Infighting delays 400 conversions

Personal, religious divides show after shake-up at Conversion Authority.

conversion class 248.88 (photo credit: Hilary Leila Krieger [file])
conversion class 248.88
(photo credit: Hilary Leila Krieger [file])
Chaos and anarchy are the words being used to describe the state of affairs in the Prime Minister's Office's Conversion Authority after a personnel shakeup has caused a delay of almost a month so far in hundreds of conversions. Conversion Authority sources disagree on the reasons for the personnel changes, but there is a consensus that the result of the shakeup has been the suffering and disillusionment of about 400 new additions to the Jewish people who are Jewish according to Halacha - but lack the paperwork to prove it.
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Rabbi Haim Druckman and Rabbi Moshe Klein, respectively the chairman and deputy chairman of the authority, claim, with the support of Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar, that certain rabbinic judges and administrative managers are recalcitrant hardliners who refuse to adhere to authority and have adopted unnecessarily stringent criteria for conversion. In contrast, the judges and administrative managers claim their conscience and understanding of Jewish law prevent them from acquiescing to Amar and Druckman who, they say, are being misled by Klein. Klein, they claim, has launched a personal vendetta to purge the authority of all who are not blindly loyal to him. Sources in the Conversion Authority loyal to Klein said in response that all personnel changes were made with the full support of both Amar and Druckman, whose professionalism and high moral standards are irreproachable. "The personnel changes are aimed at making it as easy as possible to convert within the boundaries of the halacha", said the source. "As soon as there is fear that Orthodoxy cannot provide a solution, the way is cleared for Conservative and Reform Judaism. None of us want that." On Thursday, Amar and Druckman asked Rabbi Yehuda Friss, the Conversion Authority's representative in a conversion committee that deals exclusively with non-Israeli citizens, to halt his work immediately. Friss, a rabbinic judge, is to be transferred to another post. Friss was replaced by Rafi Dayan, an Amar aide who lacks training as a rabbinic judge. A high-ranking source in the Conversion Authority, commenting on Friss's dismissal, said that the appointment of Dayan marked a change in orientation. "We want our representative to be an administrative, not a halachic, figure," said the source. "Someone who can decide whether it is technically feasible for a given person to begin the conversion, not someone who will judge whether that person is honest about his or her intention to convert." A source loyal to Friss said that his loss would be a blow to the Conversion Authority. "Friss's work is the most sensitive in the entire authority," said the source. "And he did it exceedingly well. "He has built up the trust of the Interior Ministry over the years which enables a special working relationship. He has stopped working for just a day and already we are getting complaints." Another casualty of the internal struggle was Rabbi Eliyahu Maimon, administrative head of the special conversion courts. Over a month ago Druckman and Amar changed procedural directives that resulted in Maimon's disempowerment. Maimon was directed to stop checking and approving prospective converts' files. However, Maimon refused. "The definition of Maimon's position includes being responsible for those files," said a source close to Maimon. "If something goes wrong, Maimon will be blamed, not Druckman, Amar or Klein." In protest of Maimon's insistence on examining the conversion documents anyway and in an attempt to pressure him to desist, Dayan - who, in addition to replacing Friss has also replaced Maimon as the official authorized to check these same documents - was ordered by Amar and Druckman to stop signing these papers. The stubborness on both sides has resulted in a backlog of files of converts who have completed all the stages of conversion but lack the official documentation proving it. Maimon's reduction in powers came after the Civil Service Commission, which is responsible for hiring and firing state employees, blocked an attempt by Klein and Druckman to fire Maimon. The Conversion Authority was created two years ago to make the conversion process smoother. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, at the beginning of 2005 there were approximately 296,000 Israeli citizens who immigrated to Israel under the Law of Return, mostly from the former Soviet Union, but who were not Jewish according to halacha. Conversion is considered a partial solution to the problem of intermarriage in Israel. However, the demands of Orthodoxy scare away many prospective converts. The Conversion Authority's goal is to make the conversion process as user-friendly as possible without abandoning the strictures of Orthodoxy. The struggle within the Conversion Authority underscores the tension that exists between attempts to streamline conversions while at the same time protecting the boundraries of Orthodoxy.