(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar and Rabbi Haim Druckman, Head of the Conversions Authority, began accepting applications last week for ten new rabbinic judge positions for the conversion courts. However, sources familiar with the inner workings of the Conversion Authority said that there was no need for new judges.
"I do not see any need for additional judges," said Rabbi Israel Rosen, a veteran conversion judge.
"Even the existing judges don't have anything to do," said another judge who preferred to remain anonymous.
However, Rabbi Moshe Klein said that over the years the number of judges had fallen from 35 to 25. He also said that the new appointments would serve specific segments of the Israeli population.
"One of the panels will serve the haredi community," said Klein.
Sources said Klein was referring to plans to appoint a panel led by Rabbi Nachum Eisenstein, who is close to Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, the most respected halachic authority among Lithuanian haredi Jewry.
Rosen reckoned that the authority was interested in bringing in Eisenstein to strengthen the ties with the haredi community and reduce haredi criticism on the authority.
"That would be a worthy end," said Rosen, who once headed the Conversion Court.
None of the new judges are Russian speakers, said Klein, who added that the appointments have been planned for two years.
There is a real need for Russian-speaking judges, said sources in the authority, since the authority's target population is the approximately 280,000 non-Jewish immigrants from the Former Soviet Union, all of whom are Russian speakers.
One judge admitted that in many cases the language barrier was a major obstacle in determining the sincerity of the potential converts.
"A translator is not enough," he said.
A senior source estimated that the appointments were designed to put pressure on the existing judges to produce more converts by being more lenient in their acceptance criteria. He also estimated that the judges who were chosen would have ties to either Druckman or Amar.
However, Klein rejected the claim.
"Anyone who thinks Rabbi Amar or Rabbi Druckman would compromise halacha is totally wacko and needs immediate psychiatric care," said Klein.
Ads calling on candidates to send in their applications were printed in the religious Zionist Hatzofeh, in the Lithuanian Yated Ne'eman and the Shas mouthpiece Yom Le'yom.
The monthly salary of conversion judges ranges between NIS 7,000 for one day of work a week to NIS 35,000 for a full-time position.
Druckman and Amar appointed a "locating council" which would be responsible for narrowing down the number of candidates. From this group, Druckman and Amar will choose the ten new judges.
As a result, Amar and Druckman could make the appointments independent of any outside supervision.
Dr Aviad Hacohen, Dean of Sha'arei Mishpat, a private college of law, said that "formally speaking the appointment process was legal." Therefore, Druckman and Amar were not required to publish a tender with transparent criteria.
"However, since the judges will have an influence on so many citizens' lives, the process needs to be open and transparent and not be done in a secretive way behind closed doors."
Hacohen pointed out that the Conversion Authority was not governed by legislation - rather, it was created out of a series of administrative rules. Therefore, it had more legal leeway than other state bodies.