(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman said Tuesday he will enlist dozens of former military chaplains to serve, on a voluntary basis, as dayanim in the state's special conversion courts, to speed up the process for tens of thousands of immigrants who are not Jewish according to religious law.
Neeman spoke in Efrat at the end of a conference organized by the Sha'arei Mishpat College-Hod Hasharon and the Efrat local council on "Conversion as a National Mission."
"I repeat the concrete proposal I have made, and I will have it approved no matter what," said Neeman. "That is to take dozens of rabbis who served in the IDF and appoint them to the special conversion courts as volunteer rabbis. There is no need to do this by law. All we need is a cabinet decision."
Having so many immigrants who were immersed in society but who were not Jewish was the biggest challenge that Israel faced, he said. If it was not solved, he added, Israel would cease to be a Jewish and democratic state.
Previous speakers Prof. Binyamin Ish-Shalom, chairman of the State Joint Institute for Conversion, and Bar-Ilan University law professor Yedidya Stern warned that the country had reached a crisis over this issue.
Roughly 300,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union are not recognized as Jewish by the state, even though they are citizens in accordance with the Law of Return.
In addition, about 8,000 children per year are born to these non-Jewish immigrants.
According to Stern, 1,197 people converted to Judaism in Israel in 2007 (not counting soldiers who converted in the army). The number dropped by 20 percent in 2008, to 933.
"This is [all] the state system of conversion courts is managing to do," said Stern. "One convert for every 300 non-Jewish immigrants.
"Think of it. Eight thousand newborns each year listen to the music of Naomi Shemer but they are part of the problem. They cannot marry 80% of the [Jewish] population in their own country, whose army they serve in.
"One of my nightmares is that our own children will assimilate in our very own country [by marrying Israelis who are not Jewish according to religious law]."
Stern also warned that unless the majority of the non-Jews were converted, there would come a day when religion would no longer be the defining factor in determining who was a member of the Jewish community.
He said it was the haredi parties - Shas and United Torah Judaism - that stood in the way of large-scale conversion and that the religious Zionist, traditional and secular Jewish communities, which constituted the majority, had to join forces to overcome this obstacle.
Most of the speakers, including Efrat Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Stern and Ish-Shalom, said the conversion courts must be more flexible in their requirements of converts regarding observance of the commandments.
They referred to this as the "Beit Hillel approach."
Riskin said it was enough if the convert observed Shabbat and kashrut and gave to charity. Stern said that according to Jewish tradition, there were many options to choose from when it came to the way of life a convert could follow.
However, one of the dayanim on the special conversion courts, Rabbi Yisrael Rozen, told the audience that there was no getting away from the fact that a non-Jew may only convert to Judaism if he observes all the commandments.