Political disputes threaten new conversion authority

The current conversion process has long been slammed for overly stringent demands on aspiring converts.

shlomo amar 88 (photo credit: )
shlomo amar 88
(photo credit: )
The cabinet postponed a meeting of the Ministerial Committee on Absorption and Immigration slated for Monday morning until later this week, after infighting among the parties planning a new state conversion authority forced a delay of the vote approving it. The delay comes because of objections within the Prime Minister's Office to the establishment of two positions that the prime minister would fill at the recommendation of Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, the new authority's chairman and director-general. The plan for revamping the conversion authority has seen a litany of objections. The new plan proposes to appoint salaried conversion coordinators in different communities, drawing complaints that the current volunteer system, in which thousands of families voluntarily shepherd converts through the months-long process, could not operate half-volunteer and half-paid. The ministerial committee originally recommended turning the Institute for Jewish Studies - the semi-official conversion studies agency established in the wake of the 1998 Ne'eman Commission - which provides pluralistic Jewish studies that culminate in an Orthodox conversion, into an official arm of the state, eliminating the need for the authority to compete in annual tenders to obtain the right to open its academic year. This recommendation was reversed in the final report's call for "open skies" - making the institute just one of many organizations vying for the millions of state shekels spent on conversion education. The move would effectively dismantle the institute, since it would be the only agency subject for the government tender - the competing nonprofit organizations would not legally require one - and would be bogged down by the loss of budget and the bureaucratic hurdles of renewing the tender. The institute, and with it pluralistic conversion studies, might be dismantled. In addition, a plan to allow 40 additional volunteer rabbinic judges to work in the authority, both to increase the capacity of the slow-moving conversion courts and to bring "a different perspective" to the proceedings, has been delayed because the Attorney-General's Office found legal problems with employing public servants on a volunteer basis. This has created discord, since it is these rabbis - modern Orthodox rather than haredi-leaning - who were meant to effect the real change in the authority. Some have suggested that delaying their appointment is a political, not strictly legal, move. The current conversion process has long been criticized for overly stringent demands on aspiring converts, including requiring high levels of religious observance, and retroactively canceling conversions if the convert's observance lapses. This has meant that the Jewish sector's estimated 300,000 non-Jews, who immigrated as family members of Jews, convert to Judaism at a rate of around 2,000 per year - less than their annual birth rate of 3,000. According to a government representative, government surveys show that around 150,000 wish to convert. But according to an Absorption Ministry survey from 2006, 72 percent of this group said the conversion process was "long and hard," and 76% said they were not sure they would finish the process by being accepted as Jews. These figures led to the establishment of the committee - headed by Absorption Ministry Director-General Erez Halfon and including representatives of the Education Ministry, Jewish Agency, Conversion Authority in the Prime Minister's Office, and the IDF - that developed the recommendations that were supposed to be presented to the ministers on Monday. The new authority, billed as a groundbreaking change, would be formed within four months of the ministers' approval. All state conversion institutions, including conversion education services and special rabbinic courts established for that purpose, would be placed under the jurisdiction of the new authority, making the aspiring convert's conversion experience more welcoming and educational. A special committee of dayanim, or halachic deciders, would be established under Amar to examine ways of resolving halachic difficulties encountered by aspiring converts. Amar would serve as the highest halachic authority for the new institution.