The Israel Institute for Conversion Policy was launched in the capital on Sunday
evening, in an effort to “retrieve the keys to the gateway” into Judaism and
Israel for their “rightful Zionist owners.”
The institute aims to draw
potential converts into the process by providing an encouraging attitude through
legislation, to spark a more robust halachic debate that shows a welcoming
attitude to converts, and to raise the public’s awareness of the importance and
challenges of drawing hundreds of thousands of citizens into its religious
The new institute, headed by Arik Elman, will function under the
auspices of the Beit Morasha’s Center for Judaism and Society, which
conversion and welfare policy in its annual conference, at which the
In his opening remarks, Prof. Benjamin Ish-Shalom, the
head of Beit Morasha, said the institute will be “returning lost sons to
Jewish family” by helping the national effort undertaken by the
supported by Jewish federations, the Jewish Agency and other
Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon spoke of the importance on
the national level of “displaying openness to different streams in
primarily in the relationship with Diaspora Judaism.”
Chairman Natan Sharansky cited the “dangerous trend” of city rabbis,
under the authority of the Chief Rabbinate, who annul, or strive to
conversions that were conducted by the State Conversion Authority,
Rabbi Haim Druckman.
“These are people who are looking for ways into the
Jewish peoplehood,” Sharansky said of the hundreds of thousands of
from the FSU who married people with Jewish roots and made aliya, but
Jews according to Halacha.
“The same people who came 15 years ago and
wanted a way in, are no longer seeking to convert today,” he said.
the rabbis argue it out among themselves over the halachic differences
opinion on conversion,” Sharansky continued.
He cited the recent book
Zera Israel (Seed of Israel) by MK Rabbi Haim Amsalem (Shas), in which
amalgamated hundreds of adjudications from mainstream Orthodox Sephardi
Ashkenazi rabbinical traditions that display a halachic approach to
more welcoming than the Chief Rabbinate’s current policy.
wants to encourage rabbis who believe there is another way of dealing
challenges facing converts, rather than just disqualifying them,”
said. “This is also a question for the Israeli public, who must be
the importance of welcoming the converts into society, and the
themselves, who must be helped to regain their fundamental desire to
Sharansky, who was recently commissioned by Prime Minister
Binyamin Netanyahu to lead a dialogue with US Jewry amid their concerns
conversion bill being formulated by MK David Rotem (Israel Beiteinu),
Rotem’s initiative and the initial draft of the bill, which sought to
situation affecting hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens by
with “a friendly means of joining.”
The additions and changes being made
to the bill, Sharansky continued, risk changing the laws concerning
and the Law of Return, leading to a scenario perceived by Diaspora
Judaism as an
“effective divorce,” at the very time they are making every effort to
beleaguered Zionist state.
“That’s only what they say,” Rotem retorted
from his seat in the audience.
Shmuel Jesselsohn, who heads the
conversion department in the Prime Minister’s Office, welcomed the
initiative, and spoke of the complexity of modern conversion, in which a
must define what it means to be Jewish, something the State of Israel
do in a definitive way.
Rabbi David Stav, the chairman of Tzohar, an
organization of modern Orthodox, Zionist rabbis, cited the dangers to
which in not too many years could face a fragmented society including a
significant slab of non-Jews.
“There are rabbis who simply don’t want to
conduct conversions,” he said.
Stav said that an initiative to create
alternative conversion courts outside the rabbinate would create a
problems for those who used them, and ultimately those conversions would
recognized by the mainstream rabbinical bodies in Israel.
Benjamin Lau, head of Beit Morasha’s Israel Conversion Institute, a
that is separate from the new Israel Institute for Conversion Policy,
forward in his criticism.
“There is a feeling that the Israeli climate
has changed; there is a system of haredi rabbis who are hostile to the
conversion. Some city rabbis take pride in completing a term without
even one conversion,” Lau said.
He called for a shift in thinking on
paradigms in halachic thought, legislation, the public sphere and
households that would promote a more welcoming environment for
help draw potential converts into a complex and at times painful
achieve something that they don’t necessarily feel they lack at this
“Israel abandoned the keys to its gates to the hands of people,
some of whom object to its very existence,” Maj.-Gen. (res.) Elazar
of the haredi rabbis setting the tone for conversion in the Chief
Stern is chairman of the advisory committee on conversion of the Genesis
Philanthropy Group, and was active in promoting the conversion of
his former capacity as OC Education Corps.
“This is a huge missed
opportunity on the part of religious Zionism, which should have taken
itself to welcome [non-Jewish FSU immigrants] before this link is
Stern also noted the high intermarriage rates abroad, and the
large communities of Israelis overseas who marry non-Jews, “but still
“This is an existential challenge to the Jewish
people,” he said.
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