The controversial conversion bill now before Israel’s Knesset set out to make conversion easier for those who sought it. But instead of advancing this important objective, the legislation spurred a crisis in the sensitive relationship between North American Jewry and Israel.
Israel’s conversion process is badly in need of reform. More than 300,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union made aliyah under Israel’s Law of Return but are not considered Jewish under Halacha. While many would like to gain official recognition as Jews, very few are currently converting, in large part because of Israel’s cumbersome and often intimidating conversion process.
The present conversion bill was initiated by Knesset member David Rotem of the heavily Russian Yisrael Beiteinu party. At its core, the bill is an attempt to bypass the existing independent Conversion Authority, which is plagued with problems, including an unwieldy bureaucracy and a lack of clear and consistent standards. Rotem’s legislation would allow municipal rabbis to perform conversions, in effect giving prospective converts more options. But in order to convince Israel’s Haredi parties to go along with this scheme, Rotem revised his legislation to legally grant Israel’s official Orthodox state rabbinate overall control over conversion.
Diaspora Jews, who mostly affiliate with non-Orthodox movements, were outraged. In practical terms, they feared that giving the Orthodox state rabbinate control over conversion would undermine Supreme Court decisions demanding that the Israeli government’s population registry and immigration policies recognize non-Orthodox conversions.
These are valid concerns, though they are also largely theoretical. In reality, it is not entirely clear how the proposed legislation would affect non-Orthodox conversions in the immediate term.
Then again, the law’s purported benefits are also largely theoretical. Expanding the numbers of rabbis empowered to perform conversions would be a positive development, though it might also be something of a Pyrrhic victory, since Israel’s municipal rabbis tend to have stricter standards than the rabbinic judges who work for the Conversion Authority. Moreover, any modest gains brought about by the legislation would likely be offset by placing conversion under the overall authority of the state rabbinate, which has not displayed sufficient sympathy for the needs of prospective converts.
Whatever the putative pluses and minuses, none of this is worth alienating Diaspora Jews, who feel as if their Judaism is under attack. Fortunately, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has decided to speak out against this flawed legislation, rendering its passage unlikely.
Now, our task is to take the energies that poured into the campaign against this bill and channel them toward positive efforts to fix Israel’s broken conversion system.
Ultimately, this is not likely to be accomplished within the Knesset. Israel does not currently have a law governing conversion and, given political realities, it is not likely to get a good one from its parliament.
Instead of trying to bypass the independent Conversion Authority, we should be trying to reform it. Operating under the aegis of the prime minister’s office, the Conversion Authority is an expression of the state’s support for fully integrating immigrants from the former Soviet Union into Jewish society, a task for which the official state rabbinate hasn’t shown much enthusiasm. While the Conversion Authority has so far failed at its job, a serious reform package might make it worth saving.
The prime minister should empower a group of rabbis to formulate a genuine strategy for making the conversion process more effective and efficient. While the Conversion
Authority is composed of Orthodox rabbis, representatives from non-Orthodox streams should also be brought into the conversation on how to reform it. (Indeed, non-Orthodox rabbis are already invested in the Conversion Authority’s work insofar as they participate in its affiliated Joint Conversion Institute, where they help to prepare prospective converts.) This process should yield clear standards regarding what it takes to convert to Judaism, goals by which to measure the authority’s work and accountability for all parties involved in the process.
If this proves to be impractical in the short term, then the world Jewish community ought to stand behind future efforts to create alternative rabbinical courts, which both the Israeli government and the Israeli rabbinate should be pressed to recognize. A little competition might serve as an effective spur for the reform of the Conversion Authority.
A conversion system that is reformed along these lines might do more than just address the issue of conversions for immigrants from the former Soviet Union. It could even provide a model for how American Jews — who are deeply divided among themselves over the question of what it takes to become Jewish — could once again be part of the same family.
Rabbi Seth Farber is director of ITIM: The Jewish Life Information Center and the rabbi of Kehillat Netivot in Ra’anana, Israel.