Agency Raps Chief Rabbinate Over Conversion Policy

By Noga Tarnopolsky

Published March 07, 2003, issue of March 07, 2003.
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JERUSALEM — The Jewish Agency for Israel, the quasi-governmental body that oversees immigration to Israel, is investigating claims that the Israeli Chief Rabbinate is unduly blocking thousands of Russians from converting to Judaism.

At their board of governors meeting last week, leaders of the Jewish Agency for Israel voted to create a high-powered committee to examine what critics say is a crisis caused by the Chief Rabbinate’s stringent conversion standards. The vote came days after agency chairman Sallai Meridor called on the Chief Rabbinate “to show a more humane approach in dealing with immigrants desiring to convert.”

Out of approximately 1 million immigrants who came to Israel from the former Soviet Union during the last decade, almost a quarter are not Jewish according to rabbinic law, or Halacha. In many cases would-be converts are required by the Chief Rabbinate to adopt a stringently Orthodox lifestyle, even though the overwhelming majority of Russian immigrants are believed to be nonreligious.

Between 2,000 and 2,500 people convert to Judaism in Israel each year. Critics say the number would be much higher if the rabbinate displayed more compassion and flexibility.

“That figure would increase significantly if people who are already citizens and who wish to convert felt that they would not be only tormented and humiliated if they approach the rabbinate,” said a former immigration minister, Yuli Edelstein.

Orthodox leaders counter that the Chief Rabbinate cannot compromise on religious standards that require strict observance.

The debate reflects a centuries-old theological divide between rabbis who insist that converts must adopt an Orthodox lifestyle, arguing that conversion implies the acceptance of Judaism, and others who urge a more lenient approach toward gentiles who have cast their lot with the Jewish people, particularly those who settle in Israel. Critics of the Chief Rabbinate argue that the current stringencies are not mandated by rabbinic law, but represent the growing influence of the ultra-Orthodox in recent decades.

In its resolution passed last week, the Jewish Agency framed the issue around the personal plight of immigrants who wish to complete their integration into Israeli society by converting, but have been rejected outright by the rabbinate or face seemingly insurmountable barriers.

“These immigrants… willingly chose to make Aliya, and for the most part want to be a part of the Jewish people,” the resolution stated. “This population lives an Israeli lifestyle, identifies itself as an integral part of the Jewish society in Israel and would be interested in conversion.”

The agency resolution called for the formation of a committee to examine the issue, chaired by attorney Ya’acov Ne’eman. A former finance minister, Ne’eman chaired an earlier commission during the 1990s that was charged with coming up with a formula for including the Reform and Conservative streams of Judaism in conversion, an area historically controlled by the ultra-Orthodox. In 1997, the commission proposed the formation of conversion institutes that would employ Reform, Conservative and Orthodox teachers. The compromise kept the final decision on who would be converted in the hands of the Chief Rabbinate, which was in turn expected to create special conversion tribunals that would be open to the institutes’ alumni.

While the initial impetus for the first Ne’eman commission came from pressure mounted by American advocates of religious pluralism, spokesmen for the Russian immigrant community expressed hope that the new institutes would help ease the path toward conversion. But in his press conference last month, Meridor released data that bespoke a grim reality.

Figures released from the Institute of Jewish Studies, a Jerusalem study center established under the terms of the Ne’eman commission, reveal that of some 2,000 of its graduates wishing to convert, only about one quarter were approved by the rabbinate.

The chairman of the institute’s board of directors, Binyamin Ish-Shalom, underscored the fact that most of the 1,500 graduates who failed to complete their conversions were not formally rejected by the Chief Rabbinate’s religious courts. Most were not even given a hearing: They were held back by the powerful, shadowy middle men known as the “court’s emissaries” — shlichei beit hadin in Hebrew — who have it in their hands to decide who will be permitted to approach the court, and who will not. Critics say that the emissaries come with their own criteria that are not necessarily halachic in nature.

Ish-Shalom complained that candidates are often required to do “impractical things, impossible things that prevent these people from converting.”

“I could give you 20 examples,” he sighed. “For example, a woman wishing to convert who is prevented from doing so because the emissary demands that her husband, who is completely Jewish by any standard, attend the conversion class with her. And what if he works? Or the young woman high school graduate who is told that she has to forgo the army and serve in national service instead. Or the hundreds of children — hundreds — who study in religious boarding schools… who live entirely religious existences and who never reach the rabbinic courts because when they go home to their parents once a fortnight, the household does not observe Shabbat.”

Itzik Ohana, director of the Chief Rabbinate’s division for foreign converts, responded with a question: “Well, if the man who is a Jew married to the non-Jew won’t go and study with her, he’s secular — what kind of Jewish household would they have? That doesn’t work!”

Critics counter that the issue has more to do with entrenched political interests than the minutiae of rabbinic law.

“It is important to state clearly that this has nothing whatsoever to do with Halacha, or with the options available in halachic tradition to alleviate the suffering of a person who wants to be a Jew,” said Menachem Lorberbaum, a professor of Jewish philosophy at Tel Aviv University and senior fellow at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. “It has to do with institutional power, period.”

Edelstein, now a Likud Knesset member, said he was “ashamed” standing before the new immigrants. “You know, I agree that conversion should not become a quick commercial venture,” Edelstein said. “But we pick the people who care the most, who are willing to give the most, we pick them, specifically, and make their lives so hard. Each one of these is a horror story.”

Alex Lubotsky, a Modern Orthodox member of the original Ne’eman commission, expressed deep disappointment at the current results. “I’m afraid we may have fallen asleep while on guard,” he said. “For the first year or two, it looked like the rabbinate was cooperating. I think they’ve reverted back to their original patterns of behavior. The latest data should serve as a red light, and we should take it into account with the upcoming elections for the Chief Rabbis.”

The terms of both chief rabbis will expire in the next few months.

“I call upon all the public figures who serve on the election committees for the chief rabbis to examine and investigate the positions on the matter of conversion,” Lubotsky said.

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