New Knesset caucus aims to ease way toward conversion

Conversion Caucus will work to prevent "big tragedy" of a society that’s neither Jewish nor gentile.

nachman shai 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
nachman shai 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The Conversion Caucus was launched at the Knesset on Wednesday, to unite parliamentary and NGO forces and help “prevent the big tragedy here” of the nascent society of Israelis who are neither Jewish, nor Christian nor Muslim, but rather FSU immigrants with Jewish origins though not Jews according to Halacha, as caucus head MK Nachman Shai said.
The caucus will help allocate public funds to conversion institutes, work on appointing rabbinic judges, and promote relevant legislation.
Prof. Yedidia Stern, vice president of the Israel Democracy Institute, will coordinate the professional side of the caucus. He stressed it would not be holding a halachic discourse – “that’s not the Knesset’s job”; nor “deal with non-Orthodox conversions from abroad, rather with the issue of over 300,000 Israelis who are of Jewish heritage” but not recognized as Jews.
The lack of halachic conversions promotes the “danger of social conversions” and separate pedigree lists maintained by ultra-Orthodox groups, Stern said. “We are risking creating another nation here,” he warned, stressing the need for the cooperation of haredi MKs.
“This is an opportunity to create a historic pact between politicians and rabbis,” he said.
One haredi MK did briefly attend the meeting: Rabbi Haim Amsalem of the Am Shalem faction, who is relentlessly promoting the concept of lenient conversions for Israelis with Jewish heritage.
Besides Shai and Amsalem, the only lawmakers present were MKs Nino Abesadze (Kadima) and Anastasia Michaeli (Israel Beiteinu), who sat in for a few minutes.
Representatives of the central bodies involved in conversion in Israel – head of Beit Morasha Prof. Benny Ish Shalom, ITIM director Rabbi Seth Farber, public activist Dr. Aliza Lavie, and head of the conversion program at Nativ, Rabbi Haim Iram – were all present and spoke of the dire need to encourage and expedite conversions within the framework of Halacha.
A wry observer noted that the meeting was something of a support group for the idealists engaged in this Sisyphean task, which yields only a few thousand conversions a year, while the size of the non-Jewish Israeli population continues to grows via births and aliya.
Asked about the low turnout of MKs, Shai said he was “disappointed, but not surprised; we know how this business is in the Knesset,” with a huge number of caucuses and lobbies, on a Wednesday afternoon with most lawmakers out of the building. “I wanted to have more of them – at least 10 said they’d come, but that’s the way it is.”
Shai agreed that it’s “very true that the general Israeli public doesn’t care about the issue,” which gives his caucus all the more reason to act.
“There are over 300,000 Israelis here who are Jewish in heart, in feeling and by their presence here, and we must take note of this. We in Kadima are very aware of the demographic conflict between us and the Palestinians,” Shai added. “These immigrants are Israelis, but not Jews, and we need to find solutions to let them live here equally with others. They are entitled to die for the State of Israel, but not to be buried here,” he said in reference to non-Jewish soldiers, who couldn’t be buried in Jewish cemeteries.
Shai rejected the notion of opening the market to non-Orthodox conversions as a means of encouraging the public to undergo the procedure.
“We are trying to make our efforts practical and feasible. When we start dealing with the Reform and Conservative conversions, we’re lost,” he said.
“I don’t just side with the Orthodox attitude. But I think we have a certain framework, and we need from within it to seek other mechanisms, other rabbis, who can spread the system all around the country, enabling more people to convert.
“Without another such authority, we’ll see a big tragedy here. Children are born, and most of the aliya from the FSU is currently non-Jewish. We are facing the creation of another community here of Israelis who are neither Muslims nor Christians, but who aren’t Jewish, either.”