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(photo credit: Hilary Leila Krieger [file])
The Ministerial Committee on Immigration, Absorption and the Diaspora approved on Wednesday the establishment of a new State Conversion Authority meant to streamline the conversion process of hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish immigrants.
The decision was heralded by government representatives as a success, but did not include an element many observers see as the key change that would mark a break with the previous, oft-criticized state conversion process - the appointment of 50 new, more lenient judges for the conversion courts.
The appointment of the new rabbinic judges, all volunteer, was held up by Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz and the legal adviser's office in the Prime Minister's Office out of concern over the legality of unpaid public servants wielding authority over a citizen's conversion process.
However, Wednesday's decision did immediately add 10 salaried rabbinic judges to the 22 currently serving in the conversion courts, to help alleviate bureaucratic backup. The addition of the 50 volunteer judges is being considered not out of concern for efficient bureaucracy, but to allow Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar - who would select the rabbis - to appoint judges who would be more lenient in approving conversions.
The current conversion process has long been criticized for overly stringent demands on aspiring converts, including high religious observance requirements and rare cases in which rabbinic judges retroactively canceled conversions because the convert's observance had lapsed. This has meant that the Jewish sector's estimated 300,000 non-Jews, who immigrated as family members of Jews, convert to Judaism at a rate of around 2,000 per year - less than their annual birth rate of 3,000.
According to a government representative, government surveys show that around 150,000 wish to convert. But according to an Absorption Ministry survey from 2006, 72 percent of this group said the conversion process was "long and hard," and 76% said they were not sure they would be accepted as Jews even if they finished the process.
The creation of the new authority included the formation of a committee of rabbinic judges who would work under Amar to examine ways of resolving halachic difficulties that aspiring converts encounter.
The new authority also sparked bitter disputes over who would lead it, with Amar - the spiritual head and chief halachic decider of the authority - threatening to quit this week over State Service Commission opposition to appointing both a chairman and a director-general to head the authority, and disagreement over how the heads of the system would be chosen.
In the end, the authority's chairman will remain Rabbi Hayim Druckman, who heads the now-obsolete Conversion Authority in the Prime Minister's Office, while its director-general will hold a reduced rank of "department head."
The new authority was established based on the recommendations of the Halfon Committee, headed by Absorption Ministry Dir.-Gen. Erez Halfon and including representatives from the Education Ministry, Jewish Agency, Conversion Authority in the PMO, and the IDF.
The new conversion process will enjoy other changes recommended by the Halfon Committee that seek to create a "friendlier" conversion process, according to a spokesperson for the Absorption Ministry. These include creating a network of "community coordinators" who will encourage aspiring converts and follow them through the year-long studies; improving the studies themselves, especially through the addition of "experiential" learning; and improving infrastructure to make the conversion court a more "festive and emotional" place for the aspiring convert.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert gave his blessing to the new authority Wednesday, and said that it would ease the absorption process for olim who wish to tie their fate with the Jewish people and Israel.
"The state of Israel is the national home of the Jewish people and to our great pleasure, Jews from all corners of the globe continue to arrive in Israel. We must not pile up more difficulties than they have already encountered on their way here," Olmert said. "The objective of the committee was to examine ways to make it easier for those people who came here by virtue of their being Jewish and wish to become fully integrated among us."
"Over the years many unnecessary impediments were added to the conversion process," the prime minister said.
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