Mainstream religious Zionist rabbi appointed head of Conversion Authority

A new head of the Conversion Authority has been appointed by the Prime Minister's Office.

 The building of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel is located in Jerualem.  (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
The building of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel is located in Jerualem.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has appointed Rabbi Yehuda Amichai, head of the Halacha research department at the Torah and Land Institute, as acting head of the Conversion Authority in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).

Amichai served as rabbi of the Carmel moshav (cooperative agricultural settlement), head of the Beit Hagadi moshav yeshiva, a judge in the Kiryat Arba Rabbinical Court and as chairman of the Chief Rabbinate’s Shmita Committee, which deals with matters pertaining to the last year of the recurring seven-year agricultural cycle mandated by the Torah in the Land of Israel.

According to the Srugim news site, this decision is a success for the Religious Zionist Party (RZP) and it’s head Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who wanted to nominate a religious-Zionist rabbi to this role, as opposed to a haredi (ultra-Orthodox) one. According to the report, the haredi parties demanded that Rabbi Moshe Weller, a former head of the Conversion Authority, be appointed to the position again. The ultra-Orthodox parties’ demand was supported by Chief Rabbi David Lau, who serves as president of the Rabbinical Court.

The appointment of an acting head of the department is for a period of three months, which afterwards can either be extended by the prime minister, or canceled automatically. At a certain point, Netanyahu will be required to decide who will be the permanent head of the conversion system.

A year ago, in January 2022, then-religious services minister Matan Kahana sparked a storm among haredi and National-Religious rabbis after he recommended that Rabbi Benayahu Brunner – a member of the Tzohar organization and a judge in the rabbinical courts – should lead the Conversion Authority.

Kahana decided a year ago to end Weller’s role as head of the authority because he operated according to Lau’s instructions. Lau expressed outrage at the decision, saying it would “severely damage” the functioning of the authority, warning that he would immediately stop approving conversion certificates if Weller was removed.
HAREDI STUDENTS attend a class at The Jerusalem College of Technology (credit: JCT)HAREDI STUDENTS attend a class at The Jerusalem College of Technology (credit: JCT)

SMOTRICH REACTED then, as an MK from the opposition, saying that Brunner is “a scholar and an important judge, and is very worthy for the position,” adding that he was sad concerning the “circumstances of his appointment and especially about the fact that Kahana intends to relinquish most of his authority as part of the privatization of conversion that he is advancing.”

Incoming and outgoing ministers

Smotrich strongly protested the contempt and attacks against Brunner, wishing the rabbi great success in his role. Yet this wasn’t enough for him to support Brunner in 2023 as a minister, and head of a coalition member party.

Brunner was an acting head of the authority and has received a three month extension every few months for the past year. Last week, Netanyahu decided not to extend his tenure. He wasn’t a permanent head of the authority since this decision needs to be approved by the chief rabbi, who was against the appointment.

According to Israel National News, Brunner sent a message to all of the workers of the conversion system on Monday. “Dear conversion lawyers and the workers of the conversion system, God bless you!” he wrote.

“A year ago I was called to fill the position of head of the conversion organization by Rabbi Haim Druckman. During this year, I worked on his mission to promote the challenge of conversion in our generation of redemption. This week, I finished this task,” he said.

“The challenge of conversion is an existential challenge for the people of Israel, in our country, during the period of the Third Temple… I thank the judges and workers who cooperated with me and tried their best to advance this noble task. I wish you success in your holy work and in all your endeavors,” the outgoing head of the Conversion Authority wrote.

Sources in the PMO told The Jerusalem Post that a deal was made between the haredi parties and Smotrich that Amichai will be more of a rubber stamp in the authority and Weller will be appointed to be his deputy, as the director of the authority and be the one who actually makes the dramatic decisions. This analysis hasn’t been approved by any of the relevant players.

The challenge of conversion is an existential challenge for the people of Israel, in our country, during the period of the Third Temple… I thank the judges and workers who cooperated with me and tried their best to advance this noble task. I wish you success in your holy work and in all your endeavors.”

Rabbi Benayahu Brunner

Minister Orit Struck welcomed the appointment on Monday stating that “we promised to strengthen the conversion system and to invest in encouraging more conversion,” she said in a statement. “Tonight, during the one-month memorial of the death of Rabbi Haim Druckman, we begin to celebrate.”

She offered congratulations to Netanyahu and Smotrich, as well as to the “city of Hebron, the city of Abraham our father, the father of all immigrants, for the appointment of Rabbi Yehuda Amichai as the head of the conversion system,” since he lives in Kiryat Arba, which is right next to Hebron, as do Struck and her family.

Tzvi Joffre contributed to this report.