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Rabbinic Conversion Court judges are more likely to reject prospective converts who were partially trained via the Internet, a senior source in the Conversion Authority said Sunday.
According to the source, about 70% of prospective converts who are interviewed by the conversion court are accepted. However, among prospective converts who were trained in part via the Internet, only about half are accepted, said the source.
An interview by a panel of three rabbinical judges is the final stage of the conversion process before the convert is circumcised, immersed in a ritual bath and accepted as a full member of the Jewish people.
In preparation for their meeting with the judges, prospective converts must gain extensive theoretical and practical knowledge about Orthodox Judaism through book learning and participation.
Use of the Internet has been found to be beneficial for some prospective converts, said Prof. Binyamin Ish-Shalom, chairman of the Joint Institute for Jewish Studies, the largest institute for the training of converts.
"We use it primarily with university students who have good learning skills and can make better headway studying independently," said Ish-Shalom.
"Young, bright people do not need to spend as much time in the classroom. So there is no reason for them to be physically present throughout all of the learning process," added Ish-Shalom, who said the Internet was not a substitute for in-person meetings with educators but was used as a supplement.
"Internet is a tool that helps us logistically and educationally," said Ish-Shalom.
However, rabbinical judges strongly oppose the use of Internet training for converts.
"Conversion is not just about collecting a bunch of information," said a conversion court source. "It is about forming significant relationships with rabbis, educators, religious families and members of Orthodox communities.
"What they are doing is virtual conversion," he said.
According to the conversion court source, since the introduction of the Internet, the average time devoted to classroom training has fallen from about 350 hours to 250 hours.
"We can tell the difference between people who learned via the Internet and those who participated in classes. They are on a much lower level," said the source, who said that Internet has been used to help train converts for the past two years.
The use of the Internet is one example of tension between the joint institute - whose teachers include members of the Orthodox, Reform and Conservative streams of Judaism - and the Orthodox conversion courts that set the acceptance standards.
The issue of conversions comes to the forefront ahead of Shavuot, which is celebrated with the reading of the biblical story of Ruth, the archetypical convert to Judaism.
At least two conferences are scheduled on the issue during the next two weeks. On Tuesday, the Jewish Agency's Aliya and Integration department is holding a special day of discussions on conversions for its workers. Next week, on May 26, Sha'arei Mishpat College will hold a conference in Efrat, open to the public, entitled "Conversion: A National Endeavor, Past, Present and Future."