The implementation of a law designed to shake up the conversion system and broaden access to it is facing obstacles, and proponents of the measures are alleging the delays are part of a concerted effort to block the law entirely.
Efraim Halevy, the former head of the Mossad who currently serves as chairman of the Harry Triguboff Institute which advocates for reforming the conversion process, fiercely criticized Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef for obstructing the implementation process.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday, Halevy said that the Chief Rabbinate was engaging in politically or ideologically motivated obstructionism, and was seeking to delay implementation till after the March election so that a new government would have the opportunity to repeal the law altogether.
“The chief rabbi is a functionary of the State of Israel and therefore the decisions of the prime minister and the decisions of the state are binding upon him,” Halevy said.
“The delaying tactics are an attempt to torpedo the whole process,” he continued.
Chief Rabbis Yosef and David Lau have been adamantly opposed to the new law and have objected to any measure that would devolve the authority of the Chief Rabbinate over conversion to municipal chief rabbis.
The main change to the conversion system provided for in the new law is to allow municipal chief rabbis to establish their own conversion courts and thereby increase access to the conversion process The central purpose is to increase conversion rates among non-Jewish Israeli citizens who immigrated to Israel under the Law of Return from the former Soviet Union (and their children), currently numbering some 330,000 people.
It is feared that without dramatically increasing conversion rates among this population, interfaith marriages will increase and create a de facto division among the population between those who are accepted by state institutions as Jewish and those who are not.
Halevy described the situation as “a national emergency,” and said the state had effectively misled immigrants from the former Soviet Union when it told them that they were able to immigrate to Israel as Jews in the first place.
“Jews from Russia came here under the Law of Return, they had a right to emigrate to Israel as Jews, but after a short while, the rabbinate declared that they would not recognize them as such, and all the ministries and government agencies followed suit,” he said.
The delaying tactics being employed also endangered the ability of potential immigrants from France and Ukraine to have their Jewish status confirmed, and could forestall such immigrants from coming, he said.
The law, proposed by MK Elazar 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 bureaucratic 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 December 16, but this has not yet happened.
Instead, Rabbi Yitzhak Peretz, head of the Conversion Authority, asked the Chief Rabbinate to approve the regulations, and Chief Rabbi Yosef asked a group of rabbis to review the regulations and then liaise with the steering committee.
According to Rabbi Tzafaniya Drori, it took at least three weeks for the Chief Rabbinate’s committee to agree to a date to convene and review the regulations.
The two committees met this Sunday and recommended various changes and amendments which the steering committee will now review and integrate into the new regulations.
The new draft will then be resubmitted by the steering committee to Yosef for approval Stern called the entire process of involving the Chief Rabbinate “unnecessary” and “a mistake,” saying that the regulations are a bureaucratic requirement and that drawing them up should have taken several days instead of several months.
“The chief rabbis don’t care about the problems the Jewish people face in the State of Israel, just as long as they get to sit in their office,” Stern said, alleging that their stance on the issue was dictated by the Shas party.
A spokesman for Yosef did not respond to a request for comment on the accusations.
Officials at the ITIM organization which promoted the conversion reform law, pointed out that the law passed by the government does not require any involvement from the Chief Rabbinate, merely that the steering committee draw up the regulations and pass them to the Justice and Religious Services ministries for approval.
Peretz told the Post that he felt obligated to involve the Chief Rabbinate since it is the chief rabbi who is ultimately able to sign or not sign on the conversion certificates of the conversion candidates.
He said he keenly felt the urgency of increasing conversion numbers but that if the chief rabbis did not agree to the new process, it would undermine the converts themselves.
Peretz, who is a member of the steering committee, said there were three or four clauses that the two committees had agreed to revise and that the new draft would soon be forwarded to the Chief Rabbinate committee.
In addition to approving the regulations by which the new conversion courts will be run, the state Conversion Authority is responsible for approving requests by municipal chief rabbis to establish the courts.
Four requests have so far been made, including from Efrat Chief Rabbi Shlomo Riskin and Shoham Chief Rabbi David Stav.
Peretz said that as soon as the regulations were approved the requests could be addressed.
ITIM said, however, that approving the conversion courts does not require the finalization of the regulations and can be done immediately.
The law was passed by government order requiring only cabinet approval, so revoking the law likewise would require 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 it be repealed as part of their conditions for joining the next government.