In a direct challenge to the authority of the Chief Rabbinate, a group of senior national-religious rabbis announced the formation of a new network of conversion courts that will work independently from the formal state conversion system.
The new courts are designed to increase the conversion rate among Israeli citizens who immigrated from the former Soviet Union (FSU) but who are not considered Jewish according to Jewish law. That group numbers approximately 330,000 people.
Rabbi Nahum Rabinovitch, a highly respected arbiter of Jewish law aligned with the national-religious movement and the dean of the Ma’aleh Adumim Hesder Yeshiva – which combines yeshiva study with military service – is to head the new conversion system. Several other senior rabbis from the national-religious sector are to serve as rabbinical judges on the court.
In total, several dozen rabbis from across the country have agreed to participate.
Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky backed the courts, saying that their creation was an important step “in the process of ingathering the exiles from throughout the world in an era of lost identities and growing assimilation.”
Among the senior rabbis, who have worked to establish the courts, are Rabbi David Stav, chairman of the Tzohar rabbinical association, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, chief municipal rabbi of Efrat, Rabbi Yaakov Medan, co-dean of the prestigious Har Etzion Yeshiva in Alon Shvut, and Rabbi Re’em Hacohen, chief municipal rabbi of Otniel and dean of the Otniel Yeshiva.
Stav and Riskin in particular have been ardent advocates of reforming the state conversion system in order to bring about mass conversion among the community of immigrants from the FSU.
Rabinovitch has also been supportive of the new system. The rabbi previously ruled that a more lenient approach can be adopted for people of Jewish descent than has been demonstrated by the state run conversion system under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate.
The new network of conversion courts, to be called Giur K’halacha, (“Conversion according to Jewish law”), is a collaborative effort between several institutions that have advocated for conversion reform with the backing of the Jewish Agency, such as the Triguboff Institute, ITIM, and others.
Rabbinical figures in the national- religious community have long considered the conversion issue to be one of the critical challenges to Jewish religious life in Israel. They fear that intermarriage between Jewish Israelis and the 330,000 strong community of non-Jewish immigrants from the FSU will increase rapidly in the coming years if those of marriageable age do not convert.
The Chief Rabbinate including its current heads Yitzhak Yosef (Sephardic Chief Rabbi) and David Lau (Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi) have bitterly opposed a law intended to broaden access to the state conversion system that was approved by the last government, and which was strongly backed by Stav, Riskin and others.
The law was repealed by the current government. The announcement of the new conversion courts is a reaction to that defeat by the rabbinical figures behind Giur K’halacha. Those figures believe that the potential for Jewish intermarriage in the coming years poses a real threat to the unity and cohesiveness of Jewish society in Israel.
The new courts have been evolving over the last few months and have already converted some 50 people. Rabinovitch and the other rabbis participating in the venture insist that Jewish law relating to converts will be fully implemented by the courts.
The leading rabbis behind Giur K’halacha point to opinions in Jewish law from authoritative rabbinical figures stretching back to the Middle Ages that allow for a more lenient conversion process for descendants of Jews than is normally adopted for converts with no such ancestry.
The system reaches out to potential conversion candidates through various organizations and institutions that are associated with the immigrant community, including the Jewish Agency.
Like the ill-fated Conversion Law that was repealed by the current government, Giur K’halacha is to focus to a large extent on minors, boys under the age of 13 and girls under the age of 12, for whom Jewish law allows a very simple process for conversion.
The idea is that such children are those who will be of marriageable age in coming years and are therefore the primary targets to prevent intermarriage.
The rabbis of the Giur K’halacha courts called on Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, who is responsible for conversions within the Chief Rabbinate, to back the new system, although there is little chance of this happening.
The Chief Rabbinate declined to comment. As a matter of policy, the Chief Rabbinate does not recognize independent conversion courts and people who convert through them and refuses to grant a marriage license to those converted in them. The same policy applies to conversions done by a prominent haredi conversion court headed by the highly respected haredi Rabbi Nissim Karelitz.
The Jerusalem Post understands that the Chief Rabbinate has intimated to the proponents of the new system that it would not recognize such conversions, meaning it would refuse to register them for marriage with Jewish Israelis.
According to Prof. Aviad Hacohen, the Chief Rabbinate could however have legal difficulties, as well as halachic difficulties, in refusing to register for marriage people who convert through Giur K’halacha, if the system does bring about the mass conversion of thousands of people.
Since there is no law granting jurisdiction over conversion to the Chief Rabbinate or any other institution, conversions must be judged on their merits. The rabbis behind the initiative, and especially Rabinovitch, are respected rabbinical figures with ordination from the Chief Rabbinate, some of whom serve as chief municipal rabbis.
Blanket rejection of these converts for marriage could therefore be viewed as political and not substantive, and could be challenged in the High Court of Justice.
ITIM has already challenged the Chief Rabbinate’s rejection of independent conversions in the High Court, which is considering one such case.
If all efforts to force the Chief Rabbinate to register such converts for marriage fail, proponents of the new conversion courts say that they will at least be able to marry outside of the Chief Rabbinate through the Orthodox rabbis who converted them, or others who accept these conversions, thereby preventing Jewish intermarriage in accordance with Jewish law – if not in the eyes of the Chief Rabbinate.
In response to the announcement, Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett criticized the Chief Rabbinate for failing to tackle the issue, and said that the creation of the new courts was a result of this failure.
“In a healthy situation, all religious services of the State of Israel, including conversion, should be provided by an official body of the state, that is, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.
“Unfortunately, the rabbinate is not working properly and therefore alternative bodies for conversion have been set up. This is an opportunity for the rabbinate, perhaps the last. It needs to regain its composure, and decisively repair [its] shortcomings in order to make the necessity for alternative organizations redundant.”