A way out of the current conversion crisis

The current conversion bill which passed a first reading this week - and which seeks to enable city rabbis to engage in conversion - is threatening the sensitive relationship between North American Jewry and the Government of the State of Israel.


The current reality is that the Netanyahu government finds itself between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, in order to stand by its coalition partners, Yisrael Beiteinu, the government needs to champion an improvement of conversion in Israel. On the other, in order not to offend Israel''s partners and supporters in North America, they must oppose the bill.


The price of offending North American Jewry might have been worth it had the bill promoted significant reform in conversion in Israel. But it doesn''t and thus, the government has a problem. The solution to this quandary challenges us to evaluate three premises. The first relates to the substance of the bill, the second to the assumptions of the bill, and the third to the winners and losers.


Substance: At present, conversion to Judaism is not grounded in the law, and it is wholly unclear on what legal basis the Chief Rabbi issues conversion certificates (teudot hamara). The bill seeks to give the chief rabbis the authority to issue such certifications, while at the same time, expanding the number of rabbis who can engage in conversion to include city rabbis and not only those with special appointments.


In practice, this legislation seeks to circumvent the current conversion authority (budget = NIS 18 million from the PMO + NIS 24 million transferred from Misrad Haklita) which has proven itself ineffective. Such legislation will probably not improve the numbers of individuals seeking to convert by more than a few dozen a year, but it will provide a victory of sort for the Yisrael Beiteinu party which made campaign promises to "improve" the current conversion situation.


Assumptions: The operating assumption of the bill is that "city rabbis" cannot at present perform conversions, and that legislation is needed to allow them to do so. However, until 2000, city rabbis did perform conversions and though there were some abuses - including two accusations of bribery - it was only a declaration by the Chief Rabbi''s Council (moetzet rabbanut harashit) that stopped this practice.


The legislation seeks to anchor the issuance of certificates in the law. Now, the Conservative, Reform and Federation communities of North America are furious over the proposed change in the religious status quo in Israel, which would - in the long term - preclude the non-Orthodox communities in Israel from appealing to the Israeli Supreme Court to recognize their conversions. In the present landscape, the potential for such a case provides a glimmer of legitimacy for these non-Orthodox streams. What is most offensive to them is utilizing legislation to solidify the power of the chief rabbinate.


It is here that the solution presents itself. Until today, the Netanyahu government had no interest in pressuring the Chief Rabbinate to improve the conversion situation. Now, with the introduction of the North American Jewish voice, the government should pressure the rabbinate to return to the pre-2000 procedures which allowed local rabbis to convert. At the same time, legislation could be withdrawn. In the end, the entire matter could be handled as an internal rabbinate matter without resorting to the Knesset.


Winners and losers: Adopting such a proposal would allow the North American Federations and the Conservative and Reform communities to feel that they were victorious in maintaining the status quo on religious issues, and allow Yisrael Beiteinu a victory as they could claim that they strong-armed the rabbinate into capitulating on the judges who perform conversions.


The Chief rabbinate has already agreed that rabbis of cities are capable of performing conversions, and they simply need to be incentivized to adopt such a resolution.  The only losers - ultimately - would be the converts, who, unfortunately, lose either way. As stated above, the introduction of city rabbis will probably only increase conversions by a few dozen a year, and this, by circumventing the system. So much brouhaha has been made about the current conversion bill that no one has noticed that the conversion authority is in serious need of reform. In order to really make headway, the conversion authority must be closed down, and a new agency must be opened with a clear mandate and a staff that can implement conversion to Judaism for those who seek it.