Conversions down 20 percent in 2009

NGO report blames rabbinic court bureaucracy for drop.

By
May 25, 2009 20:44
3 minute read.
Conversions down 20 percent in 2009

conversion class IDF 248.88. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozlimski)

Mismanagement and bureaucracy in the country's conversion process has caused a severe drop in the number of people signing up to convert to Judaism, according to a new report published Monday by Itim, a non-profit organization that assists many Jewish converts to navigate the complicated system. According to the organization, which also serves as a watchdog and lobby group for improving the conversion process, there was a drop of 20 percent in the number of people applying to convert, with 2008 seeing only 5,321 people signing up, compared to 7,280 the previous year. Although last year's figure does not represent a continuing downward trend over the past decade, Itim's founder and director Rabbi Seth Farber told The Jerusalem Post Monday that continuing bureaucracy and the lack of clear policy on conversions has meant that the entire process has deteriorated, despite increases in Conversion Authority budget allocations, making it more and more difficult for people to become Jewish. He called on the government to overhaul the system to make it more user-friendly and transparent. "I do not advocate lowering the current standards of conversion," said Farber. "I just believe that a strong central body that is not subject to political whims or to the influences of the ultra-Orthodox should be established to oversee this process." He added that even though fewer people converted last year than the previous year, the Conversion Authority, which is run out of the Prime Minister's Office, had received an increased budget. "I appreciate its accomplishment in reaching thousands of converts but this body has not maximized its potential and is still not doing enough," said Farber. The report, which is to be distributed to policy-makers in the coming days, also calls for Israel's chief rabbis to take a greater role in the issue and to be appointed the soul decision-makers in all conversion annulments. Last year, a rabbinic court judge in Ashdod made headlines when he canceled the 15-year-old conversion of a divorcing woman. Itim highlights this specific case, which is currently being considered in appeal by the country's secular High Court of Justice, served as a precedent for additional annulments. Last year, a rabbinic court judge in Ashdod made headlines when he canceled the 15-year-old conversion of a divorcing woman. Itim highlights this specific case, which is currently being considered in appeal by the country's secular High Court of Justice, served as a precedent for additional annulments. "It is not just about overturning this particular ruling," observed Farber. "There needs to be a much bigger policy change in this process." Among its other complaints, Itim points to the Committee for Special Conversions, which is meant to consider potential converts not eligible for aliya under the Law of Return. Outlining its general lack of available information and its irregular operating times, the organization also criticizes the committee's lack of appeals process and transparency. Applicants, who often face lengthy waits for consultations and answers, are not allowed access to their files to monitor the process, said the report, which also points to a State Comptroller's Report from last December suggesting that the committee caused potential converts "serious problems resulting from the lengthy waiting time." Regarding the Conversion Authority, while the report commends the "dramatic changes in management and character," it also criticizes the authority for not being open enough and taking far too long to finalize conversions or distribute certification. "These certificates allow converts to register at the Interior Ministry, continue with marriage plans, receive state benefits from the National Insurance Institute and actively pursue work," says the report. The organization also condemns the Interior Ministry's treatment of Jewish converts from abroad. "Even though according to additions to the Law of Return Jewish converts should be permitted to make aliya, in many cases these converts are asked to meet unexplained criteria to obtain Israeli citizen," observes the report. A spokesman for the Prime Minister's Office expressed his surprise that Itim, which had worked with it for years on conversion matters, had not seen fit to first contact it with these claims before turning to the press, and that the Prime Minister's Office was not asked for exact figures on conversions or for a response to the Itim report. The spokesman said that a committee had examined the government's activities related to conversion, with the government approving its recommendations, among them creating a new department in the Prime Minister's Office devoted to conversion matters. The spokesman said that wide-ranging work was currently under way to improve the services given to those seeking to convert, and to implement the government's decisions in this area. Among these were the establishment of a national hot line for those seeking information about conversion, which can be reached by dialing 02-5311333, and Rabbi Haim Druckman, who heads the Conversion Authority, signing the necessary documentation without any delays.


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