Are Israel's kashrut, conversion reforms moving forward?

While the State of Israel in 2022 may not yet be fully redeemed, these words do provide a certain sense of optimism and renewal. 

 GABI GLUCK, owner of Caya Specialty Coffee in Ra’anana, holds Tzohar’s kashrut certification.  (photo credit: TZOHAR)
GABI GLUCK, owner of Caya Specialty Coffee in Ra’anana, holds Tzohar’s kashrut certification.
(photo credit: TZOHAR)

“In the month of Nisan, the Jewish people were redeemed from Egypt, and in the month of Nisan they are destined to again be redeemed.” (Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 11a)

Passover symbolizes rebirth, renewal and a sense of optimism, not only for the present, but as the above Talmudic citation indicates, for the future. When the 36th government took office in June 2021, Yamina MK Matan Kahana became religious services minister and began to reform the country’s kashrut supervision and the conversion process, two issues that have been the source of discontent and friction in many quarters for a number of years.

In an effort to evaluate the status of these changes, this writer spoke with Rabbi David Stav, the chief rabbi of Shoham and chairman of the Tzohar organization of Modern Orthodox rabbis, which since its founding in 1995 has attempted to shape Israel’s Jewish character through dialogue and common elements of Jewish identity. The organization is well known for its efforts to make Jewish life more relevant to all segments of Jewish society in areas such as marriage, kashrut and Jewish ethics.

“I believe that the vast majority of Jewish society in Israel wants to see a change in the issues of kashrut and conversion,” says Stav, “and generally speaking of the issues of the relationship between state and religion. More and more, Jewish society wants to settle and arrange disputes between the observant and non-observant, not based on power or coercion but based on dialogue, negotiation and compromise. 

“The only way to engage secular, young society to Judaism is by inspiration and not by coercion. I believe that these reforms are the first steps to create the best climate of dialogue and negotiation between different sides.”

 GIYUR K’HALACHA rabbinical court: (L to R) Rabbis Seth Farber, David Stav and David Brofsky at a recent conversion of a child at ITIM-Giyur K’halacha. (credit: ITIM)
GIYUR K’HALACHA rabbinical court: (L to R) Rabbis Seth Farber, David Stav and David Brofsky at a recent conversion of a child at ITIM-Giyur K’halacha. (credit: ITIM)
Ending the kashrut monopoly

On January 1, as part of the government budget, the first segment of the kashrut reform law was passed. According to the new law, Stav explained, religious councils may now provide kashrut certification anywhere in the country and are no longer limited to providing certification in the cities where they are located. With this new law, religious councils have greater freedom and flexibility to provide reliable certification beyond their cities, and restaurants and hotels can now select a specific religious council to provide kashrut certification. 

“The importance of allowing other religious councils to provide kashrut supervision outside of their region will put an end to the situation where every local rabbi can act as his ‘town’s sheriff,’ and make demands that are unheard of, which no one can debate with him,” explains Stav. “A local rabbi might appoint his own people, who might not show up, and he can do whatever he wants, and no one can say anything because he’s the only one in charge.”

Stav points out that the opening of competition and providing choice in the world of kashrut is similar to what Tzohar accomplished in 2013 in the area of marriage registration. Until then, marriage registration had to be done in the municipal jurisdiction of one of the partners of the engaged couple. The law that passed at that time permits couples to open a marriage registration file with the local rabbinate in any area of Israel. 

The second part of the kashrut reforms will go into effect in nine months, and says Stav, this is where the real revolution will occur. Until now, according to the law, the Chief Rabbinate had the exclusive right to provide kosher supervision and certification, and in cases when other agencies added their supervision, this supervisory duplication often increased costs, which were frequently passed on to consumers.

The new law will permit independent rabbinic supervisory agencies, such as Tzohar, Badatz Beit Yosef and Eda Haredit, to provide kashrut supervision, abolishing the supervisory monopoly of the Chief Rabbinate. The rabbinate will become the regulator for these agencies. 

