The Jewish Agency will soon begin sending rabbis abroad to convene special conversion courts, according to a resolution passed at the closing session of its international board of governors on Wednesday.
The resolution, which calls for the “establishment of a special conversion court to address the needs of Jewish communities that seek the Jewish Agency’s assistance with regard to conversion,” has been controversial. Ambiguities in its wording have elicited both support and adamant opposition from both the more liberal and conservative sides of the religious divide.
Among those commenting there seemed to be a divide between those who believe that the measure would strengthen the position of non-Orthodox denominations and those who see it as a way to further entrench Orthodox interests.
Citing the increasing prevalence of intermarriage among Diaspora Jews, the resolution states that the new program would “facilitate these families’ full integration into the Jewish people via conversion, as well as through the possibility of aliya.”
“In my eyes it’s a dramatic decision that reflects a change of paradigm in leadership of the Jewish Agency. And it’s only a first step,” said Yizhar Hess, CEO of the Masorti Foundation for Conservative Judaism in Israel. “There are more in the pipeline. There is a growing understanding that the monopoly of the Chief Rabbinate is bad for Israel, bad for Jews, and bad for Judaism.”
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, likewise praised the announcement, asserting that it is important for the Jewish Agency to involve itself in this issue in order to ensure that Jews “are no longer held hostage by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate on matters of Jewish status.”
“Currently Reform and Conservative conversions are recognized by the Interior Ministry for purposes of aliya, while many Orthodox conversions in the Diaspora are not.
Because Jewish unity is threatened daily by Israel’s ultra-Orthodox monopoly, this new initiative of the Jewish Agency is a positive development that we support,” he said.
However, according to Uri Regev, a Reform rabbi and the head of religious pluralism NGO Hiddush, the Jewish Agency “is plastering Band- Aids over the gaping wound of religion and state policies in Israel, rather than acknowledging that a different, bold approach is needed.”
The only way to bring about greater Jewish unity and deal with issues of intermarriage and conversion effectively would be to grant recognition of non-Orthodox conversions within Israel rather than merely recognizing such conversions when they occur abroad, he asserted.
“Striving merely for a more user-friendly, alternative Orthodox route is both ineffective and counterproductive.”
Among the Orthodox, the response was mixed.
The national-religious Tzohar rabbinical organization favors any measure aimed at strengthening Jewish identity as long as it conforms to Halacha, Jewish religious law, while the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel of America attacked the Jewish Agency plan as divisive.
“This road paved with good intentions, unfortunately, will lead to precisely the opposite of Jewish unity,” spokesman Rabbi Avi Shafran told The Jerusalem Post.
“Conversion ceremonies that do not meet halachic standards only further exacerbate the tragic reality that there are people considered Jews by some but not by the wide Jewish world, that maintains fealty to the Jewish religious law that has defined Jewishness for millennia,” he said.
“Halachic conversion is not an option,” he added. “It is a necessity, in order for a non- Jew to become part of Klal Yisrael [the Jewish collective].”
Rabbi Boruch Gorin, a senior leader of the Russian Jewish community, likewise came out against the move, stating that such “traveling salesmen” rabbis would be unfamiliar with candidates and would be unable to evaluate their sincerity or readiness.
Asked about the plan, Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky stated that it came about after repeated requests by local communities around the globe for assistance in finding rabbis qualified to sit on halachic conversion courts.
While the only requests so far have come from Orthodox communities, should the Jewish Agency be asked to provide a non-Orthodox rabbi it would be ready to do so.
“We never received such a request from a Reform or Conservative community. We deal with those who are eligible under the Law of Return and there is no difference in that case between denominations,” he told the Post. “We are working with everybody.”
Like Jacobs, Sharansky pointed out that, while Orthodox conversions are the only ones accepted in Israel, not all Orthodox conversions completed abroad are accepted here. A Reform or Conservative conversion in the Diaspora will be accepted by the Ministry of Interior as valid for determining a prospective immigrant’s religious status.
However, in cases of Orthodox organizations, the matter is sometimes referred to Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, which does not recognize all Orthodox conversions.
The purpose of sending the rabbis abroad, Sharansky said, would be to allow rabbis whose conversions are accepted by the Chief Rabbinate to travel abroad, at the Jewish Agency’s expense, to conclude the conversion process started by community rabbis who may be unable to muster a full conversion court locally.
“It doesn’t mean we are going to make conversions. I won’t dare to think I have any right to do so,” he said, adding that this does not mean that he is taking a stand on the divisive issue of how to define a Jew, but merely making the process more user-friendly.
“Our role is simply to make sure that there are enough rabbis to complete [the quorum for] a conversion court and give our [services] to converts who want to make aliya,” Sharansky concluded.
The Jewish Agency’s board also passed a resolution on Wednesday creating three permanently staffed working groups to, among other things, “ensure the Jewish Agency is an ongoing and effective voice striving to resolve the issues relating to full religious freedom, pluralism and equality in the State of Israel.”
The resolution “represents a real sea change in the desire of the overwhelming majority of the [board’s] committee [for the unity of the Jewish people] to have the Jewish Agency deal directly with issues of religious freedom and pluralism,” said Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the head of the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly.