JERUSALEM – In a landmark decision, Israel's Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the state must officially recognize conversions to Judaism by Reform and Conservative groups in Israel.
The effect of the ruling by the 11-justice panel seems very limited for now: It would force the Interior Ministry to identify those converted by non-Orthodox rabbis as Jews in the "nationality" clause on their ID cards.
But the Orthodox Jewish establishment that controls marriages, divorces and burials for Jews could continue to refuse services to such converts.
Still, secular and non-Orthodox religious groups praised the decision as an important step toward full equality for the Conservative, Reform and other more liberal Jewish movements which are dominant in the United States but marginal here.
"Jews from all streams are now recognized as legitimate, without distinction," said Rabbi Andy Sacks of the Conservative Movement in Israel. He said his movement expected thousands of conversion applications in coming days.
The Orthodox, meanwhile, vowed to reverse the ruling. Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who also heads the ultra-Orthodox Party Shas, said he would prepare a bill to get around the decision; while religious groups are a minority in parliament, they have influence and such a bill might be adopted.
Yishai said he would look into whether it was possible to identify the converts on their IDs as "Reform Jews" or "Conservative Jews" specifically.
Chief Rabbi Israel Yisrael Meir Lau said the court had interfered with centuries of tradition and warned that "the decision will totally confuse those converts whose conversion is not according to [Orthodox] Jewish law" because it raised expectations that could not be met.
For example, Orthodox rabbis here would continue to refuse to marry couples who are not both considered Jewish by the Orthodox rabbinate, said religious legislator Rabbi Avraham Ravitz. And the ruling doesn't change the fact that the state recognizes only Orthodox marriages and civil marriages performed abroad.
The ruling would also apparently distinguish between non-Orthodox conversions performed abroad or in Israel for purposes of acquiring citizenship, since those converted by non-Orthodox rabbis inside the country would still not necessarily be eligible for automatic citizenship under Israel's "Law of Return" for Jews.
"This ruling need not decide the legal question .. of whether Reform or Conservative conversion satisfies what is required by the Law of Return," the justices wrote.
Rabbi Jerome Epstein of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which represents about 800 congregations in North America, cautioned that it was too soon to know the impact of the ruling, but felt it sent an important message about non-Orthodox branches of Judaism.
"For the first time, on this issue, the court has said that Conservative rabbis who convert someone according to the proper procedures are legitimate. That in itself is a very powerful statement," said Epstein, who was at the courthouse when the ruling was released.
Many immigrants welcomed the decision.
Carmen Avrouskine, a Romanian immigrant who underwent a Reform conversion that had not been recognized by the state, said it gave her "a feeling of victory ... that there is justice."
Avrouskine's problem is typical of many immigrants': her father is Jewish and her mother is not — and since Orthodoxy recognizes only a maternal line of descent the Orthodox rabbis refused to register her as Jewish.
Traditionally, Orthodox Judaism does not seek converts, and prospective converts usually must pass a period of study and a conversion procedure before a religious court.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, head of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations based in New York City, representing more than 900 Reform synagogues, said he would be watching to see if the decision was overturned by parliament. He also noted that Reform marriages and other rituals still were not recognized.
"It's an important victory. It's a significant step forward. At the same time, this does not mean we have equality under Israeli law," he said.
Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America/World Union for Progressive Judaism, saw the ruling as a step toward strengthening Jewish unity worldwide.
"The last thing we need right now is a renewed international struggle over who is a Jew," Hirsch said in a statement. He was at the courthouse when the court issued its ruling.