Yehezkel: Converts need not stay Orthodox

Cabinet secretary tells Post only process of conversion should be strictly in accordance with Halacha.

conversion class 248.88 (photo credit: Hilary Leila Krieger [file])
conversion class 248.88
(photo credit: Hilary Leila Krieger [file])
Non-Jews who immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return and wish to convert to Judaism will not be required to maintain an Orthodox lifestyle after the conversion, cabinet secretary Ovad Yehezkel has told The Jerusalem Post. "The process of conversion is strictly in accordance with Halacha," said Yehezkel. "But as soon as you enter the world of Judaism, the decision regarding your personal Jewish lifestyle is up to you. Nobody is going to force you to continue to be Orthodox. There is no directive like that." Yehezkel's comments surprised conversion court judges who see conversion as a profound transformation of a non-Jew into a Jew that includes adhering to a normative Orthodox lifestyle. "The vast majority of conversion judges demand that the prospective convert adopt Halacha as a way of life as part of the conversion," said a senior judge who preferred to remain anonymous. "There is a minority opinion held by Rabbi Ben-Zion Uziel [the first Sephardi chief rabbi of Israel] that conversion is not contingent upon observing all the commandments," the judge said. "But Rabbi Uziel was talking about people who had a strong faith in God. His assumption was that this faith would eventually bring the convert or the offspring to observe the commandments." Yehezkel's opinion, though, on the way conversions should be performed is not likely to find much support among the traditional Orthodox establishment. Yehezkel's preconceptions about the way to relate to converts after the conversion process is likely to clash with the majority rabbinic opinion, which expects converts to accept the strictures of Orthodoxy, or at least have the honest intention of doing so at the time of conversion. This clash underlines the difficulties that arise when government officials are responsible for providing religious services that are governed by a complicated set of legal criteria determined by rabbis. Yehezkel is tasked with streamlining the conversion bureaucracy to increase the number of conversions. There are about 300,000 Israelis who immigrated from the former Soviet Union under the Law of Return but who are not Jewish according to Orthodox criteria. In 2004, jurisdiction over conversions was transferred from the rabbinic courts to the Prime Minister's Office in the hope that the creation of a separate apparatus for conversions would streamline the process and encourage more Israelis to convert. Despite the administrative changes, the number of FSU immigrants who convert has remained unchanged. Many olim complain of harassment by conversion officials after the conversion process, regarding family purity and strict adherence to Halacha. Other potential converts are discouraged from pursuing the process because of such follow-up. The conversion process has long been criticized for overly stringent demands on aspiring converts, including high religious observance requirements and rare cases in which rabbinic judges retroactively canceled conversions because the convert's observance had lapsed. 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. Technically, Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar holds the authority for overseeing the religious aspects of the conversion process. That means civil servants and politicians cannot interfere with the religious demands made of potential converts by the judges as conditions for conversion, such as eating kosher food and refraining from work on Shabbat. Nevertheless, conversion judges are concerned that in the push to increase the number of converts who pass through the authority, religious standards will be lowered. Yehezkel also commented on the appointment this week of 22 new conversion judges, which almost doubles the total number. He said that move was aimed at improving efficiency. However, veteran judges told the Post that there was not enough work to go around. And now with the additional judges on board the already light workload would be shared by even more judges, who get paid per court session, they said. "This is going to cause tension among the judges," said one judge. "I count on my work in the conversion court as a steady source of income." Prof. Binyamin Ish-Shalom, chairman of the Joint Institute for Jewish Studies, a school that employs teachers from the three main streams of Judaism - Reform, Conservative and Orthodox - to prepare potential converts for an Orthodox conversion, said the appointment of the 22 new judges might improve the process. "I am not celebrating yet," said Ish-Shalom. "I hope we will see some headway. "I hope that the new ones will have a positive influence that will improve the conversion process," said Ish-Shalom, who believes the source of the main problem is the tendency of conversion judges to be overly stringent. Rabbi Shaul Farber, head of ITIM, an organization that helps converts navigate the religious bureaucracy, said it was important to maintain the integrity of the halachic conversion process. "But at the same time we must take into account the pressing demographic needs of the Jewish people. "Let's face it, FSU immigrants are not going to be willing to adopt the mores and lifestyle of the religious Zionist conversion judge sitting on the other side of the table," he said.