The Giyur Kahalacha independent Orthodox rabbinical court for conversion has become the largest nonstate conversion court in the country after just one year of operations, its founders have announced.
Since opening in August 2015, 280 conversion applicants have successfully completed the conversion process with Giyur Kahalacha, more than any other conversion court outside of the State Conversion Authority.
The express purpose of this court is to increase the conversion rate among Israeli citizens who emigrated from the former Soviet Union but are not considered Jewish according to Jewish law.
That group numbers approximately 320,000 people.
The court was founded by several prominent religious Zionist rabbis, including Rabbi Nahum Rabinovitch, a highly respected arbiter of Jewish law and dean of the Ma’aleh Adumim Hesder Yeshiva; Rabbi David Stav, chairman of the Tzohar rabbinical association; Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, chief rabbi of Efrat; along with the ITIM religious services lobbying group and former Shas MK and conversion expert Rabbi Haim Amsalem.
Giyur Kahalacha puts a special focus on converting children (with parental consent), since converting minors in Jewish law, which includes girls before the age of 12 and boys before the age of 13, is a much simpler process and has fewer requirements within Jewish law as compared to adults.
Converting children, as opposed to those who are already grown up and married or in committed relationships, will also have a greater impact on preventing Jewish intermarriage.
Some parents ultimately do decide to convert along with their children.
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 320,000-strong community of non-Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union will increase rapidly in the coming years if those of marriageable age do not convert.
In 2014, some 3,014 conversion applicants converted through the state’s civilian and IDF conversion programs, including 1,737 citizens from the former Soviet Union. These figures exclude, however, members of the Falash Mura immigrant community, who converted upon arrival in Israel.
Assuming that figures for 2015 and 2016 will be similar, Giyur Kahalacha has claimed that now almost one in ten converts in Israel are doing their conversion through the new court.
Giyur Kahalacha has another 1,700 applicants in different stages of the conversion process, and has forwarded more than 600 applicants to the State Conversion Authority.
Giyur Kahalacha’s conversions are not formally accepted by state institutions, and will almost certainly be rejected by the Chief Rabbinate should a convert through the new court seek to marry or register for other religious services through the rabbinate.
However, a groundbreaking High Court of Justice ruling in March seemingly gave de facto recognition to private Orthodox conversions when it ruled that non-Israeli nationals who convert in private Orthodox rabbinical courts in Israel should be eligible for citizenship.
The chief rabbis and the Chief Rabbinate are opposed to the conversion of minors if the parents do not also convert, and are generally suspicious of the rabbis serving on Giyur Kahalacha’s court of being overly lenient in their approach to Jewish law.
Giyur Kahalacha’s rabbis do not automatically prohibit such conversions, arguing that the converted child will grow up in the Jewish state with an affinity to the Jewish people and a basic knowledge of Jewish life.
Amsalem in particular has argued that Jewish law specifically requires leniency when converting the descendants of Jews, in order to bring them fully back into the Jewish people.
“The profile of an applicant of Giyur [Kahalacha] is a far cry from the stereotype “ said Ely Cohen, director of Giyur Kahalacha. “Those interested in converting in Israel today are members of former Soviet Union families who were born in Israel or grew up here; they are Hebrew speakers who served in the army and celebrate the Israeli and Jewish holidays. Giyur Kahalacha recognizes their Jewish identity and seeks to formalize it.”
ITIM director Rabbi Seth Farber claimed that the State Conversion Authority “has failed in its historic mission” to deal with the problem of Jewish intermarriage in the Jewish state.
“Giyur Kahalacha provides the first real solution – grounded in Halacha – that will enable tens of thousands of Israeli citizens to complete their integration into Israeli Jewish society,” said Farber.
“Giyur Kahalacha is committed to the conversion of Jewish children whose families are part of our shared destiny,” Farber continued.
“After one year, the results are nothing less than dramatic, and there is good reason to believe that thousands more are going to convert through Giyur Kahalacha."
“In the past year, Giyur Kahalacha has already converted more children than the courts of the conversion authority,” Farber added.
“The conversion of children is the key to resolving the demographic crisis in Israel.”