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Bobbing for Justice: A Mikveh Victory in Israel

Bobbing for Justice: A Mikveh Victory in Israel

Chris, born and raised Catholic, met his Jewish wife at Oxford University. A decade ago, they made aliyah (moved to Israel) with their three children. After living in Israel for two years, Chris decided to convert to Judaism. He attended weekly study sessions with a Reform rabbi, went to Shabbat and holiday services, and, together with his family, became part of the local Reform community.

After more than a year of preparation, three Reform rabbis unanimously embraced Chris as a Jew. He knew that the conversion would be finalized once he immersed in a mikveh, a Jewish ritual bath – but when Chris showed up at the local public mikveh, the Orthodox mikveh operators learned that Chris’s conversion was a Reform conversion and they refused to let him in.

Chris’s story is not unique.

For many years now, the Orthodox Rabbinate's control over almost all public mikvehs in Israel has ensured the exclusion of anyone who doesn't meet their religious standards. To fulfill the mikveh requirement, Chris had no choice but to immerse in the sea (which counts under Jewish law as a mikveh), out in the open, in the cold February weather.

Stories like these are now history, thanks to last week's Supreme Court ruling that Reform and Conservative conversion candidates must be allowed access to the country's ritual baths.

This victory comes after a decade-long legal battle we fought on behalf of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism (IMPJ), during which we sued both the State and individual local municipalities, one after another. We lost in the lower court. We appealed to the Supreme Court. This month, almost six years later, the Supreme Court accepted our appeal and overturned the lower court's decision.

Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein ruled that everyone has the right to worship God in their own way and that "the moment Israel funds ritual baths and makes them available to the public, they cannot be used in a discriminatory way." Justice Rubinstein also ruled that the court's decision will apply to all local councils that allow their public mikvehs to be used for conversions, not only to the local religious counsel we sued in this case.

Orly Erez-Likhovski, our lead counsel, said:

"We are thrilled that after such a long battle, the court issued a precedent-setting ruling that is another step towards full recognition of Reform and Conservative conversions throughout Israel."

The decision will directly affect hundreds of people each year and make another serious crack in the Orthodox monopoly on Judaism in Israel. Not surprisingly, some religious parties in the government coalition are already threatening to pass a bill that would overturn the Supreme Court’s decision.

Following his conversion, Chris chose the name Micah, after the biblical prophet who once said, “Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.” (6:8) Our Micah opened the door of Israel’s public mikvehs to all Reform and Conservative converts. He did his biblical namesake proud.

Anat Hoffman is the executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the public and legal advocacy arm of the Reform Jewish Movement in Israel. She is also the chairwoman of Women of the Wall, a group of Jewish women and men from around the world who strive to achieve the right of women to wear prayer shawls, pray, and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

Anat Hoffman

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