Ministry touts rise in rates of conversion to Judaism

Religious-services NGO says reported progress is insufficient to maintain character of Jewish state.

January 14, 2014 23:17
3 minute read.
Last Ethiopian aliya flight lands in Israel, August 28, 2013

Last Ethiopian aliya flight lands in Israel 370. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)


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Last year, 33 percent more non-Jewish Israelis converted through the state conversion authority than in 2012, the Religious Services Ministry stated on Tuesday.

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There was also an increase in 2013 in the number of converts among immigrants from the former Soviet Union over the 2012 figures, although 2012 represented a nadir in conversions from this demographic over the past six years.

The issue of conversion in that community remains a cause for concern among groups worried about intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews in Israel.

There are approximately 330,000 Israeli citizens of Jewish descent who are not Jewish according to Jewish law, of which some 80,000 are children.

According to the ministry, 5,671 people successfully converted in 2013, compared to 4,312 in 2012, although much of the increase was from the Ethiopian community and not the target community from the former Soviet Union.

Part of the absorption process for Ethiopian immigrants is a streamlined conversion process, which most complete.

According to the ministry, of those who converted in 2013, there were 2,836 converts from “all other countries” (that is, excluding Ethiopia), compared to 2,043 in 2012, representing a 48% increase.

Of those, 828 converted through the IDF rabbinical conversion court, rather than the civil rabbinical courts. The demographic breakdown for that group is unavailable, however.

Alongside all of these converts were another 2,835 from the Ethiopian community, compared to 2,269 in 2012, constituting a 25% increase.

But the increase in converts from other countries received a significant boost from the arrival and conversion of 300 members of the Bnei Menashe community from North East India.

According to some, the Bnei Menashe are descended from one of the ancient 10 lost tribes of Israel, and they received immigration visas to Israel under the right of return. Like the Ethiopian immigrants, they undergo a streamlined conversion process.

In addition, 2012 saw a 23% decline in conversion among Israelis from the former Soviet Union compared to the 2011 figures.

Furthermore, of the converts from “all other countries” in 2013, 271 were non-Israeli citizens – that is, not immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

So the total number of people who converted from “all other countries” through the civil rabbinical courts, excluding non-Israeli citizens and the Bnei Menashe, was approximately 1,400 to 1,500 people – almost the same number as in 2012.

The head of the conversion authority, Mulli Jessellson, welcomed the increase in conversions and said it showed that the authority was “willing to serve those requesting to convert warmly and with the appropriate sensitivity.”

Jessellson added that “the increase of 33 percent in the number of [conversion] certificates issued by the civil rabbinical courts for conversion is a result of massive and intensive field work.”

But Orthodox Rabbi Seth Farber, director of the ITIM religious-services advisory and lobbying group, was more circumspect about the progress made.

“While we are pleased that the numbers have gone up a little, we believe strongly that there is considerable work to be done to make conversion accessible to the numbers of immigrants who we believe are interested in converting,” said Farber.

He also claimed that in 2013, according to ITIM figures, there were approximately the same number of non-Jewish immigrants of Jewish descent who immigrated to Israel as there were non-Jewish Israelis who converted to Judaism.

“We’re not making the kind of progress that we need in order to maintain the Jewish character of State of Israel,” he said. “Unless there is a sea change in the attitude of all relevant parties involved in conversion, we are not going to achieve this goal.”

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