Ask the Expert: Lost Conversion Certificate

How do I make aliyah without my conversion certificate?

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Question: I converted to Judaism some 35 years ago. During the hurricane I lost all paperwork. My rabbi has passed and no one knows where his copies are. What am I to do, for I wish to make aliyah to Israel?
--Howard, Houston

Answer:
Mazel tov on deciding to make aliyah! That's very exciting, and though it might be a challenge to get around the significant hurdle of lost conversion papers, I do have some ideas for you.

The first thing I would do is approach Nefesh B'Nefesh about making aliyah. They will get you started on the paperwork, and help you navigate the specifics of your case. I got in touch with Doreet Freedman, the Director of the Pre-Aliyah department at Nefesh B'Nefesh, who told me that issues like yours are usually presented to the Israeli Ministry of the Interior before the aliyah application is approved.

The Ministry of the Interior generally requires a conversion certificate (all denominations are acceptable), a letter from your rabbi explaining the syllabus you studied prior to conversion, as well as confirming that you were active in your Jewish community post-conversion, and a letter from you that explains why you converted, and why you want to make aliyah.

Depending on how you converted, you may actually be able to get a copy of your conversion certificate. If your conversion was with an Orthodox rabbi, then a conversion certificate would likely have been filed with the Rabbinical Council of America. Rabbi Michael Zylberman is the Administrator of the Regional Courts for Conversion, and he told me that the RCA has files going back to the early sixties, but they're not comprehensive. So if you converted in the mid-seventies, it's possible that the RCA would have a copy of your conversion certificate, but not certain.

According to Rabbi Ashira Konigsburg, if you converted with a Conservative rabbi, the Rabbinical Assembly may have a certificate on file, but their records from that time are not very well organized, so it's unlikely that they would be able to locate it. The Rabbinical Assembly is working on putting together a new system that would make it easier to locate records like yours.

Rabbi Victor Appell of the Union for Reform Judaism suggests that you check with the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati, which has copies of some Reform conversion certificates that were sent in by various congregations.

All of the rabbis I spoke to suggested that you begin by working with your current rabbi and synagogue to see what documents they can find, and then go from there. Many synagogues that were damaged or closed because of hurricanes are still in the process of recovering documents, so it may be worth it to contact your local Jewish Federation and find out if there are any boxes of synagogue records sitting in a warehouse somewhere. 

Additionally, when you converted, you probably sat in front of a three person beit din that included your rabbi. Are either of the other two members of the beit din still alive? If so, they may be able to vouch for you, and may even have copies of the paperwork.

If you have gotten married since you converted, then your ketubah, if it is available, could also be helpful in confirming your status as a convert, because it will refer to you as a Jew.

I'm sure that it's frustrating to have to prove your Jewishness when you've been a member of the community for more than 30 years, but making aliyah is a laudable goal, and once you get through the stack of paperwork and board that plane, I'm sure it will be worth it. Good luck!

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