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Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is expected to close the Conversion Authority operating within his office and to replace it with a new one to oversee all of the country's conversion institutions, according to Immigrant Absorption Ministry officials.
The final report of a panel set up by the ministry to improve the Orthodox conversion process in Israel has recommended the establishment of a new Conversion Authority.
The committee, which has been working on a solution to the conversion problems facing the approximately 300,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union who arrived under the Law of Return but are not considered Jewish according to Halacha, will present its recommendations to Olmert on Monday.
The committee's aim is to increase the number of conversions among immigrants from the FSU. To do this, it hopes to bring under its control the special conversion courts that currently act in conjunction with the Orthodox rabbinical establishment.
Currently, those in the Jewish sector not recognized as Jews cannot marry in Israel. Rather, they must go abroad for a civil ceremony. Also, they represent a threat to Jewish continuity, since a child born to a non-Jewish woman is not Jewish according to Halacha. Every year, approximately 3,000 children are born to this segment of the population. Currently, there are 6,000 people undergoing conversion in Israel, but only an estimated 2,000 will complete the process.
A Conversion Authority already exists under the jurisdiction of the Prime Minister's Office. Set up in 2004, it is responsible for appointing rabbinic judges to special conversion courts and for issuing conversion certificates.
But it has lost the backing and trust of the Absorption Ministry, Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar and many immigrants. Rabbi Eliahu Maimon, the authority's administrative head, has come under heavy criticism, blamed for the decline in conversions and for not opening the authority up for review.
According to Absorption Ministry officials, should Olmert adopt the committee's proposals - and the feeling inside the ministry is that the prime minister will "take it with both hands" - a new conversion authority will replace the present one, and will have expanded powers.
The new authority would centralize all the conversion activity presently carried out by the Absorption and Education ministries, the IDF, the Jewish Agency and several private conversion institutes. It is unclear whether Maimon would head the proposed authority.
The committee, chaired by Absorption Ministry Director-General Erez Halfon and made up of representatives from the Prime Minister's Office, the conversion courts, the Education Ministry, the Jewish Agency and the IDF, will present Olmert with a proposal to scrap Maimon's existing operation and create a single Conversion Authority, complete with its own budget, staff, and senior management, in an effort to remove "the hardships and barriers currently in place in the conversion process," the Absorption Ministry said.
"We're talking about a real revolution," Halfon said. "The removal of bureaucratic obstacles currently hampering the conversion process will significantly increase the number of people converting every year. Our proposals are designed to focus the conversion system on the needs of those undergoing the process. They have already chosen to be a part of the Israeli people, now it is our turn to allow them to close the circle."
It is unclear under whose jurisdiction the proposed authority would be located, with Absorption Ministry officials vying for the new body to be placed under their auspices, much like the Road Safety Authority is under the jurisdiction of the Transportation Ministry.
"Conversion is a national strategic mission that is vitally important for the future demographic nature of the State of Israel, and the state has to provide solutions to help [converts] fully enter into the Israeli nation," Immigrant Absorption Minister Ya'acov Edri (Kadima) said.
Some observers believe that if the new authority is placed under the authority of the Prime Minister's Office, it might be hamstrung by political considerations and pressure from the haredi parties. These parties - Shas and United Torah Judaism - represent the Orthodox monopoly on conversions in a country that has no separation between religion and state. Furthermore, Olmert could have difficulties removing Maimon from his position due to pressure from the Histadrut Labor Federation, which organizes employees of the religious services unit in the Prime Minister's Office.
Rabbi Seth Farber, director of ITIM: The Jewish Information Center, which helps people navigate Israel's religious affairs bureaucracy, criticized the proposal to set up a new authority.
"There is a certain absurdity in the situation that, in order to get rid of one person [Maimon], you open up a new conversion authority," he told The Jerusalem Post Sunday. "The Absorption Ministry has made Maimon, who is only partly to blame for the low number of converts, into a scapegoat for the entire system. Maimon has certainly not allowed sufficient checks and balances to exist in the Conversion Authority, and he protects his judges. I have had at least one judge tell me personally that he will not, on principle, pass more than 50 percent of the people brought before him, for no logical reason. And these are the people Maimon protects, but there are larger problems of oversight and a lack of checks and balances within the rabbinic establishment."
Other recommendations Halfon's committee has made include: The employment of 10 new dayanim (religious court judges), which could serve to increase the pace of conversion cases; the establishment of conversion centers throughout the country, manned by volunteers and under the supervision of the new authority; the significant shortening of the conversion process and the removal of bureaucratic obstacles; the establishment of a special committee of religious judges, under Amar's auspices, to examine the halachic issues making conversion less palatable to the immigrants; the establishment of an interministerial committee under the prime minister to advance the issue of conversions in Israel; giving money to organizations and schools preparing converts; creating a more pleasant atmosphere in the conversion courts; and trying to stem the tide of potential converts who drop out of the process.
While the makeup of the 10 proposed judges is still up for discussion, there has been talk of appointing more "lenient" dayanim to offset what is considered, by both those wanting to convert and by the Absorption Ministry, too harsh of a conversion system.
According to Halfon, Israel's conversion system is currently operating in a "disjointed and confusing" manner, which repels those wanting to convert.
The ministry has identified the following as main problem areas causing a dearth in those wishing to convert, and hardships for those already inside the process: There are too many institutions dealing with conversion and no central body coordinating their work and setting policy, and there is no central database regarding those undergoing the process, adding to the confusion in dealing with different conversion bodies and government institutions.
Between 30% and 50% of those attempting to convert abandon the process, and many others never make it to the conversion court. Those who do manage to complete the process are often made to wait for long periods before they receive their conversion certificates.
Very few immigrants from the FSU are trying to convert, due to the perceived difficulties of the process and the fear that conversion is meant to change their lifestyles.
Many Russian immigrants are particularly upset about certain conversion court rabbis who follow up on recent converts to check if they are observing the mandates of Orthodoxy. According to a survey conducted by the Absorption Ministry, 70% of new immigrants who are not halachicly Jewish believe that the current conversion process is designed to make them "more religious," and not to turn them into Jews according to Halacha.
Farber, of ITIM, welcomed the proposals for greater diversity among conversion court judges, and called for more judicial review within the Conversion Authority.
The new authority, if established, will not deal with the issue of Conservative and Reform conversions performed either in Israel or abroad.