel.

The only way for the Orthodox to counter Thursday’s ruling would be to have a new law passed defining their stream as the only legitimate form of Judaism in Israel. But repeated efforts to mount such legislation in the past failed to muster majorities for even preliminary Knesset readings.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon counts one Orthodox political party, United Torah Judaism (UTJ), in his coalition, and he has been courting Shas. Still, it seems unlikely that either party would be able to apply enough pressure on the government to push through motions against the High Court ruling.

“We have no coalition agreement regarding this,” UTJ leader Rabbi Avraham Ravitz said. “I’m sure there will be discussions about what can be done, but I’m not especially hopeful.”

The High Court ruling is immediately binding on the government. That’s a relief for Chipana and her fellow petitioners, who filed their suit in 1999.

“We are going to implement the decision in a crystal-clear manner,” Interior Minister Ophir Pines-Paz of the Labor Party told Army Radio. “I think that it provides an answer for many people who are living among us and are forced to go through a very tough journey, exhausting and tiring, that causes many to lose hope.”

In the United States, reaction to the decision broke along denominational lines.

“As a Conservative rabbi, I am of course delighted that the High Court in Israel has mandated the recognition of conversions performed by Conservative rabbis in America,” said Rabbi Joel Roth, a scholar of Jewish law and the former head of the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Law Committee.

“I’m very much aware that some segments of the Jewish world will continue to refuse to accept as valid conversions performed by Conservative and Reform rabbis, and the court’s decision will create problems in those communities,” he said. “I accept as valid any conversion that complies with halachic requirements, and conversions that do not, I do not accept.”

The Orthodox Union, on the other hand, said it is “deeply concerned” by the ruling.

“The decision of the court may eventually lead to the division of the people of Israel into two camps. There will be a group of halachically valid Jews and a group of people who are Jewish only by the ruling of the Supreme Court,” the union said in a news release signed by its president, Stephen Savitsky, and executive vice president, Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb. “The consequences of this ruling will be tragic.”

For the petitioners, however, the ruling was a long-overdue relief.

“I always dreamed of really belonging to the country,” said Chipana, who first came to Israel in 1983. In 1993 she converted at a Reform congregation in Argentina, and filed the lawsuit in 1999. “Now perhaps it can really happen.”

But should she want to marry to her Israeli-born boyfriend, Yosef Ben-Moshe, she will have to go on waiting or do it abroad: The chief rabbinate in Israel remains exclusively Orthodox, and its grip on life-cycle events remains unchallenged.

That’s the way the UTJ’s Ravitz wants it. Asked what will happen if “leaping converts” apply for marriage licenses in Israel, he said, “I imagine they will be told to take a flying leap.”

Sallai Meridor, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, sees the question of Orthodox control as a larger problem than the one the High Court addressed.

“The entire acrobatic phenomenon in which people are forced to marry or convert abroad does no honor to Judaism or the State of Israel,” he said.

JTA Staff Writer Joanne Palmer in New York contributed to this story.


Newsroom Rebellion Silences Gossip About Mayor’s Family


An extraordinary minirebellion erupted in two Los Angeles newsrooms recently. At the Valley’s Daily News and the L.A. Weekly, reporters refused to pursue a story that senior editors at both papers very much wanted.

Insubordination is potential grounds for dismissal, so this refusal required chutzpah. But it’s not obvious that the editors were wrong and the intrepid reporters right.

The tip/rumor/innuendo in question involves personal information, as yet unconfirmed and unpublished, about a member of Mayor James Hahn’s family. Faced with resistance from reporters, management at the Daily News has since dropped the subject. The L.A. Weekly’s editor, apparently, still wants the story. Editors at the Los Angeles Times, for its part, elected to let the matter lie; no reporters’ rebellion was required.

In this column, I, too, will not disclose personal information about the Hahn family. But that doesn’t necessarily argue for my virtue. My wife, for one, objected to this article in any form. Alluding to personal, private information — gossip if you will — is no better than blurting it out, she insists, because it keeps the matter alive and dangling. Her views line up compatibly with the Torah, the Talmud and the writings of latter-day rabbis. All of these texts warn about lashon hara (gossip), carefully making distinctions between types of gossip, but generally condemning them all.

My wife adds that it’s elitist and condescending to obliquely reference something that journalists and politicos are whispering about, when I have no intention of actually informing the reader.

