Conversion Crisis in Israel Boils With New Appointee

By Nathan Jeffay

Published December 24, 2008, issue of January 02, 2009.
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Haifa — Florence Rouaux, a 28-year-old Jerusalemite who immigrated to Israel from Belgium in 2003, completed her conversion to Judaism three years ago. She went through the recognized channels, converting under the auspices of Israel’s state Conversion Authority.

But in May of this year, crisis struck the Conversion Authority. Israel’s Supreme Rabbinical Court — which is increasingly dominated by ultra-Orthodox rabbis — ruled that a conversion supervised more than a decade ago by the current head of the Conversion Authority, Rabbi Haim Druckman, was invalid, alleging that the convert in question failed to observe Jewish law and never intended to.

But the court did not stop there. The court’s chairman, Rabbi Avraham Sherman, used his ruling to deliver a stinging indictment against Druckman, a prominent religious Zionist rabbi. Sherman also called into question the Jewishness of all 40,000 people converted through Druckman’s system — even though the Conversion Authority did not yet exist at the time of the conversion that is at issue.

The ruling — which was widely seen as an attack on the Modern Orthodox religious Zionist camp — sparked a firestorm in Israel and beyond. Meanwhile, Rouaux and others who converted under the auspices of the Conversion Authority find themselves in a kind of religious limbo. While the ramifications of Sherman’s ruling are still not clear, with marriage in Israel under the exclusive control of the Orthodox rabbinate some converts are now asking whether they will be allowed to marry.

“I want to feel like a normal Jewish person, and this is very hurtful,” Rouaux said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen — I’m in no-man’s land.”

Now, half a year after the conversion system was thrown into chaos, the Israeli government is trying to put it back together again.

Shortly after Sherman’s ruling, the government retired Druckman, 75, a move that was widely interpreted as an endorsement of the Supreme Rabbinical Court’s criticism of him. The authority has been largely inactive since then.

On December 4, the Prime Minister’s Office and Civil Servants’ Commission appointed a new deputy head of the Conversion Authority — the highest-ranking appointment a transitional government can make. They tapped Muli Yeselson, an employee of the Joint Institute for Jewish Studies, an institution created by the government in 1997 and run jointly with the Jewish Agency for Israel that employs Orthodox, Conservative and Reform teachers to educate potential converts. The hope is that the appointment — together with the appointment of 10 new conversion judges — will get the Conversion Authority up and running again.

The government’s moves, however, have already come under fire from all directions.

While the appointments were intended to get things back on track, some of those who help converts are not convinced. “I am opposed strongly to both of these appointments,” said Shaul Farber, an Orthodox rabbi and head of ITIM, a non-profit organization that helps Israelis navigate the bureaucracy of the Chief Rabbinate. “Instead of bringing in one person who can lead, which should be the focus, the Cabinet is creating facts on the ground which will just be an obstacle in front of the new authority head.”

The Rabbinic Committee on Matters of Conversion, an ultra-Orthodox group, has denounced the Yeselson appointment, saying that someone who legitimizes non-Orthodox Judaism is an inappropriate choice. The committee also condemned the fact that he was a government appointee. “It’s absurd for secular people who do not subordinate themselves to halacha to have the authority to appoint officials to the Conversion Authority without requiring the Chief Rabbinate’s consent,” the committee said in a statement.

The Conversion Authority, which is now the subject of so much conflict, came into being with high expectations. Providing an easy path to conversion became a national priority for Israel in the 1990s as the mass immigration from the former Soviet Union brought with it hundreds of thousands of newcomers who were not considered Jewish under religious law. In 1999, after growing complaints about the slow pace of conversion, the government put its weight behind the creation by religious Zionist rabbis of special conversion courts to speed up the process. In 2004 these courts were united into the Conversion Authority, answering to the Prime Minister’s Office.

The religious tensions that have brought about the current conversion crisis, however, show no signs of dissipating.

A recent article in the newspaper Yated Ne’eman, which is considered a mouthpiece for ultra-Orthodox leaders, described a growing mistrust of Modern Orthodox conversions, reporting that Haredi religious judges “have long been raising an outcry against conversions by Rabbi Druckman and other national-religious figures that have sunk to the level of Reform ‘conversions.’”

Meanwhile, some Diaspora Jews are charging that the Conversion Authority is beyond repair and should simply be dissolved. This is now the official position of the Jewish Agency after it passed a motion to this effect at its November congress in Jerusalem. It called for the creation of a new independent body to oversee conversion. It wants the new body to be extra-governmental but to be funded and recognized by the government, and aided by Jewish Agency contributions.

Jewish Agency spokesman Michael Jankelowitz said that his organization decided to take a firm line because it is responsible for aliyah. “The Jewish Agency wants it to be known that it wants those who made aliyah under the Law of Return who were not halachically Jewish to have the chance to become so without obstacles,” Jankelowitz said.

It is expected, however, that such a body would still leave conversion in the hands of Orthodox rabbis, a position that rankled Reform delegates to the Jewish Agency congress. They saw the proposal as a betrayal of their fight for equality under Israeli law. A motion that the Reform delegates introduced at the congress calling for government recognition for non-Orthodox conversions failed.

The idea of trusting Orthodox rabbis to deliver moderate conversions “has become bankrupt,” Dalya Levy, executive director of Arzenu, the international Zionist organization of the Reform movement, told the Forward.

“We think we’ve come to the end of the line on the whole process,” she said. “Whenever we say we don’t like being second class and prefer to be equals we are told we are being divisive.”






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