New conversion institute aims to spark halachic debate

‘We want to encourage rabbis who believe there is another way of dealing with the challenges facing converts.’

Natan Sharansky 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Natan Sharansky 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The Israel Institute for Conversion Policy was launched in the capital on Sunday evening, in an effort to “retrieve the keys to the gateway” into Judaism and Israel for their “rightful Zionist owners.”
The institute aims to draw potential converts into the process by providing an encouraging attitude through legislation, to spark a more robust halachic debate that shows a welcoming attitude to converts, and to raise the public’s awareness of the importance and challenges of drawing hundreds of thousands of citizens into its religious ranks.
The new institute, headed by Arik Elman, will function under the auspices of the Beit Morasha’s Center for Judaism and Society, which focused on conversion and welfare policy in its annual conference, at which the launch was announced.
In his opening remarks, Prof. Benjamin Ish-Shalom, the head of Beit Morasha, said the institute will be “returning lost sons to the Jewish family” by helping the national effort undertaken by the government, supported by Jewish federations, the Jewish Agency and other bodies.
Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon spoke of the importance on the national level of “displaying openness to different streams in Judaism, primarily in the relationship with Diaspora Judaism.”
Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky cited the “dangerous trend” of city rabbis, acting under the authority of the Chief Rabbinate, who annul, or strive to annul, conversions that were conducted by the State Conversion Authority, headed by Rabbi Haim Druckman.
“These are people who are looking for ways into the Jewish peoplehood,” Sharansky said of the hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the FSU who married people with Jewish roots and made aliya, but are not Jews according to Halacha.
“The same people who came 15 years ago and wanted a way in, are no longer seeking to convert today,” he said.
“Let the rabbis argue it out among themselves over the halachic differences on opinion on conversion,” Sharansky continued.
He cited the recent book Zera Israel (Seed of Israel) by MK Rabbi Haim Amsalem (Shas), in which Amsalem amalgamated hundreds of adjudications from mainstream Orthodox Sephardi and Ashkenazi rabbinical traditions that display a halachic approach to conversion more welcoming than the Chief Rabbinate’s current policy.
“The institute wants to encourage rabbis who believe there is another way of dealing with the challenges facing converts, rather than just disqualifying them,” Sharansky said. “This is also a question for the Israeli public, who must be reminded of the importance of welcoming the converts into society, and the immigrants themselves, who must be helped to regain their fundamental desire to undergo conversion.”
Sharansky, who was recently commissioned by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to lead a dialogue with US Jewry amid their concerns over the conversion bill being formulated by MK David Rotem (Israel Beiteinu), praised Rotem’s initiative and the initial draft of the bill, which sought to improve a situation affecting hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens by providing them with “a friendly means of joining.”
The additions and changes being made to the bill, Sharansky continued, risk changing the laws concerning conversion and the Law of Return, leading to a scenario perceived by Diaspora Judaism as an “effective divorce,” at the very time they are making every effort to defend the beleaguered Zionist state.
“That’s only what they say,” Rotem retorted from his seat in the audience.
Shmuel Jesselsohn, who heads the conversion department in the Prime Minister’s Office, welcomed the institute initiative, and spoke of the complexity of modern conversion, in which a convert must define what it means to be Jewish, something the State of Israel does not do in a definitive way.
Rabbi David Stav, the chairman of Tzohar, an organization of modern Orthodox, Zionist rabbis, cited the dangers to Israel, which in not too many years could face a fragmented society including a significant slab of non-Jews.
“There are rabbis who simply don’t want to conduct conversions,” he said.
Stav said that an initiative to create alternative conversion courts outside the rabbinate would create a plethora of problems for those who used them, and ultimately those conversions would not be recognized by the mainstream rabbinical bodies in Israel.
Rabbi Dr. Benjamin Lau, head of Beit Morasha’s Israel Conversion Institute, a veteran body that is separate from the new Israel Institute for Conversion Policy, was more forward in his criticism.
“There is a feeling that the Israeli climate has changed; there is a system of haredi rabbis who are hostile to the notion of conversion. Some city rabbis take pride in completing a term without conducting even one conversion,” Lau said.
He called for a shift in thinking on paradigms in halachic thought, legislation, the public sphere and private households that would promote a more welcoming environment for conversion, and help draw potential converts into a complex and at times painful process, to achieve something that they don’t necessarily feel they lack at this stage.
“Israel abandoned the keys to its gates to the hands of people, some of whom object to its very existence,” Maj.-Gen. (res.) Elazar Stern, said of the haredi rabbis setting the tone for conversion in the Chief Rabbinate. Stern is chairman of the advisory committee on conversion of the Genesis Philanthropy Group, and was active in promoting the conversion of soldiers in his former capacity as OC Education Corps.
“This is a huge missed opportunity on the part of religious Zionism, which should have taken upon itself to welcome [non-Jewish FSU immigrants] before this link is broken.”
Stern also noted the high intermarriage rates abroad, and the large communities of Israelis overseas who marry non-Jews, “but still care now about conversion.”
“This is an existential challenge to the Jewish people,” he said.