Her last point is awfully close to why Ron Kaye, managing editor of the Daily News, wanted his reporters to chase this lead.

“What’s so taboo about it?” Kaye said in an interview. “What makes us privileged and the public not? I don’t really understand why — other than it’s elitism and it goes to the timid culture of Los Angeles.”

This personal information, if published, would be captivating enough to get attention, but it pertains to nothing illegal, immoral or unethical. So is it automatically off limits?

Not in Kaye’s view: “If you’re going to step on the stage, you risk being totally exposed or revealed. I think the public should know fully the story of who Hahn is. And what his life is like and what happened to it. I think we have a right to know. Why do we talk about the personal lives of presidential candidates? It’s not because it’s the most important thing. We’re interested, and it becomes a form of symbolic language. When you step into the role of mayor in the media and glamour capital, you become part of the conversation.”

If Los Angeles worked like New York City, competitive pressures already would have flushed out any gossip involving the mayor. The tabloids might begin it, but the august New York Times would invariably respond with the “responsible” version. When it comes to celebrities, say Kobe Bryant or Michael Jackson, people are so conditioned to invasiveness that the publishing of revelations is hardly questioned. But why is it in Los Angeles that the personal life of actor Robert Blake looms more newsworthy than the mayor’s? Is it a reflection of Los Angeles’ civic culture that the mayor barely seems to qualify as a public figure?

In a Los Angeles Times guest column, blogger Mickey Kaus defended the fun of gossip, but also asserted that tattling on public officials would make more people pay attention to — and care about — what actually happens in official Los Angeles.

Kaye sees a connection between the handling of this story and the local media’s frequent unwillingness to pursue other, weightier grist.

“I’ve worked in journalism in this town for 25 years,” he said, “and the No. 1 issue has always been motivating staff to go full-bore, with the understanding that everything done by government is my public right to know. We need to confront public agencies and tell them that they have no right to any secret. It’s not as bad as 25 years ago, but it’s still bad.”

It’s a stretch to equate details about a politician’s personal life with the push for open, accountable government. But there are exceptions. In the early 1960s, no one reported on the philandering of President John F. Kennedy, as per the customs of the day. Yet, historians have since learned that one Kennedy mistress had connections to the mob, which could have — and may have — compromised JFK as president. Nor did anyone look into Kennedy’s serious health problems, which contrasted sharply with a projected youthful vigor so quintessential to his image.

If newshounds had bothered to examine Kennedy’s private life, they would indeed have found something newsworthy.

These conundrums plunge inevitably into situational ethics. It probably was nobody’s business that Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) paid for his wife’s abortion — except perhaps until he equated abortion with murder on the floor of Congress. Nor did the long-ago affair of Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) seem worth exposing years later — until perhaps the moment Hyde thundered that President Bill Clinton deserved to be impeached for lying about an affair.

When it comes to Hahn’s family life, the case for disclosure rests on shakier ethical footing, especially when looking through the prism of Judaism. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin dealt with such topics in his writings, and I do his work injustice to reference it so briefly and incompletely. But his citations include Leviticus, which prohibits being a “talebearer.” This stricture applies even to telling truthful tales. The Talmud goes so far as to warn against speaking well of a friend, “for although you will start with good traits, the discussion might turn to his bad traits.”

So well-behaved rabbis would keep their mouths shut — and forbid their children from majoring in journalism. But what about us scribes? I lean toward a difficult middle path, splitting the baby if you will, though unlike King Solomon, I’d be prepared to follow through.

That is, when it comes to a public official, it usually makes sense to investigate gossip or rumor. The Los Angeles Times called it right by probing the sexual-harassment rumors surrounding then-candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger. If you don’t investigate, you never know when there’s something that you should know — something that you ought to report. Critics lashed the Times for landing its Schwarzenegger stories closely in advance of the recall election. But the alternative of not publishing news of credible, multiple sexual-harassment allegations would have been irresponsible.

If newsmongers did choose to invest scarce resources in pursuit of the Hahn-related tidbit, and then confirmed the scuttlebutt, it would be contrary to their temperament to stay silent. Yet, in rare cases, when journalists check out rumors, they should be prepared to take their findings and shove them under the mattress. I say rare, because false rumors themselves can be newsworthy and fair game — and they can be dealt with sensitively, even if it undermines titillation.

