Mikve closures delay conversions

Budget shortfall keeps dozens of soon-to-be converts in limbo, waiting to take final 'plunge'.

mikve 298 (photo credit: )
mikve 298
(photo credit: )
The psychological hurdle of embracing a new religion is behind them, so are the long months of study of law and practice, even the scars of circumcision have healed. All that separates a group of prospective converts from joining the Jewish people is immersion in a mikve (ritual bath). But a budget shortfall is keeping them from realizing their dream. Dozens of soon-to-be converts from Ethiopia, the former Soviet Union and elsewhere on the last leg of their spiritual transformation from gentile to Jew are in limbo waiting to take the final plunge. Out of a total of about 25 mohelim (ritual circumcisers), rabbinical judges and mikve attendants who supervise converts' immersion - all essential to the conversion process - only four are working and these are only in Tel Aviv. In the case of a male convert, one of each of these (male) officials notifies the prospective convert of some of the commandments he will be obligated to adhere to as a Jew before he immerses himself naked in the mikve. They make sure he understands his obligations. They also make sure he immerses himself completely. If a woman is converting, and at least 75% of all converts are women, then a woman mikve attendant is in attendance as well. Complicated fiscal bureaucracy is the reason only four individuals are working in the entire country. The first problem is that mohelim, who work on personal contracts and are not civil servants, can be hired by the state only until they have earned a total of NIS 86,000. The three mohelim have already reached this limit. Mikve attendants and the rabbinical judges who witness the immersion are not civil servants. They have been hired up until now via religious councils in complicated and fragile work arrangements that often fell apart. The entire conversion process, from start to finish, is supervised by the conversion authority in the Prime Minister's Office according to bureaucratic criteria. Only official attendants are permitted to open the mikve. The conversion authority, like all ministry bodies, receives its funding from the Finance Ministry. Until now, the Finance Ministry refused to allow the conversion authority to put all 25 conversion supervisors on the state payroll. Rabbi Seth Farber, head of ITIM Jewish Life Information Center, a nonprofit group that helps Israelis maneuver through the religious services bureaucracy, said he was disappointed with the treatment of the converts. "While we respect the attendants' right to be paid, we also think more sensitivity should be shown," said Farber. "Preventing people from completing their long journey and beginning new lives is problematic at best. Finally, these people are on the verge of entering the covenant of the Jewish people. Budgetary considerations should not stop them now." Farber said that four people complaining of the delay at the mikve have contacted ITIM for help in the last few weeks. This is not the first time that mikvaot across the country have been closed due to budget problems. At the beginning of the year, they were closed for at least a month. In the aftermath of the dismantling of the religious affairs ministry a year and a half ago, and the distribution of its functions among various ministries, mostly the Prime Minister's Office, enormous bureaucratic bottlenecks keep surfacing. Rabbi Moshe Klein, head of the conversions authority, currently out of the country, said in response via proxy that the problem was being dealt with. The official Prime Minister's Office response was, "As a result of the ending of a contract with mohelim, the conversion process for Ethiopians is being delayed. "Currently, we are wrapping up a tender to allow these mohelim to be employed by the state, as well as mikve attendants and rabbinic judges who witness the immersions. "The changes will allow us to close the gaps and provide all converts with a conversion."