In addition, when the second part of the law goes into effect, kosher supervisory agencies other than the Chief Rabbinate will be permitted to import kosher products under their own supervision. “Hundreds, if not thousands of products that are today are approved under the kosher dairy OU-D label of the Orthodox Union in America, but cannot be imported into Israel currently,” says Rabbi Stav, “will now be able to be approved for use in Israel through other agencies.” 

The Chief Rabbinate does not approve dairy products made with milk that was not produced under kosher supervision (Halav Yisrael) but which is assumed to be kosher based on other considerations, such as local laws that prohibit the adulteration of milk products. 

Tzohar, however, will allow the importation of such products into Israel. So, for example, Philadelphia cream cheese made in the US and under the OU-D supervision will become available in Israel once Tzohar and other organizations have the green light to import products under their supervision. (The Philadelphia products currently available here are imported from Spain.) Häagen-Dazs ice cream products, which are not widely available in Israel, will also be imported under the same criteria.

The authority to conduct conversions

While the laws regarding kashrut reform have been passed, the issues regarding conversion reform have not yet been approved by the Knesset. It is estimated that there are approximately 400,000 Israelis of Russian descent who live their lives as full citizens, serve in the army and pay taxes but have never converted to Judaism. The current system for conversion is not equipped to convert large numbers in its current setup. Rabbi Stav outlined the new proposal and what the changes in the law will accomplish, in his view.

The new proposal would enable municipal rabbis to carry out conversions under the auspices of a central system and steering committee that would define the rules for conversion and monitor their implementation, making the process uniform across the country but transferring sole power away from the Chief Rabbinate.

Stav explained his frustration with the current system. “In Israel today,” he says, “it is not just one group that controls conversion – it is one man who controls conversion. The rabbinic courts of the Chief Rabbinate on conversion have distinguished rabbis, but they have no independence to judge whether they can accept converts or not. They are obligated to the direct instructions and policy given by Chief Rabbi David Lau.

“There is one rabbi,” Stav continues, “who decides with no transparent criteria who is converted and who is not. I believe that Jewish tradition throughout Jewish history enabled rabbis all over the world how to decide based on their understanding of the situation, how to implement conversion and how to implement halachic policy. 

“Tens of municipal rabbis have been involved in conversion since the State of Israel was established. There is no reason why in the last two decades, the rabbinate has not allowed local rabbis to carry out conversions. I believe that this bill might bring hope for thousands of people who would want to convert and, under this current situation, are not converting.”

Currently, says Stav, Lau must approve each conversion in writing. “It’s not just that he has to sign. It’s that one man must approve what the rabbinic courts are doing. It’s unheard of.”

Stav contrasts Lau’s control over conversion cases with rabbinic courts that deal with other issues, such as divorce. “Every bet din has full independence, even though they are dealing with the most serious issues. The judges have the final word. That is not the case with conversions.”

Because Lau has absolute control over approval of conversions, says Stav, he has the power to restrict them, and in fact, he says, that is what he has done. “The chief rabbi has not signed a single conversion certificate since January 1,” he says. “There are hundreds of converts waiting for his signature, and he hasn’t signed because he doesn’t like the idea that the head of the conversion administration is not someone whom he appointed, so he will not sign.”

Stav explains that Minister Kahana decided not to extend the term of Rabbi Moshe Weller, who was the head of the conversion administration, and appointed someone else. “The chief rabbi is making a protest, which is a clear prohibition of the Halacha,” says Stav, “which commands us not to oppress the convert.” 

The yet-to-be-approved conversion bill, Stav explains, would permit chief municipal rabbis to conduct and approve conversions. “All chief municipal rabbis – who are not lesser scholars than the chief rabbi himself – will be able to sign conversion certificates.” Stav adds that municipal rabbis were permitted to conduct conversions years ago, during the tenure of Rabbi Shlomo Goren and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef as chief rabbis (1973-1983).

Stav explains that placing conversion in the hands of chief municipal rabbis will not only streamline the process but will encourage the conversion of minors, which he feels will greatly accelerate the number of converts among Russian-Israelis. Rabbi Nahum Eliezer Rabinovitch (1928-2020), a renowned halachic authority who headed the hesder yeshiva in Ma’aleh Adumim until his death, advocated the conversion of minors in Israel when requested by their parents. 