Maybe the Los Angeles Times checked out the Hahn thing and let it go. Maybe it didn’t bother to check at all — which would be less defensible. Assistant City Editor John Hoeffel said he couldn’t share information about what stories his paper is or isn’t pursuing. He added: “In deciding whether to write a story about the mayor or the mayor’s family, we would weigh whether it affected his job as a public official. It would depend on whether the gossip is just colorful details about the mayor or a private matter. If we felt something was information that was important for the public to know about, we would write it.”

Editors at the L.A. Weekly did not reply to a request for an interview.

There’s another section of the Leviticus sanction against gossip. It states, “Neither shall thou stand idly by the blood of thy neighbor.” Jewish Week editor Gary Rosenblatt, in his column, has taken this admonition to mean that ethical journalism, which keeps its civic mission front and center, might pass the rabbis’ scrutiny after all.

Kaye of the Daily News said he could’ve found some reporter ambitious enough to do the deed. But he relied on the discretion of the veteran journalists he trusted most, such as Beth Barrett and Rick Orlov.

“If my best reporters, whom I respect deeply, won’t do it, it’s probably the wrong thing to do,” he said. “Nothing ever moved in the story. It didn’t become a public event. Nobody else touched the story and made you have to respond. It was an extremely close call. And I don’t know that, collectively, we as journalists did the right thing.”


Soldiers Celebrate High Holidays in Iraq

When Rabbi Mitchell Ackerson blew the shofar this past Rosh Hashanah, it reverberated throughout one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces. More than 100 Jewish members of the U.S. forces stationed in Iraq attended the High Holiday services at the former Iraqi dictator’s Baghdad compound.

They seemed shocked and awed, not least by the echo.

Then under a late afternoon sun, the group performed the customary Tashlich ceremony outside the palace, casting pieces of bread representing sins into a private lake once owned by the Iraqi dictator’s sons, Uday and Qusay.

"It was a gorgeous setting," said Ackerson, who is from Baltimore. "It tells me we can actually put these places to good use."

As the senior rabbinic chaplain for the U.S. operation in Iraq, Ackerson said he wanted this High Holiday season to start with a spiritual bang for the estimated 500 Jews among the 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and Kuwait.

It seems to have worked.

"One sergeant told me it was the most meaningful Rosh Hashanah he’s had in 20 years," Ackerson said of the palace services.

There were also services for Jewish service personnel in Tikrit, north of Baghdad, which drew some 50 people, and two services in Kuwait, where U.S. forces also are stationed.

American donors enhanced the holiday celebrations for the Jews serving in the Gulf. Three New York synagogues donated four Torah scrolls, each insured for $10,000, and one Maryland congregation sent prayer books and Hebrew learning material for the holiday events, which will include Yom Kippur and Sukkot services.

The Torahs capped a months-long civilian grass-roots effort dubbed "Operation Apples and Honey" by the Jewish Educators Network of New York. The group also sent 1,200 kosher dinners and 800 bagel-and-lox lunches to the troops to complement their usual ready-to-eat meals, along with prayer books, books on Judaism and ritual objects such as Kiddush Cups.

Maj. David Rosner, a U.S. Marine who served in the first Gulf War in addition to the current conflict, said Jewish troops deeply appreciate such efforts.

But not all Jewish armed personnel made it to the holiday services.

One Jewish GI who had planned to attend the Baghdad service on Rosh Hashanah was Spc. Matthew Boyer, 24, a member of the field artillery unit of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, 3rd Brigade, which is guarding oil fields north of the city.

But Boyer — who participated in the mission that hunted down Uday and Qusay — was called to a special mission instead. During that mission, a friend was fatally shot in the neck.

Others Jewish servicemen were able to come home, at least briefly, for the High Holidays.

Kayitz Finley, 21, a marine corporal from Los Angeles, is at home on 30 days’ leave. The son of ex-Marine Rabbi Mordecai Finley of Congregation Ohr HaTorah in Los Angeles, the young Finley said he has encountered all kinds of hostilities in Iraq.

In his first of many firefights during the war, Finley recalled lying in a ditch and watching a rocket-propelled grenade fly over his head "so close you could see the engravings on it. But I wiped away all the fear, picked up my rifle and just went to work."