'Criteria for conversion authority chief too narrow'

Group alleges criteria, time frame for appointing new conversion authority director "designed to exclude liberalizing candidates."

Conversion 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Conversion 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Concerns have been voiced that criteria established for the appointment of a new head of the State Conversion Authority have been too narrowly defined, and that any candidate seeking serious reforms will be turned away.
The time frame for applications to the post, seen by many as being relatively short, has also been questioned, especially given the attorney-general’s directive that appointment committees for senior government positions not operate during the election season.
ITIM, a religious rights advocacy group, says it is concerned that senior haredi figures in the religious establishment are pushing through the appointment process because of uncertainties about the outcome of the elections and the possibility that key roles in overseeing state religious institutions could be lost to nonharedi figures.
Rabbi Haim Druckman, former head of the State Conversion Authority, left the post last February, but the government issued a tender for his replacement only on December 7. The deadline for applications is December 30.
Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan, a former director of the Rabbinical Courts system currently in the fourth slot of Bayit Yehudi’s electoral list, told The Jerusalem Post that the activity of the appointments committee and the timing of the publication of the tender “seems strange” given the 10 months that had passed since the last authority head stepped down.
“It’s nearly a year since Rabbi Druckman left. No one wanted to deal with it, but now they’re going full steam ahead. It’s strange,” Dahan said.
Additionally, the criteria for the position have been questioned for being exceedingly stringent despite the largely managerial role of the head of the conversion authority.
Among the tender’s demands is that the candidate be qualified to serve either as a rabbinical judge or city rabbi.
Rabbi Yitzhak Levy, a former MK and government minister, is considered a serious contender for the position although the current criteria would rule him out.
Levy told the Post he did not intend to apply for the position but would be responsive if approached.
He said the criteria established in the tender were “unnecessary and needlessly stringent” since the task of the head of the authority was more managerial than rabbinic, and not involved in the actual process of conversions. He also pointed out that these had not been criteria when the position was last open.
There have also been questions as to the legality of the appointments committee operating at this time. Attorney- General Yehuda Weinstein said in a directive in November that appointments committees should be barred from making decisions during the election season because of the politically sensitive nature of their work.
“Since an appointment process done through an appointments committee requires the involvement of the minister (and usually the government as well)... staffing senior positions with appointments committees should be avoided,” Weinstein said.
His directive also stated that this principle should apply to all appointments committees, including those set up prior to the election period whose appointments process has not yet been completed.
In response to an inquiry by the Post as to whether the attorney-general’s directive was not being violated by the activity of the appointments committee, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), which oversees the conversion authority, said the committee was not currently operating and would not do so until after the elections.
Regarding the delay in establishing the committee, the PMO stated that the appointment of members was being conducted “in accordance with the guidelines of the Civil Service,” and that while it is normally a lengthy process, there have been delays due to the announcement of early elections. It added that the time frame given for applying for the post of the State Conversion Authority head had been set “in accordance with Civil Service guidelines.”
The head of the authority is seen as a crucial position that can influence the state’s policy toward conversion.
Less conservative-minded Orthodox groups have been lobbying in recent years to liberalize the reform process because of the large and growing number of Israelis who are of Jewish descent, but not Jewish according to Halacha, or Jewish law.
There are approximately 330,000 such people in Israel, the overwhelming majority of whom are from the former Soviet Union (FSU).
The concern for groups such as ITIM is that intermarriage and assimilation will grow rapidly if greater efforts are not made to attract Israelis of Jewish descent to convert.
Conversion liberalization advocates also wish to embark on an intensive campaign to inform people of Jewish descent about the possibilities of conversion and make them aware that the process is not as complicated and rigid as they might have been led to believe.
“The window for converting these people is closing,” said ITIM director Rabbi Seth Farber.
“We don’t have four years to waste with someone who is not a visionary [as head of the authority],” Farber told the Post. “We have to fundamentally address the needs of the Jewish people in Israel and the demographic time bomb that exists here.”
The State Conversion Authority oversees the only form of conversion recognized by the State of Israel.
In 2011, 4,293 people converted through the authority, 1,936 of whom were from the FSU. The remainder were immigrants from Ethiopia, as well as other states.
“This is an incredibly important position and the appointment should not be rushed,” said Bayit Yehudi’s Ben-Dahan, adding that the goal of converting Israelis of Jewish descent should be put at the top of the government’s agenda.
“There are many people [of Jewish descent] in the country who are unaware of the possibilities for conversion, or who think it is a very complicated and impossibly tough process.
“We need to proactively reach out to them, adopt a campaign to inform them about conversion and put them in touch with people who have converted and so on. But none of this is being done,” he said.
According to Farber, upwards of 10 percent of the Jewish population in Israel could soon not be Jewish according to Halacha.
ITIM says that if the incoming leadership of the State Conversion Authority “does not put forward a bold enough vision for converting tens of thousands of Israelis of Jewish descent,” the religious rights advocacy group will embark on a national campaign to decentralize conversion in Israel via the legal system and the High Court of Justice.
“These people were brought here as Jews, and they deserve to be accepted as full members of the Jewish community,” Farber said.
“The aliya of those of Jewish descent is not a thorn in our side, as haredim would have it, but rather an opportunity,” he added. “We are not missionaries, but at this moment in Jewish history there is a halachic imperative, particularly for those of Jewish descent who are living in Israel, to enable as many people as want to convert to have that opportunity.”