Chief rabbi, Jewish Agency head differ on conversion issue
Amar: Gentile immigrants want to be Israelis, not Jews; Bielski blames overstrict rabbis.
By MATTHEW WAGNER
Gentile immigrants have grown accustomed to living as Israelis, but not as Jews, so they have no interest in converting, Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar said Thursday.
In a statement, Amar rejected Jewish Agency claims that overly stringent conversion court judges are scaring away potential converts.
"Every single individual interested in converting is given the best possible treatment," Amar said. "However, in reality, there are not that many gentiles asking to convert because they are used to living like Israelis, not necessarily like Jews."
However, Jewish Agency Chairman Ze'ev Bielski blames rabbinic judges responsible for conversions.
"We cannot tolerate a situation in which there are so many immigrants who want to convert, who want to become a part of the Jewish people and don't, because rabbis reject them," said Bielski. "And this rejection creates a snowball effect in which thousands more don't even bother trying to convert after hearing the horror stories."
Four years after the establishment of the Conversion Authority, there has been no significant rise in the number of conversions performed on gentile immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
In 2006, the authority signed 1,020 conversion certificates, compared to 1,165 in 2005.
In 2001 and 2002, just before the authority's creation, 954 and 890 certificates were signed, respectively. Converts receive a conversion certificate (te'udat hamarah) after completing the process.
In addition, another 2,000 non-Jewish soldiers have converted within the army's NATIV framework since 2003, according to the IDF Spokesman's Office. NATIV encourages non-Jewish soldiers to learn about Jewish history, culture and literature, and offers them the option of converting.
The total number of conversions via NATIV and the Conversion Authority is much lower than what was hoped for originally.
The rabbinic establishment says this is because non-Jewish immigrants see no need to convert since they do not identify as Jews religiously, instead seeing themselves as secular Israelis.
But Bielski and former finance Ya'acov Neeman, who headed a committee in the late '90s that led to the creation of an organized conversion apparatus, are calling for the appointment of 40 to 50 new, more lenient rabbis to increase the number of conversions.
The Conversion Authority, which has a budget of NIS 7.3 million for 2007, was created in 2003 in response to complaints that the Rabbinic Court Administration, which used to be responsible for conversions, was too strict. The authority is headed by Rabbi Haim Druckman, who is considered to have a more open liberal approach to conversions. However, Druckman has failed to convince the judges to be more flexible, said a source close to Druckman.
Amar, who has the final say on halacha in the authority, has refrained from calling for leniencies. In fact, Amar is trying to get several haredi rabbis connected with Rabbi Nissim Karelitz and Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv appointed as conversion judges.
Many judges and rabbis backed up Amar's claim that FSU immigrants are not interested in converting. Conversion court sources say they end up converting 85 percent of the candidates.
"But most people never reach the conversion court," said Rabbi Israel Rosen, a veteran conversion court judge.
"The problem is not with the judges. We need to increase awareness among non-Jewish immigrants," he said.
The issue has come to the forefront ahead of a meeting of the Jewish Agency's Unity of the Jewish People Committee scheduled for late June.
Bielski and others in the Jewish Agency are concerned about intermarriage between Jews and non Jews in Israel. There are about 275,000 FSU immigrants who came to Israel under the Law of Return who are not Jews according to Orthodox criteria. Many of these immigrants end up meeting Jewish Israelis of the opposite sex.
The Law of Return grants automatic citizenship to gentiles who have close relatives (father, spouse, grandparent) who are Jewish.
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