The ruling, which stipulated that pupils can no longer be selected based simply on Jewish parentage, has put different interpretations of Judaism – specifically the issue of conversion – firmly back into the spotlight.
While all conversions to Judaism culminate in immersion at the mikvah or a brit milah, the end status that Orthodox and non-Orthodox converts acquire seems to be worlds apart.
The decision to convert was a straightforward one for 40-year-old Miryam Ben Chaim. Now living in Hendon with her husband of 15 months, she was raised by Nigerian-born parents as a Christian. But dissatisfied with its biblical interpretations Miryam sought answers – and she found them in Judaism.
After attending numerous Jewish learning groups, the data analyst decided to undergo an Orthodox conversion five years ago.
She said: “I woke up and decided I had to stop sitting on the fence. For me there was only one way to do it. If somebody truly believes in the Torah and accepts it as the word of God, then Orthodoxy should be the only choice.”
After living with an Orthodox family for nine months, coupled with intensive learning and the strict observance of halacha, Mrs Ben Chaim finally completed the conversion process in January 2008.
She is clear about her stance on the Supreme Court ruling: “I cannot accept people who’ve converted in a non-Orthodox way as Jewish. And if parents choose not to live an Orthodox lifestyle, why would they choose to send their child to an Orthodox school?
“I wouldn’t want my children to be at school with non-Orthodox converts for the very same reason that I wouldn’t send them to a non-Jewish school. Parents must be careful about what they expose their children to.”
David Frei, registrar at the London Beth Din, considers non-Orthodox movements to be a “deviation from authentic Judaism”, making the concept of non-Orthodox conversions worthless. He said: “Even if the convert is undertaking all the tenets and mitzvot of Orthodox Judaism, if the non-Orthodox rabbis presiding over the conversion are themselves not adherents of Orthodox Judaism, any conversion that is carried out by them is invalid.
“There is no such thing as more Jewish, any more than there is any such thing as more British. You are either Jewish or you are not.”
Frei adds: “In the eyes of Orthodoxy, there is no more point in a non-Orthodox convert keeping mitzvot than there is for the pope to do so. Neither is considered to be Jewish.”
But for non-Orthodox converts who spend, on average, one year studying Torah, attending classes, observing Judaism in the home and fully immersing themselves in a religious way of life, such claims are nothing but divisive.
Now an active member of Northwood and Pinner Liberal Synagogue, 20-year-old Abi Purkis’s conversion last year was fuelled by a devout belief in God and a firm affinity towards Jewish teachings.
She found the JFS case worrying: “I see myself as Jewish and want other people to see me as such. The JFS case showed me that Judaism is not an inclusive religion, which is such a shame as religion is constantly struggling with its public image.
“I’m not sure I want my children to attend an Orthodox school. I’d be concerned they’d be taught something different from what I believe in. However, I would like it to be an option for me so I could make a decision about what’s best nearer the time.”
Ms Purkis’s rabbi, Aaron Goldstein, who has himself overseen numerous conversions involving a “sincere personal journey into Judaism”, agrees that inclusivity is the key.
He said: “I welcome people into Judaism who I know to be ethical. I will, of course, treat such individuals with kindness, respect and dignity.”
Non-Orthodox movements adhere to the broader principle that a person is Jewish if one parent is a member of the faith and the child has been brought up within it. Rabbi Goldstein would like all sections of Judaism to show more respect to one other as a result of the JFS case. He said: “Unless we start giving as much validity to humility as we seem to do arrogance, we may find that the way we treat each other is no longer consistent with the understanding of the society we live in.”
But for Rabbi Tony Hammond of Bromley Reform Synagogue, internal differences should be seen as a sign of Judaism’s “vitality”. He said: “For us to all be marching under the same banner wouldn’t feel Jewish.”
He suspects that little will change as a result of December’s Supreme Court verdict: “It hasn’t made a jot of difference to how Jews view themselves and their faith. Putting the state in the position of having to, in effect, decide who is a Jew on behalf of the Jewish community is a disgrace. It is a great shame it was ever allowed to happen.”
Rabbi Tony Bayfield, head of the Movement for Reform Judaism, writes at length about the JFS verdict on the editorial page of the current issue of the movement’s magazine, Manna.
He said: “The London Beth Din’s growing stringency over who is a Jew does not sit well with the needs of a community, which recognises both the ethical and pragmatic importance of inclusivity. The absolutist position flies in the face of a reality where it is clear that it is not just the Orthodox who care about Jews and Judaism.”
– For the purpose of this article, Progressive, Reform, Conservative Masorti and Liberal Judaism have been termed “non-Orthodox”.
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