Jerusalem - Israel’s ongoing clash over conversion to Judaism, the so-called “Who is a Jew?” debate, flared into crisis again last month when a state-funded religious academy, created to ease the would-be convert’s path, declared that it was freezing referrals of candidates to state-run rabbinical courts for conversion until the chief rabbinate appoints new and more lenient rabbis to serve on the courts.
Under the rabbinical courts’ current composition, the obstacles facing would-be converts prevent more than half of all candidates from becoming Jews, said Benjamin Ish-Shalom, director of the Joint Institute for Jewish Studies (informally known as the Joint Conversion Institute).
“The standards make conversion impossible,” said Ish-Shalom, who is Orthodox. “We see the result in a dramatic rise of mixed marriages between Jews and non-Jews, when this was low in the past.”
About 10% of married Israeli Jews have non-Jewish spouses, according to a new study initiated by The New Family, a not-for-profit organization promoting alternatives to Orthodox Jewish marriage rites in Israel. Many of those interfaith families are from the former Soviet Union.
Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jewish members of the Conversion Institute all agree this presents a danger to the demography of the Jewish state.
“If the government and the rabbinical leadership do not find an immediate solution to the conversion crisis, the Jewish world will be called to battle over the future of Israel as a Jewish state,” said Rabbi Gilad Kariv, a Reform Movement member of the Conversion Institute and co-director of the Israel Religious Action Committee, after the meeting.
The Jewish Agency for Israel, under whose auspices the Joint Institute operates, held a special session on the crisis this week during the quarterly meeting of its international board of governors, but no conclusions were reached, participants said.
The Joint Institute was established in 1998 as part of a plan by a government-appointed commission to break the decades-long deadlock between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox movements over control of the conversion process. The commission, headed by then-finance minister Yaakov Ne’eman, called for conversion candidates to undergo preparation at a special institute whose board and faculty would include Orthodox, Reform and Conservative rabbis. The plan reaffirmed the monopoly of the Orthodox chief rabbinate over the conversion ritual itself, but it called on the rabbinate to create special conversion tribunals that were expected to act more leniently than before.
Instead, according to Ish-Shalom and others, the tribunals have been stricter than ever. They cite cases of would-be converts who were required to show their intention to practice Orthodox Judaism by moving to Orthodox neighborhoods, sending their children to Orthodox schools and proving that their entire families have adopted Orthodoxy. That, liberals say, puts undue burdens on hundreds of thousands of people who live in Israel and want to be accepted into the mainstream.
The conversion dispute has festered for years, but it became a crisis during the 1990s, when some 1 million people of Jewish ancestry emigrated from the former Soviet Union, including an estimated 300,000 who are not Jewish by traditional standards because their mothers are not Jewish.
Ish-Shalom, the institute’s director, insists that such people can be absorbed into Judaism without violating rabbinic canon law, or Halacha. “We don’t want a deviation from Halacha,” he said. “Our goal is to allow a large group of immigrants who want to be Jews and who see themselves as Jews to complete the conversion and be a part of the Jewish people in every respect.”
One couple interviewed by the Forward said they had largely given up on achieving recognition as a Jewish family. The pair, Michael and Tanya (not their real names), immigrants from the former Soviet Union, said they had wanted to marry but Tanya wanted to convert first. She passed the course at the Joint Institute, but when she arrived at the rabbinical court she was told she needed to spend time with an adopted family so that she could adjust to religious living. The court promised to help her find a “suitable” family. “We waited for four months and gave up,” Michael said. The couple married last September in the Czech Republic. In December, Tanya underwent conversion in a Reform ceremony.
“We will continue to be a part of the Reform movement, which considers us Jews,” Michael said. “But what will happen when our children want to marry?”
The latest round of official feuding centers on an internal debate within Orthodoxy. Traditionalists hold that adopting Judaism can only mean embracing the entire religious practice as defined by Orthodox rabbis. Rabbis of the Religious Zionist movement, the Israeli wing of Modern Orthodoxy, have argued for less stringent tests, citing the teachings of Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel, the 1940s-era Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel. Uziel ruled that participation in the building of Israel was sufficient proof of one’s intent to be part of the Jewish people.
Critics say, however, that the chief rabbinate, once the citadel of religious Zionism, has recently come under the domination of Orthodoxy’s right wing, leading to an abandonment of Uziel’s modernist-Zionist approach in favor of stricter standards.
“We see today a Khomeinization of the process of conversion in Israel that did not exist until the last decade,” said Rabbi Andrew Sacks of the Masorti Movement, the Israeli arm of Conservative Judaism. “The rabbinate has moved from a Zionist rabbinate to an ultra-Orthodox, Haredi rabbinate.”
In 2003, following an earlier round of complaints, the chief rabbinate created a stand-alone Conversion Authority that was to oversee the work of the special conversion tribunals. The deputy director of the authority, Rabbi Menachem Klein, told the Forward that his agency has administrative power only and cannot control the rulings of the rabbis who sit on the conversion courts. “It’s a big authority, and we are on the administrative side,” Klein said. “We are also not satisfied with the way things are now.”
Klein said that the Sephardic chief rabbi, Shlomo Amar, who heads the rabbinical court system, and the head of the Conversion Authority, Rabbi Haim Druckman, had been seeking to appoint new conversion court judges “in the hope that this will bring renewed momentum to the conversion issue.” Their efforts, however, have not been successful.
Asked what was holding up the new appointments, Klein said the Civil Service Administration and its commissioner, Shmuel Hollander, were delaying them.
Hollander, in a rare press interview, heatedly rejected the accusation. He charged that he had been under pressure for months to give illegal approval to rabbinical court judges who do not meet statutory requirements. Under Israel’s civil service code, rabbis overseeing conversions must hold a certificate of ordination at the level known as Yoreh Yoreh. The rabbinate, Hollander said, was consistently forwarding substandard candidates.
“This whole story is simply scandalous,” Hollander told the Forward. “They are putting pressure on me from every direction to forfeit the minimum requirements.”
Hollander said that both Amar and Druckman had met with him to ask that he change his position, but he said that such appointments would constitute a felony.
“I wouldn’t give someone permission to build if he does not have an engineer’s degree,” Hollander said. “But they want anyone to be able to bring a note from someone else saying that this person can be a judge.”
Rabbinical court appointments, he said, had become subject to personal and political interests rather than to professional qualification. “This whole story is about interests — only interests,” he said.
The battle over conversion is being fought not only in the religious courts but also in the government and in the civil courts. Last week, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert rejected “at this time” a request made last November by Amar, the chief rabbi, to amend the Law of Return. The iconic law grants automatic citizenship to Jews immigrating to Israel, including those born Jewish and those who have converted to Judaism. Amar’s amendment would deny automatic citizenship to converts coming from abroad. Olmert’s rejection was written in a letter to the Masorti Movement in response to a letter that the movement wrote condemning the proposal.
Israel’s Supreme Court is currently considering a petition by the Reform and Conservative movements that their own conversions of non-Israelis be recognized.
In a recent interview with The Jerusalem Post, Amar bluntly acknowledged that he views Orthodox rabbis and Orthodox standards as the only acceptable ones. “I just want the Chief Rabbinate to be the sole body responsible for conversions,” Amar said. “Just as we are responsible for weddings and divorces and kosher supervision, so too should we be the ones who convert.”
Amar said that, in his view, there is no such thing as a Conservative or Reform conversion. “Either you are a Jew or you aren’t a Jew,” he said. “And if you don’t believe in Torah, then you are not a Jew.”