Much optimism, no solutions for conversion conundrum

Unity of Jewish People Committee fails to reach agreement.

conversion class 88 (photo credit: )
conversion class 88
(photo credit: )
Despite much back-slapping, expressions of mutual appreciation and feel-good optimism at the Jewish Agency's Unity of the Jewish People Committee meeting at Jerusalem's Inbal Hotel on Thursday, no concrete proposals were presented to increase conversions to Orthodox Judaism among the estimated 250,000 non-Jewish FSU immigrants. These immigrants, who mostly came during the late 1980s and the 1990s, introduced - for the first time in Israel's short history - large scale intermarriage and assimilation, the primary cause for the shrinking of the Jewish people since the Holocaust. For more than a decade, religious and political leaders in Israel and in the Diaspora have hoped to solve the problem of intermarriage and assimilation created by the immigrants via mass conversion - particularly conversion of the females, since a child's Judaism is determined by the mother. However, the number of conversions performed by the Rabbinical Courts and the Conversion Authority in the 1990s and the early 2000s has never exceeded about 1,000 a year. The Conversion Authority was created four years ago in response to criticism that rabbinic judges were insensitive and overly stringent, in an effort to make the conversion process more user friendly. Rabbi Haim Druckman, a veteran conversion judge and respected rabbinic figure who is considered to be sensitive to the need for mass conversion, was chosen to head the authority. But there has been no increase in the number of converts. A small number of rabbis and bureaucrats in the Conversion Authority are ruining the chances of attaining Jewish unity via mass conversion, according to Immigrant Absorption Minister Ze'ev Boim, Jewish Agency Chairman Ze'ev Bielski, former justice minister Ya'acov Ne'eman, Joint Institute for Jewish Studies head Binyamin Ish-Shalom, and Rabbi Moshe Klein, deputy head of the Conversion Authority. Ne'eman chaired the Ne'eman Committee, which in 2000 created the Joint Institute for Jewish Studies, where Orthodox, Conservative and Reform teachers prepare potential converts for an Orthodox conversion. He criticized one man in particular - Rabbi Eliahu Maimon, the Conversion Authority's administrative head. "The man does not accept the authority of Rabbis Amar and Druckman," said Ne'eman, who mentioned Maimon's refusal to acquiesce to Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar's request to appoint 10 new judges. But conversion judges who spoke to The Jerusalem Post on condition of anonymity, said that no matter how streamlined the conversion authority become and no matter how lenient the rabbis were, most non-Jewish FSU immigrants simply did not want to convert. As one judge put it: "These immigrants speak fluent Hebrew, they serve in elite combat units, they are intimately familiar with Israeli culture. But they have nothing to do with Orthodox Judaism. Neither do their friends and peers. Why should they convert?" Ne'eman said conversion was important for non-Jewish FSU immigrants, not just so they could save themselves the cost of a plane ticket when they get married. "Psychologically, an immigrant who is not Jewish according to Jewish law feels like an outsider," he said. Ne'eman is convinced that bringing in more lenient judges will convince more non-Jewish immigrants to convert. "It's enough that even a small number of conversion judges are overly stringent," he said. "People hear about it, are turned off to the idea of conversions and do not even attempt to begin the process." But it is unclear whether Amar will support the appointment of more lenient judges. In fact, Amar's appointment request, which was blocked by Maimon, was for 10 haredi judges who are faithful to Rabbi Nissim Karelitz of Bnei Brak. Amar hoped to shore up the legitimacy of the Conversion Authority in the eyes of the haredi community by appointing these rabbis. Amar also recently said leniencies would not attract more converts. "New immigrants want to be Israelis, they don't want to be Jews," Amar told the Post, saying that Jewish identity and Israeli identity did not necessarily share the same values and beliefs. And even if Ne'eman and the Jewish Agency do manage to create a new conversion body that is manned by more lenient judges, it is unclear whether mainstream Orthodoxy will accept these converts as full-fledged Jews. Already, conversions being performed by the more stringent conversion courts have been criticized by the haredi community. In March, a haredi rabbinic judge from Ashdod retroactively annulled a conversion performed by Druckman 20 years ago, because, according to the judge, the woman had not seriously intended to adhere to Orthodox strictures.