Agency demands Conversion Authority be more independent

It is currently classified as a department of the Prime Minister's Office, making it subject to the PMO's labor union, legal adviser and financial control.

zeev bielski 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
zeev bielski 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Ccontroversy over a new State Conversion Authority is simmering on with the Jewish Agency demanding this week that the government grant the new authority greater independence from the Prime Minister's Office. "The agency has been trying for more than 10 years to change the conversion process in Israel, which is scandalous," explained agency chairman Ze'ev Bielski. "The Jewish nation doesn't deserve a conversion process like this." The new authority was formally established by the government three weeks ago, replacing the old authority of the same name. Conversion advisers, more hands-on religious studies and new buildings for the conversion court are all part of the reform. The new authority was created to streamline the conversion process of hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish olim who came to Israel as relatives of Jews and, the government believes, wished to convert. About half of the estimated 300,000 members of this group have expressed an interest in converting, according to government officials, but most were turned away from the process by stringent demands for religious observance and an "unfriendly" bureaucratic environment. Only some 2,000 convert each year. The Jewish Agency's Board of Governors, which met in Jerusalem this week, issued the call to the government after a vociferous debate in the agency's Committee for the Unity of the Jewish People heard criticism that the current status of the new authority limits its independence. It is currently classified as a department of the Prime Minister's Office, making it subject to the PMO's labor union, legal adviser and financial control. In its unanimous call, the 120-member agency board called for the conversion authority to be given the status of a government authority, similar to the independent status of the Chief Rabbinate, which would allow it to conduct separate hiring practices, oversee its own budget and not be subject to junior PMO officials. The agency also called for the approval of 50 new volunteer rabbinic judges, whose appointment has been held up by Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz and the legal adviser's office in the PMO out of concern over the legality of unpaid public servants wielding authority over a citizen's conversion process. The idea of the volunteer judges came from former justice minister Yaakov Neeman, and was intended "to create a class of judges who perform conversions out of a desire to solve an acute problem," not just to hold a government job, said one of the participants in the Jewish Agency meetings. The volunteer judges would still be chosen by Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar. The agency also called for the government to work more closely with the Institute for Jewish Studies, the conversion education program established by the government and the Jewish Agency according to the recommendations of the Neeman Commission. The PMO and Absorption Ministry would not respond to requests for comment. At the semi-official institute, aspiring converts study Judaism from a pluralistic perspective that incorporates all the religious streams, but undergo an Orthodox conversion at the State Conversion Authority. The new authority was established based on the recommendations of the Halfon Committee, headed by Absorption Ministry Dir.-Gen. Erez Halfon and including representatives of the Education Ministry, Jewish Agency, Conversion Authority in the Prime Minister's Office and the IDF.