Chief rabbis of Jerusalem, Rabbi Shlomo Amar and Rabbi Arye Stern .
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Rabbi Re’em Hacohen, a senior figure in the national-religious rabbinic leadership, called on the Chief Rabbinate to change its approach to the conversion of minors, so as to prevent intermarriage in Israel.
The rabbi made his comments on Tuesday during a special “Conversion Day” session in the Knesset at the initiative of MKs Aliza Lavie and Elazar Stern and the ITIM organization to highlight what critics say is the failure of the state conversion system to deal with problems facing the country.
There are some 300,000 Israeli citizens from the former Soviet Union, or their children, who are not Jewish according to Jewish law (Halacha). Religious leaders in the national- religious community have long sought to increase the conversion rate among this group in order to prevent intermarriage and the possibly negative effect this phenomenon could have on Israel’s Jewish character.
In 2015, a group of rabbis, including senior arbiter of Jewish law Rabbi Nachim Rabinowitz, Hacohen, and others, established a new Orthodox conversion system, Giyur Ka’halacha, to address this issue, although such converts are not recognized by the Chief Rabbinate.
In particular, Giyur Ka’halacha seeks, with parental consent, to convert minors from the immigrant community, since such a process is easier within Halacha than converting an adult and also targets the critical age bracket who will in the near future seek marriage.
Speaking in a special session of the Knesset Committee for children’s rights, Hacohen said that he believed the state conversion courts sometimes refused to convert minors in contravention of Halacha.
Hacohen, dean of the Otniel yeshiva and chief rabbi of the Otniel settlement, pointed specifically to the policy of the state conversion system not to allow a child to be converted if the mother is not Jewish and does not convert, and if the child is not sent to a religious school.
The rabbi said that there was clear sanction in Halacha to convert a child even if the mother is not Jewish.
He added that Giyur Ka’halacha’s approach was to encourage parents of minors being converted to send their children to state-religious schools, but said that the conversion would still be valid without such a step.
“It would be appropriate for the Chief Rabbinate to adopt [the approach] of a man like Rabbi Nachum Rabinowitz,” said Hacohen, but said if it does not do so, “a critical mass” of converts through Giyur Ka’halacha could change the state’s attitude to such conversions.
Rabbi Yisrael Weiss, a former IDF chief rabbi and a rabbinical judge on one of the state’s conversion courts, rejected the criticism leveled at the state courts saying that he and others were doing as much as possible to deal with the issue.
“I understand the lateness of the hour, It needs halachic courage and I have halachic courage,” Weiss said.
“There are three permanent rabbis on the conversion court and they have the required humane sensitivities. We take the Halacha to the furthest possible lengths and there we stop.”