US Jewish leaders concerned over conversion bill

Conservative rabbinate warns of "unmediated and absolute authority" that the legislation would give the Chief Rabbinate.

March 14, 2010 04:46
2 minute read.
Conversion [illustrative]

Conversion 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

Top American Jewish leaders are continuing to express growing concern over a conversion bill currently before the Knesset Law Committee.

The bill, which continues to undergo rewrites as negotiations progress among several sponsors and interested parties, may fundamentally change Israeli law related to converts’ eligibility to make aliya. While its original intent had been to expand conversion powers beyond the specialized conversion courts to municipal and regional rabbis, articles have appeared in the legislation during the drafting process that include, for example, limiting the rights of converts to make aliya.

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In response to growing concern, the heads of American Jewry’s largest umbrella organization, the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), called on the Israeli government on Wednesday “to enter into dialogue with Diaspora Jews before making any proposed changes to the Law of Return.”

Though the bill has yet to pass the committee, mostly due to haredi opposition, the issue that it raises “remains unresolved and is of urgent importance to our communities,” the JFNA statement read.

“We implore the Israeli government to seriously consider the concerns and sensitivities of Diaspora Jews before acting on such proposals. Changes to the Law of Return could adversely affect many members of our community by preventing them from making aliya and becoming Israeli citizens. Any action of this type would be an affront to world Jewry.”

On Wednesday, JFNA leaders in Israel hand-delivered a letter to the Prime Minister’s Office “to express our concerns.” They have also communicated their concerns to Israeli officials in Washington, New York and Jerusalem.

Earlier this week, Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky and the New York-based American Jewish Committee objected to the “opaque” process that injected into the bill the paragraphs deemed problematic by Diaspora Jewish groups.

On Thursday, the executive vice president of Conservative Judaism’s rabbinic organization, the Rabbinical Assembly, blasted the bill, saying it “would fracture the Jewish people.”

The bill is problematic not only because of its third paragraph on citizenship rights for converts, but because “it grants legal authority to the Chief Rabbinate for conversions... and would possibly make it impossible for conversions to be performed by Conservative and Masorti rabbis, by some Orthodox rabbis, and by Reform rabbis,” Rabbi Julie Schonfeld said in a statement released Thursday.

“As the entire process surrounding conversion in Israel has become increasingly more difficult, we fear that many righteous converts who seek to join the Jewish people will be permanently harmed,” the statement added.

While the bill contained “a potentially positive change” in allowing local rabbis to establish conversion courts, “such advantage will never be realized under the framework of the bill. The unmediated and absolute authority of the Chief Rabbinate in the proposed legislation would be an abrogation of the very fabric of Jewish tradition that recognizes the legitimacy of multiple religious authorities. The majority of world Jewry do not ascribe to the Chief Rabbinate’s understanding of Halacha, but seek to live meaningful Jewish lives according to the eternal precepts of our tradition.”

The Rabbinical Assembly has called on its 1,600 rabbis to send letters to the Prime Minister’s Office and Israeli ambassadors in their area “to prevent passage of the legislation.”

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