THE JERUSALEM conversion office of the Chief Rabbinate.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Complaints were voiced on Tuesday by MK Elazar Stern, former head of the Mossad Ephraim HaLevy and other public figures about a delay in the implementation of the recently approved law to reform the conversion process that was passed at the beginning of November.
Speaking in the Nation, Religion and State Knesset Caucus, MK Elazar Stern noted that an important deadline in the bureaucratic process for establishing new regional rabbinical courts for conversion headed by municipal chief rabbis, the main reform of the new law, had been missed and called for the process to be expedited.
The law, proposed by Stern, was passed by a government order on November 2, and required a steering committee to be established within 14 days, which was in turn given 30 days to draw up the guidelines and regulations within which the new rabbinical courts for conversion will have to work and to pass them on to the Ministries of Justice and Religious Services. The steering committee sent the draft regulations to the state Conversion Authority which was supposed to have passed them on to the two ministries by Dec. 16, but this has not yet happened. Head of the Conversion Authority Rabbi Yitzhak Peretz told The Jerusalem Post
that he had received the draft of the regulations on Thursday and had passed them to Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef for his review.
This step was not required by the law passed in November, but Peretz said it was important for the chief rabbi, who is the ultimate authority on issues of conversion, to see the regulations. Peretz said he believed he would be able to pass on the regulations to the two ministries “before the end of the week.”
The central purpose of the reform is to increase conversion rates among non-Jewish Israeli citizens who immigrated to Israel under the law of return from the former Soviet Union.
There are some 330,000 people who immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union, or their children, who fall into this category. “Every day that passes and this law is not implemented causes more assimilation in Israel while our brothers from the former Soviet Union continue to be humiliated,” said Stern. “Every day dozens of babies are born whose Jewishness cannot be guaranteed. We gathered here today to say to the prime minister, to the Deputy Minister of Religious Services, to the heads of the conversion authority Rabbi [Yitzhak] Peretz and Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef that we cannot wait."
Proponents of the law, like Stern, argue that inter-faith marriage in Israel will dramatically increase in the coming years as citizens from this population group grow up and marry Jewish Israelis. Additionally, advocates say members of the sector suffer from discrimination especially from the religious establishment when it comes to life-cycle issues such as marriage, burial and similar events. Stern is concerned that the new rabbinical courts be established as soon as possible before the upcoming election so that it will be harder to revoke the law and rescind the authority of municipal chief rabbis to establish a conversion court.
The law was passed by government order requiring only cabinet approval, but revoking the law likewise requires only a government order. The haredi political parties and the chief rabbis were vociferously opposed to the law, and proponents of the measure are concerned that Shas and United Torah Judaism will demand that the law be repealed as part of their conditions for joining the next government. Former head of the Mossad Efraim Halevy was also present at the hearing and said that unless the situation was rectified Jews could become a minority in Israel in the future. Halevy has in recent years acted as an adviser for Shorashim, a project of the national-religious Tzohar rabbinical association which helps immigrants from the former Soviet Union prove their Jewish status. “This is an existential threat to the State of Israel as a Jewish state... our enemies won’t need to wait for very long before we become a minority... which will be a Jewish tragedy and a tragedy for all those who believe in the God of Israel,” said Levy.
Attorney Elad Caplan of the ITIM religious services advisory and lobbying group which helped draft the law said that dozens of people had turned to them since the law was approved, asking how they could start the conversion process.
He also noted that several municipal chief rabbis had already requested permits to establish a rabbinical conversion court but these requests have yet to be approved by the Conversion Authority. Caplan said that the approval of such requests was not dependent on the approval of the regulations at this stage. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the municipal chief rabbi of Efrat and one of the rabbis who has requested a permit to establish a conversion court said that time was of the essence and that there had been no necessity to pass the regulations to the chief rabbi.
“I am a municipal chief rabbi who passed the exams of the chief rabbinate and am authorized to work as a municipal chief rabbi, there was no reason to do this. We work in accordance with Jewish law. As everyone knows, there isn’t only one way to interpret Jewish law... the chief rabbi isn’t a pope,” said Riskin. “We are facing a national and social crisis which I think is the most serious problem that I can remember since I came to the country.”