When faith isn't enough

Helen Sagal converted to Judaism 15 years ago - but the Chief Rabbi has barred her son from a state-funded Jewish school. Nick Jackson reports on a controversy that has divided the community and may end up in court
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The Independent Online

Helen Sagal is trying to explain how she has found herself and her children stripped of their Jewish identity in Britain by the Chief Rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks, after her 11-year-old son Guy applied for a place at the Jewish Free School (JFS) in north London.

"We were keen for Guy to have a Jewish education and we'd heard good things about JFS," she says. "So last October we applied to send him there."

In December, a letter arrived from the school saying that because Sir Jonathan could not recognise Helen's conversion in Israel 15 years earlier, he could not confirm Guy's Jewish identity, so he could not have a place at the publicly funded school, which puts a priority on educating Jewish children. "It was out of the blue," Helen says. "They'd never met me. I thought, 'Who is this man to judge my conversion 15 years later?'"

The Sagals say Sir Jonathan is denying them their right to freedom of religious expression. His decision has prompted furious debate in the community over what it means to be Jewish. The Sagals received hate mail accusing them of making a mockery of Judaism, while supportersaccused Sir Jonathan of fundamentalism.

Helen Sagal became interested in Judaism as a law student at Birmingham University. After leaving university, she spent 15 months studying in Britain and Israel before converting in 1990, marrying Raoul, an Israeli Jew, and moving to Israel for seven years.

The letter was the first time she had been told that there was any question that she was Jewish. Guy had been circumcised by an Orthodox Rabbi in Britain, and she'd assumed that she and her children were kosher.

Convinced a mistake had been made, she spent a year appealing against the verdict. "I was pregnant through all this, and if I had another son I wanted to know whether he would be circumcised," she says. "But they just kept drawing it out and hoped we'd go away."

Helen had to explain the situation to Guy. Only in July was she given a final decision: she and her children were not Jewish. She is now considering legal action against the Chief Rabbi.

The Sagals' campaign has inspired another family to go public about their dispute with Sir Jonathan over access to JFS. Kate and David Lightman's 11-year-old daughter Maya has been barred from the school, although Kate is head of English at JFS. Her husband, David, is bemused: "How can it be that my wife is good enough to teach at JFS and I was good enough to go there, but Jonathan Sacks says my daughter's not good enough for them."

Kate, too, became interested in Judaism at university, and met David at the Jewish Society. After graduating, she spent two years on Orthodox kibbutzem in Israel, where she converted in 1987 and was commended as an exemplary student by the rabbis.

A few months later she married David, with whom she lives an Orthodox life. "Ever since we were married we've lived a Jewish life," David says. "Being Jewish is the centre-point for our lives."

But Sir Jonathan insists that at the time of their conversion, both women ignored fundamental aspects of Judaism. "Mrs Sagal was unable to provide us with evidence that, whether at the time of her conversion or subsequently, she maintained even the most basic observance of Jewish law," he said in a statement. Kate Lightman is accused of entering into a controversial marriage to David, against the letter of the law, so soon after conversion that, says the Chief Rabbi's office, that she cannot have sincerely taken on the duties of Jewish law at the time.

"People don't suddenly, out of the blue, get into a relationship and decide to get married and have no inkling of this in the months beforehand," said a spokesperson for the Office of the Chief Rabbi. "If you want to join any club, you can't put a red line through one of the terms and conditions on the form. They'll strike you off."

The women say they are being stripped of their status for behaviour since they converted. According to Jewish law, once you are a Jew you are always a Jew: as long as you were born or converted legitimately, no one can take that away from you. As converts, they say, they are being treated as second-class Jews.

The issue has prompted some in the Jewish community to ask: if the families are so keen to send their children to JFS, why not just let them? "There are different communities represented in the school," explains a spokesperson for the Office of the Chief Rabbi. "But what they have in common is that their mothers are Jewish." This view is "pathetic and absurd," says Helen Sagal.

The Sagals believe that Sir Jonathan's real reason for annulling their Jewish status is simple arrogance. By rejecting the decisions of Israeli courts to convert Helen and Kate, he is setting himself above them.

"These children are being used as pawns by Jonathan Sacks so that the world will regard his standards as the highest," says Professor Geoffrey Alderman of the American InterContinental University in London, who has been campaigning on behalf of the families.

But Sir Jonathan says standards, at least in the Sagal case, have been lax and that basic procedural norms were not in place. According to the Chief Rabbi's office, it is widely accepted that a foreigner wanting to convert would spend at least a year in Israel under the guidance of the Chief Rabbinate or have a special application from a Beth Din (religous court) abroad. Neither had occurred in her case. The court which dealt with Mrs Sagal's conversion was among a number of city conversion courts that were later disbanded, he says.

Professor Alderman dismisses this as rubbish. "It's a spurious cover-up," he says. "Different religious courts have always behaved in different ways. Sacks is imposing his own view of conversion on Israel."

Professor Alderman says the Sagal and Lightman cases are not the only ones. Three other families whose mothers converted in Israel have contacted him since the Sagals' troubles became public earlier this year. "But they've been so ashamed about what's happened that they've accepted it," he says. "These people rule by fear," David Lightman says. "But we refuse to remain silent."

After voicing support for the families in The Jewish Chronicle, Professor Alderman claims he has been told by an official at Sir Jonathan's office that he must publicly recant some of his views before they will talk to him. "I wouldn't have believed it," he says. "They think they're above accountability, only answerable to God. It's a fundamentalist attitude."

The Sagals aim to make the matter as public as possible in the British and Israeli courts, suing Sir Jonathan for defamation. They have been advised by Professor Michael Corinaldi, an Israeli legal academic. "A conversion certificate is final and universal," he says. "No one can deny it. Judaism is a status. This is libel."

Many in the wider Jewish community think that the rules for membership to Sir Jonathan's club are too strict. Rabbi Danny Rich, the chief executive of Liberal Judaism, a Reform movement with 10,000 British members, has condemned what he calls the "narrow 'definition policy'" at schools such as JFS. "Liberal Judaism believes that state-funded Jewish schools should be for the benefit of all Jewish children," he says.

Others go further. "When you allow religion to dictate policy in schools, it leads to this kind of discrimination and injustice," says Terry Sanderson, the vice-president of the National Secular Society. "We should remove these dreadful admissions criteria and make these schools open to everybody in the community."

In the meantime, children like Guy Sagal will continue to be excluded, whether because of "faulty" conversions or the pride of the religious establishment.

"Being Jewish is important to me. My family's Jewish, so it's important that I'm Jewish," Guy says. "I thought the school was really good, I really wanted to go there, learn to speak Hebrew, and I'd feel like I'm back in Israel."