Knesset lobby calls for revamped conversion apparatus

Problems to be discussed include conversion for Russian immigrants, excessive red tape, and lack of uniformity for the process.

rabbi amar 298.88 AJ (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
rabbi amar 298.88 AJ
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
In view of low conversion numbers and endemic infighting among Conversion Court rabbis, MKs called Wednesday for a total overhaul of the Conversion Authority and the drafting of a uniform conversion policy. During the stormy first meeting of the Knesset Lobby for Organizing of Conversions, MKs, rabbis, converts, government officials and heads of organizations familiar with the issue agreed that the present situation was unacceptable. Four years ago, responsibility for conversions was taken for the Rabbinic Courts and handed to the Conversion Authority, which was created within the Prime Minister's Office. But the problems that sparked the creation of the authority remain unsolved: Conversions of former Soviet Union immigrants have remained at around 1,000 a year; converts still complain of overly stringent rabbinic judges and red tape; and no uniform policy exists for the process, rather each panel of judges has its own approach and interpretation of Jewish law. Also, Rabbi Eliyahu Maimon, the administrative head of the Conversion Authority, is at odds with both Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar and the chief rabbinic head of the authority, Rabbi Haim Druckman. Maimon has repeatedly refused to cooperate with Amar and Druckman on different issues, including the appointment of new rabbinic judges. MK Yuli Edelstein (Likud), chairman of the lobby, which was established a month ago, hopes to create a new conversion apparatus, but this time to do it right. "I've heard rabbis claim that no matter how user-friendly the conversion process is made there will be no real rise in conversions because the FSU immigrants are simply not interested in converting to Judaism," said Edelstein, who immigrated to Israel from Ukraine in 1987. "But I can't know whether they are right until I make sure all the problems that currently exist are solved." The meeting of the lobby came a day before the Jewish Agency's Board of Governor's Unity of the Jewish People Committee convenes to discuss the issue, including opening avenues for Reform and Conservative conversions. Edelstein, who over the past month and a half has met with rabbinic judges, educators who prepare potential converts, Conversion Authority officials and converts, envisions a conversion apparatus that has representatives from all the major organizations, ministries and authorities that are involved in the process. This apparatus must be headed by a rabbinic figure who, in conjunction with the designated chief rabbi, sets conversion policy, he said. "For instance, when a mother of high-school-age kids comes to convert, we cannot have a situation in which one panel of rabbinic judges demands that she remove her children from their secular high school and enroll them in a religious high school while another panel of judges does not," Edelstein said. Druckman has been criticized for failing to force judges to adopt a uniform set of criteria. The judges have told Druckman that since they bear the responsibility for the conversions they approve, they must be given complete halachic autonomy. During the meeting, former justice minister Ya'acov Ne'eman, who headed the Ne'eman Committee that founded the Joint Institutes of Judaism, in which Reform, Conservative and Orthodox teachers prepare potential converts for an Orthodox conversion, attacked rabbinic judges for being overly stringent. "The second most urgent threat to Israel, after the Iranian atomic bomb, is the issue of Jewish unity and conversions," said Ne'eman. Legislators from Likud, Israel Beiteinu and Kadima, and two MKs from Shas - Haim Amsalem and Avraham Michaeli - were present. Also attending were Deputy Head of the Conversion Authority Moshe Klein; Administrative Head of Rabbinic Courts Eli Ben-Dahan; Rabbi Shaul Farber of ITIM-the Jewish Information Center, which helps people navigate the religious affairs bureaucracy; and representatives from the Machanayim ulpan and conversion program; the Absorption and Education ministries; and the Prime Minister's Office.