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Israel considers question: ‘Who is a Jew?’

Raised without religion in Maryland, Shannon sought to make a new life for herself as a Jew in Israel.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Raised without religion in Maryland, Shannon sought to make a new life for herself as a Jew in Israel.

In a rigorous conversion process, she studied religious law for a year, took a Hebrew name and changed her wardrobe to long skirts and sleeves as dictated by Orthodox Jewish custom. Finally, a panel of rabbis pronounced her Jewish.

But five years later, she and some 40,000 like her have suddenly had their conversions annulled by Israel's Rabbinical High Court. The court says the rabbi who heads a government authority set up to oversee conversions is too liberal in approving them.

The issue, now headed to Israel's Supreme Court, has exposed an intensifying power struggle inside Israel's religious establishment over the age-old question of "who is a Jew." It also threatens to deepen the wedge between Israel and American Jews, who largely follow more liberal schools of Judaism.

While 34-year-old Shannon's Israeli citizenship isn't in jeopardy, the ruling diminishes her religious rights. Many rabbis will no longer oversee basic Jewish rituals for her, such as getting married or receiving a Jewish burial. If she has children, they might not be considered Jewish.

"I'm very worried. I probably will not be able to get married in Israel," she said. "God forbid, if I die, will I be allowed a Jewish burial?"

Definition of Jewishness
Shannon was the woman's given name in the small Maryland farm town where she grew up. She asked to withhold her surname and Hebrew first name for fear of antagonizing the rabbis who hold her fate in their hands. Other converts interviewed by The Associated Press made the same request.

The quest for a definition of Jewishness has dogged Israel from its beginning, and has taken on urgency in recent years as immigrants have poured in, primarily from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia. Many of them have Jewish roots but are not considered Jewish under Orthodox religious law because they weren't born to Jewish mothers.

Three years ago the government formed the conversion authority to set universal standards, headed by Haim Drukman, a respected Orthodox rabbi who had already overseen tens of thousands of conversions over the years, including Shannon's.

Born to a Jewish father and Christian mother, Shannon became drawn to her Jewish roots, and in 1995 moved to Israel. She didn't meet the Orthodox rabbinate's criteria of Jewishness, so she underwent conversion, approved by Drukman in 2003, and maintains a religious lifestyle to this day, keeping kosher and not working on the Sabbath.

But last March, the state-funded rabbinical court, which has the final say over who is Jewish, reversed her conversion and some 40,000 others overseen by Drukman and his followers.

The rabbis based their ruling on their discovery that a Danish woman whom Drukman converted more than a decade ago did not observe the Sabbath. But the decision was a symptom of a broader struggle.

On one side are ultra-Orthodox hard-liners, who insist converts must embrace their strict interpretation of Judaism for life. On the other side are moderates like Drukman. "There is a commandment to love every Jew and there is a special commandment to love the convert," he says.

An important goal of Drukman's office was to help the more than 300,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union whose Jewishness was in question.

Rabbi Eliyahu Ben-Dahan, director of the rabbinical courts, said too many people are being converted who aren't genuinely interested in the religion. "Nobody really checked how many of these 300,000 people really wanted to be Jews," Ben-Dahan said.

Divisions between Israeli, American Jews
The decision also has threatened ties with those American Jews who belong to the more liberal Reform and Conservative denominations. The ruling on conversions is seen as another blow to their struggle for recognition in Israel.

"Few crises have so divided Israel from the North American Jewish community," the United Jewish Communities, a U.S. umbrella group that donates hundreds of millions of dollars to Israel each year, wrote to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in July.

To the group's plea for action, Olmert replied he was "determined" to solve the conversion crisis.

But the same month, Olmert abruptly fired Drukman. He said the law requires the 76-year-old rabbi to retire, but an official said Olmert felt that Drukman's rate of conversions — 3,400 in the three years of his authority's existence — was too slow. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was sharing confidential information.

Drukman, speaking to the AP, called the dismissal "foolish and malicious," saying his contract had been renewed only a year earlier.

The Supreme Court is likely to take up within weeks an action brought by Yael, the Danish woman at the heart of the conflict. She converted to marry an Israeli man she met 20 years ago, but during divorce proceedings last year, she acknowledged she did not live by Orthodox rules. The rabbis then invalidated her conversion and everyone else converted by Drukman.

Yael says the rabbis are acting against the spirit of Judaism.

"There is an unwritten law that we should be nice to each other and be human beings, and I always connected this to religion," she said.