'Liberal' chief rabbi faces hard choices as Prime Minister's Office takes responsibility for budgets.
By MATTHEW WAGNER
A bureaucratic change slated to go into effect on Sunday will force Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar to oversee funding of Reform and Conservative conversion institutes.
Until now, the Immigrant Absorption Ministry was responsible for financing conversion institutes that prepared potential converts to Judaism.
But as a result of a cabinet decision to adopt the Halfon Committee recommendations for reform in the state-funded conversion apparatus, all conversion activities will be centralized in the Prime Minister's Office under Amar.
The High Court of Justice ruled in May that the state could not discriminate against non-Orthodox conversions and was obligated to finance Reform and Conservative institutes along with Orthodox ones.
The court argued the Reform and Conservative streams of Judaism fulfilled the purpose of state-sponsored conversion as defined in the 2009 state budget, to encourage the cultural integration of immigrants who were not Jewish according to religious criteria.
As a result, Amar, who is responsible for conversions performed by the Conversion Authority, will be forced to authorize the transfer of state funds to non-Orthodox conversion institutes, or at the very least continue to give legitimacy to a body that does.
Amar, who has already come under fire from the Orthodox rabbinical establishment for his more lenient position on conversions, is liable to be put under heavy pressure to block the transfer of funds.
"Rabbi Amar has one of three choices," said Avigdor Leviatan, head of the conversion division in the Immigrant Absorption Ministry.
"He can accept the decree and agree to fund Reform and Conservative institutes, which will bring the wrath of haredi rabbis upon him; he can attempt to return the situation to the way it was before the policy change; or he can avoid discriminating against the non-Orthodox institutes by stopping funds for everybody, something which would totally destroy the entire state conversion system."
Rabbi Haim Druckman, who presently serves as the head of the National Conversion Authority under Amar's guidance, said he would abide by the High Court ruling and transfer funds to the Reform and the Conservative institutes.
"It's just a fraction of the total budget," said Druckman. "I will not endanger the budget for Orthodox conversions just to spite the Reform and the Conservative movements."
Druckman added that Jewish law did not prohibit providing funding for non-Orthodox conversion education.
Amar's spokesman denied that the rabbi would be responsible for transferring the funds to Reform and Conservative institutes.
"The budget has nothing whatsoever to do with the Conversion Authority," said the spokesman.
"A special committee in the Prime Minister's Office will be responsible for allotting the funds, not Rabbi Amar."
Leviatan said that a budget of about NIS 30 million would be transferred from the Immigrant Absorption Ministry to the National Conversion Authority in the Prime Minister's Office.
About two-thirds of the money funds the Joint Institute for Jewish Studies, an organization that employees Orthodox, Conservative and Reform teachers of Judaism.
The remaining third of the budget funds private conversion institutes, most of which are Orthodox. However, some are Conservative and Reform institutes, which prepare converts for Conservative and Reform conversions.
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Israeli Reform Movement, said it was a mistake to transfer the budget to the Prime Minister's Office.
"Despite the festival surrounding Rabbi Amar's supposedly liberal approach to conversions, he has done nothing during his six years as chief rabbi to really change the situation," said Kariv.
"Throughout his tenure he has tried to appease everyone, from the haredim on the right to the religious Zionists on the left. But he seems to lack the courage to stand up for converts. He still has done nothing to help that poor woman from Ashdod who [sought a divorce and] had her conversion revoked [after 15 years]."
Kariv added that if conversions were important to Israel Beiteinu, the party would not allow the change to take place.
A spokesman for Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver (Israel Beiteinu) said she opposed the move.
"We believe budgets for conversions should be in the Immigrant Ministry," said the spokesman. "Most of the converts are immigrants and we are the best equipped to deal with the special problems facing them. But the decision was made under the previous government and we cannot stop it."â€¢
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