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Tel Aviv — “My dream is that the couple gets an appointment for 9 a.m. and they will be out at 9.30 a.m.,” he said. “During those 30 minutes, they will have drunk a cup of coffee with some cookies, and in these 30 minutes they should have done whatever they need to do…. When they will speak to the rabbi or rebbetzin or whoever they speak to, they will be inspired, and after 30 minutes they will say: ‘That’s it’? So fast, so easy, so nice?”
Stav’s vision goes beyond smiling employees and coffee machines to confront some of the deep problems facing the rabbinate. Couples are supposed to go to their local rabbinate office, but registrars in some regions of Israel refuse marriage applications for which one or both applicants are converts out of a mistrust of conversion procedures. They do so even though the conversions are actually supervised by the very rabbinate that employs them, but as registrars are tenured, the chief rabbis are unable to fire them.
Stav is promising to deregulate marriage registration, allowing any Israeli Jew to register his or her marriage at any regional rabbinate office. With couples free to go wherever they want, offices that give couples a hard time will soon find themselves abandoned for friendlier offices, he said.
Stav wants to make not only rabbinate offices more welcoming, but also remodel the Israeli face of the Jewish religion in general. The state-run Conversion Authority works slowly and bureaucratically, deterring hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the former USSR who have Jewish lineage but who are not halachically Jewish. They miss many of the benefits of being Jewish in Israel relating to marriage, burial and passing on their Jewishness to their children. In 2011 the state’s Conversion Authority performed just 4,293 conversions, compared with 8,008 in 2007. From 2008 to 2010, the number of conversions dropped to 4,645 from 6,221.
Part of the problem, Stav said, is that when potential converts meet with religious officials, they feel like they are being “investigated by an agent of the police or a Mossad agent.” Instead of treating conversion candidates with suspicion, he wants to welcome them in and try to attract others, convincing them that there is a value to becoming Jewish. Conversion studies will take on more of a component of Jewish philosophy alongside Jewish law.
He and his Tzohar colleagues are concerned that if large numbers of Israelis who identify culturally as Jewish remain halachically non-Jewish, and if marriage registration isn’t overhauled and more couples are driven to avoid Israeli marriage, the government will have no choice but to introduce civil marriage. If this scenario unfolds, he fears, within a few decades millions of Israelis will be halachically non-Jewish. “We feel that if we don’t change the system, we’ll have to confront in 10 to 15 years a society that is divided into two nations,” he said.