ITIM’s Giyur K’Halacha rabbinical court (see below), which was created in 2015, was headed by Rabinovitch, and a number of prominent rabbis, including Stav, Rabbi Re’em Hacohen and Rabbi Yaakov Medan, are members of the court, and convert children before the age of bar and bat mitzvah. The Chief Rabbinate has not accepted this position. 

 ASHKENAZI CHIEF RABBI David Lau (L) delivers a speech to national-religious yeshiva students, speaking out against the Conversion Law and Kashrut Law, January 30, Jerusalem.  (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
ASHKENAZI CHIEF RABBI David Lau (L) delivers a speech to national-religious yeshiva students, speaking out against the Conversion Law and Kashrut Law, January 30, Jerusalem. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
Political and rabbinic rumblings

On the day I spoke with Rabbi Stav regarding the prospects for conversion reform, the waters were muddied further by two issues – one political and one rabbinic. When Yamina MK and Coalition Chairwoman Idit Silman announced on April 6 that she was leaving the coalition, thus removing its majority, the future of the fragile government was thrown into doubt. A Likud return to power would most likely lead to the return of haredi politicians running the Religious Services Ministry, which would cast the entire future of Kahana’s reforms in doubt.

In response, Stav said, “While we certainly understand that the potential passing of the conversion bill is now in doubt because of the political crisis, Tzohar is not a political agency, and we don’t get involved in politics. We operate based on embracing a vision that is not dependent on any political coalition, personality or specific political situation. 

“We campaigned for the kashrut reform and for the conversion reform during a Likud-run government, we continued to do so under the current government, and we will continue to work toward the ideals we stand for under future governments.”

He emphasized that the need to address the challenge surrounding the identity of immigrants from the former Soviet Union will continue under all governments for the foreseeable future. Regarding the kashrut reform, Stav believes that if the authorities see that the reform is effective and works, it won’t change, regardless of who is in power. 

The rabbinic muddying of the waters was contributed by a cautionary online op-ed regarding the Israeli proposals on conversion. The piece, penned by Rabbi Leonard Matanky, Ph.D., rabbi of Congregation KINS in Chicago, head of the Ida Crown Jewish Academy and co-president of the Religious Zionists of America, was signed by a number of leading Modern Orthodox rabbis in the United States, including Rabbi Binyamin Blau, president of the Rabbinical Council of America; Rabbi Mark Dratch, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America; Rabbi Michael Taubes of RIETS-Yeshiva University; Moishe Bane, president of the Orthodox Union; and Rabbi Moshe Hauer, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union.

The op-ed stated that the signatories had met with Minister Kahana in New York but could not support the legislation as presently written because they feel that Kahana’s proposed reforms will not solve the current difficulties regarding conversion, and in addition, expressed concern that the proposals would “sideline” the Chief Rabbinate.

Speaking with the Magazine, Matanky said Kahana had requested the meeting, “and there was no way that we would not be able to respect the requests of a minister of the State of Israel. We feel very close with the State of Israel. These organizations all identify with religious Zionism,” he said, “and we had a very productive meeting. I think it was a meeting that could be the first of many – we hope that the dialogue will continue.”

Why did the rabbis issue a statement of non-approval? “The reason for the statement,” says Matanky, “is because, unfortunately, even before we said something, there was already PR going out. There was an article that appeared which talked about New York rabbis in favor of the proposal. There were some New York rabbis who he met with over Shabbat that were in favor, but it gave the impression as if there was widespread agreement. While we agreed that there need to be reforms and that there needs to be change, some of the improvements that were being recommended were problematic. We felt that they could be improved upon. 

“So for people who read the op-ed piece carefully, they’ll see that it doesn’t say we reject, but it says currently written, that we invite future dialogue. We raised what we considered to be the substantive issues that we had. We hope that if this is able to move forward, that we’ll be able to continue to work together because this affects not just the State of Israel, but it affects world Jewry.”

Despite Matanky’s disclaimer that the online headline “Minister Kahana, we American Orthodox rabbis can’t support your reform” was misleading, an email sent out by the OU this past Friday listed the item with that headline as its top item in the “Around the OU” section. 

