Group slams Conversion Authority's 'closed door'

ITIM director: It's unconscionable that Conversion Authority discouraging spouses of Israelis to convert in national system.

Conversion 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Conversion 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The ITIM religious rights advocacy group has accused the state’s Conversion Authority of adopting a “closed door policy” toward non-Israeli citizens interested in conversion, and claimed the authority has created a “negative image” that has led to an overall decrease in conversions.
“It is unconscionable that the Conversion Authority is discouraging spouses of Israelis to convert within the national system,” ITIM director Rabbi Shaul Farber said of current conversion policy. “Having just marked the Shavuot festival when we celebrate Ruth’s entry into the Jewish people, it is unfathomable that in modern Israel, she wouldn’t have been accepted – even if she was married to an Israeli.”
ITIM, an Orthodox advocacy organization, argues that the approximately 330,000 Israelis living in the country who are of Jewish ancestry – but not Jewish according to Jewish law – are marrying Israelis, and thus increasing intermarriage numbers in Israel. The organization argues that one of the best ways to lower intermarriage levels is to make it easier for those who want to convert to do so.
ITIM’s report cited Conversion Authority statistics demonstrating a 7.5 percent decline in the number of conversions performed in 2011 over 2010, from 4,625 to 4,293. There was also a decreasing number of immigrants from the former Soviet Union who converted, down from 2,159 in 2010 to 1,936 in 2011, a decline of over 10%.
At the same time, the number of people classified as being “without religion,” mostly immigrants from the former Soviet Union or their descendants who are not considered Jewish according to Jewish law, is growing. In 2009, the number stood at 313,000, which by 2011 had climbed to 327,000, an increase of 4.5%.
The Prime Minister’s Office, under whose auspices the Conversion Authority operates, responded that the falling rate of conversion was due to the decreasing numbers of immigrants from Ethiopia, who generally undergo conversion on arrival. The office also argued that the number of converts from the former Soviet Union was also stable.
“The Conversion Authority has in recent years carried out an extensive optimization process, has substantially upgraded the level of service and support that is provided to converts, and has also worked to ease bureaucratic barriers, all while acting in strict accordance with the requirements of Jewish law for converts,” the Prime Minister’s Office stated in response to inquiries made by The Jerusalem Post.
According to ITIM, more than 400 people turned to private, Orthodox rabbinical courts to convert in 2011 because of the difficulties they encountered with the Conversion Authority. This number represents 10% of total conversions conducted in Israel last year.
ITIM’s report states that even officials, in certain circumstances, have recommended that converts go to these private courts to convert and marry, instead of to the state authority.
Addressing the issue in this manner is extremely problematic, however, since the state does not recognize the validity of conversions or marriages conducted in these courts.
In its annual report released last week ahead of Shavuot, ITIM pointed to three areas of concern where potential converts are being hindered by the state from enrolling in and completing the official Orthodox conversion course.
The document drew attention to the refusal of some rabbis in localities throughout the country to recognize conversions that were done through the state’s own system.
In response to this claim, the Prime Minister’s Office said the Conversion Authority reports all cases in which a registrar hinders the marriage registration of someone who converted under its auspices – to the Religious Services Ministry, which is in charge of marriage registration.
“The conversion certificates issued by the conversion system are admissible for all purposes and are authorized by [Sephardi] Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar,” the Prime Minister’s Office said.
In its report, ITIM also described the decision in December 2011 of the Conversion Authority to prevent the non-Jewish spouse of an Israeli from applying to a conversion course for 18 months as “draconian;” and claimed that the Interior Ministry continues to employ “illegal policies” when evaluating whether someone who converted abroad should be allowed to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return.
According to the study, these are people who “wish to convert in an Orthodox framework, build a Jewish family and live a Jewish life.”
The organization says that a lot more could be done to enable those seeking conversion to achieve this goal, but “too much emphasis is being placed on technicalities and not enough consideration is being given to the needs of the Jewish people at large.”
The report also directed particularly heavy criticism toward the Exceptions Committee of the Conversion Authority, which deals with non-Jewish spouses of Jewish Israelis as well as all other foreign nationals who want to convert in Israel. ITIM accused this committee of displaying a lack of transparency toward conversion candidates; making unreasonable demands from them; and rejecting requests to start conversion without providing any reason, and without recourse to an authentic appeals process.
In 2011, 343 foreign nationals who applied to convert were rejected by regional representatives of the Exceptions Committee without even being interviewed, or 59% of applicants that year. The committee did deliberate on another 243 applications, but final figures for how many were accepted have not yet been made available.
According to ITIM, many of these applicants are spouses of Israeli Jews who want to delay having children until the non-Jewish partner has converted. The actions of the Exceptions Committee, ITIM says, prevent women from having children at a critical juncture in their lives, when they would like to establish a Jewish family.
ITIM’s report claims that the imposition of an 18- month waiting period before a foreign national may even apply for conversion means that the absolute earliest time frame for completion of the process is three and a half years, given the requirements of the year-long conversion course and the inefficient bureaucracy of the authority.
A couple who only wishes to marry after the non-Jewish, non-Israeli partner has converted face an even longer wait for conversion. People in this category have to wait four years before they are allowed to begin a conversion course, despite the fact that they are stringent in only wanting to marry in a Jewish ceremony as a Jewish couple.
The Conversion Authority and the Interior Ministry are anxious to prevent conversion from being exploited as a means to gain Israeli residency, but ITIM’s report argues that the Exceptions Committee should, at the very least, interview a candidate before ruling on their application.
“This policy prevents the candidate from even reaching a rabbinical court, whose role it is to determine the sincerity of a possible candidate – not [the role] of the Exceptions Committee,” the report says.