While the attention of world Jewry was riveted on the United Nations, Israel’s Knesset quietly gave initial approval on September 22 to legislation that’s intended to ease the process of conversion to Judaism in Israel. The bill authorizes local rabbis to perform conversions at the request of would-be converts, permitting converts to seek out friendly rabbis and loosening the control of the national conversion court system. The bill also bars the growing practice of rabbinical courts unilaterally annulling conversions that were performed elsewhere, usually because a convert is not maintaining an Orthodox lifestyle.
The bill must pass two more Knesset votes to become law.
The measure was drafted by lawmaker David Rotem of the hard-line, Russian-immigrant-dominated Yisrael Beiteinu party, and is aimed primarily at helping the estimated 300,000 Russian immigrants who are not considered Jewish under Orthodox rabbinic law. It was initially opposed in committee by the Haredi parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, out of fear that it would loosen the strict standards now imposed on converts. They were won over before the floor vote, however. The bill passed its first reading by 54 votes to one.
Reform Jewish leaders are objecting to a provision in the bill that would formalize the Israeli chief rabbinate’s control over conversions. The provision is seen as a way to win backdoor approval for the long-debated “Who Is a Jew?” amendment that would legally bar Israeli recognition of any conversions other than Orthodox ones. Rotem has promised to correct that before the bill becomes law, but it’s not clear whether he can do that without losing crucial Haredi support.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).