When asked about Stav’s statement that municipal rabbis in Israel were authorized to perform conversions in past years, Matanky wondered: “That’s true. But is it a response of ‘Renew our days as of old’ (chadesh yameinu k’kedem) or ‘it didn’t work once, so let’s do it again?’ We don’t know. 

“The reality is that when it comes to the question of personal status, and there are many different positions in Halacha, but because we’re dealing with an international community, we find ourselves in the United States today, where if ‘rabbi x’ performed a conversion a generation ago and the child of that woman who was converted wants to marry a member of my synagogue or another synagogue, and you start to look into it, you find out that in those days, that person was never Shabbat-observant their whole lives, and they were converted, what’s the status of the child? It gets much more complicated when it comes to personal status, and it does complicate the matters as well as on an international basis.”

Were rabbinic criticisms justified?

Rabbi Seth Farber, founder and head of ITIM, which helps people navigate the Jewish religious bureaucracy in Israel, suggests that Kahana’s attempt to convince the rabbis in New York was ill-advised. “At this point,” says Farber, “there isn’t even a final product that’s on the table, and certainly until it’s finalized, no one knows what it’s going to look like.”

Farber is critical of the comments made by the American rabbis. “I think that those rabbis who wrote the op-ed were ill-informed as to conversion in Israel, meaning that there is a lot of nuance as to what is going on here.” Farber says that whenever the late Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, the head of Yeshivat Har Etzion and a noted halachic authority – who had made aliyah from the United States – was asked a question about policy in the American Orthodoxy world, he would reply, “I don’t live there. I don’t feel what they’re feeling, so it’s very hard for me to say.”

“I think that American Orthodox rabbis and European Orthodox rabbis should, in this particular case, engage in an act of humility,” Farber continues, “and acknowledge and express that they understand that they don’t understand everything here, like their teacher Rabbi Lichtenstein said about the United States. It is inexcusable for them to take a public position attacking the policies of the State of Israel on this kind of issue without understanding all the details. I believe very strongly that if those rabbis would understand the playing field here, they would fight vociferously for exactly what it is that they’re arguing against.”

Farber adds that in addition to the 450,000 Israelis who have made aliyah and are listed as having no religion (including those from the FSU and others), Israel will be absorbing another 20,000 Jews who are escaping the war in Ukraine. He notes that up to 40% of the refugees are Russians. ITIM has opened a desk operated by four staffers who have already fielded more than 900 calls from families who have come to Israel or who want to come to Israel and need assistance in proving their Jewishness and eligibility for aliyah.

Farber concedes that the struggle to streamline and improve conversion and kashrut services is an uphill battle. “If we could remove the destiny of the Jewish people and the Jewish state from immediate political concerns, I think we’d have a great opportunity. I’m still hopeful we’ll be able to do that. What’s at stake is nothing less than the future of the Jewish people and the Jewish state.”

Renewal and redemption? 

Where does this leave Rabbi David Stav and Tzohar? Responding to the position expressed by the American rabbis, Stav echoes Farber and says that it is based on a lack of understanding of the situation in Israel. “If the reforms in kashrut and conversion will pass, it will strengthen the Jewish identity of the State of Israel. 

“Today, 6,000 restaurants in Israel are not kosher. We provide supervision to almost 400 restaurants through Tzohar, and most of those were not under kosher supervision previously. I believe that once the reforms pass, they will strengthen the connection of Israeli secular society to Judaism.”

Tzohar, says Stav, has been helping thousands of immigrants that have arrived in Israel from the former Soviet Union in recent years, and he expects thousands more to arrive in the wake of the war in Ukraine. “We are working hard to help those who arrive to prove their Jewish status to enable them to integrate into Israeli society. 

“I believe that for those who are not halachically Jewish – and there is a huge percentage, although they come from Jewish roots – we will try to do our best to bring them to a process of conversion that will be friendly, accepting, embracing and halachic.” 

While the State of Israel in 2022 may not yet be fully redeemed, these words do provide a certain sense of optimism and renewal. 