Gov't panel may alter conversion policy

Committee will also look into the reform of rabbinic conversion courts.

jerusalem rabbinate 248.88 (photo credit: Knesset Channel)
jerusalem rabbinate 248.88
(photo credit: Knesset Channel)
A special inter-ministerial committee headed by Immigrant Absorption Ministry Director-General Erez Halfon was formed last week to examine government conversion policy and the reform of the rabbinic conversion courts. The committee will formulate a recommendation regarding the establishment of a single government framework that would determine conversion policy. Currently, conversion-related activities are spread across the Prime Minister's Office, the Chief Rabbinate, the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, the Education Ministry and external institutions, such as the Jewish Agency. The new committee is also tasked with examining the curriculum for aspiring converts, as taught in the Institute for Jewish Studies, a government agency under the aegis of the Immigrant Absorption Ministry charged with education for conversion for non-Jewish immigrants. Perhaps most controversially, the committee will look into ideas for reforming the rabbinic conversion courts, which have been accused of unnecessarily hindering conversions among the estimated 300,000 non-Jewish immigrants living in Israel. Last week, the Institute for Jewish Studies, commonly known as the Joint Institute for Conversion, suspended its cooperation with the rabbinic courts and called for the appointment of 50 new conversion judges who will support, rather than hinder, the conversion process, according to institute head Professor Benjamin Ish-Shalom. According to the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, "the committee will examine the structure of the rabbinic courts, the need to appoint new dayanim [judges] and limiting the period before an answer [accepting or rejecting the conversion] must be given, and will recommend removing bureaucratic obstacles that make the conversion process more difficult." Alongside the committee's establishment, the Immigrant Absorption Ministry has launched a public awareness campaign about the issue in the Russian-language press in Israel. According to a recent study conducted for the Ministry, non-Jewish immigrants feel less "Israeli" than Jewish immigrants. The study found that 55% of non-Jewish immigrants feel more "Russian" than "Israeli" when it comes to adopting the local culture, as opposed to 40% among Jewish immigrants. Forty-eight percent feel more "Russian" than "Israeli" when it comes to observing Jewish tradition, including celebrating holidays, compared to 31% among Jewish immigrants. The figures were similar (57% for non-Jews and 35% for Jews) when the immigrants were asked about education and family. The study also found that a simpler and more accepting conversion process would encourage most of the non-Jewish immigrants to become Jewish. The main factor preventing conversion, according to the study, is the lack of confidence among immigrants that the process - a 10-month program of study followed by intensive, repeated questioning in the rabbinic courts - will end successfully. Fully 76% said they lacked such confidence. In addition, 70% said they felt the goal of conversion was to make them "religious" and not merely Jewish, and that this was the reason for their aversion to the process. Sixty-nine percent said they believed the process was also intended to alter their personalities.