Report reveals stagnation in country’s conversion mechanisms

Out of 313,000 potential converts, only 5,507 completed process in 2009; Reform leader calls for official inquiry into state’s failure

Conversion 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Conversion 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Of an estimated 313,000 potential converts in Israel in 2009, a mere 5,507 completed the conversion process, according to a report issued by ITIM, a non-profit organization “dedicated to making Jewish life accessible to all.”
Citing data from the Central Bureau of Statistics, the report revealed that about 60 percent of the converts were of Ethiopian origin, and 29% were from FSU states.
The ITIM Conversion Report for 2010, which painted a picture of stagnation in Israel’s conversion mechanisms, was presented on Monday to the The Knesset’s Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Committee.
The report noted that despite the changes in the conversion authorities, which in recent years were unified under the new State Conversion Authority under the Prime Minister’s Office, the numbers of converts still are not rising. ITIM attributes the low numbers to the lack of available information on the conversion process, the bad reputation some conversion courts have due to their “condescending and belittling” attitude to converts, the high halachic standard applied to children of Jewish fathers who could have been part of an easier conversion track, the difficulties facing some converts who seek marriage licenses, and the fact that some rabbinical judges have publicly called for the retroactive nullification of conversion certificates, all of which can deter potential converts from embarking on the delicate journey to Judaism.
A convert may undergo the process in a designated conversion court, in a military conversion court or in a regular rabbinical court, all of which act under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate. The vast majority of the conversions in 2009 and previous years took place in the conversion courts.
Upon completing the religious process, the convert receives a civil conversion certificate, signed by the head of the State Conversion Authority Rabbi Haim Druckman, which enables him or her to be registered as a Jew in the civil registry, to marry as a Jew and be buried as one. The report, however, cites delays in issuing the civil certificates in many cases, creating scenarios in which converts living in Israel cannot legally work here.
The report also noted the “draconian” principles em-ployed toward converts who underwent the process abroad, and who wish to make aliya. The Rabbinate does not accept conversions from non-Orthodox courts, or even make public the list of Orthodox conversion courts abroad whose conversions it accepts, nor does it publish its criteria on accepting or denying the ruling of the courts.
“Conversion represents one of the great responses to the demographic time bomb that aliya has created,” Rabbi Seth Farber, head of ITIM, told The Jerusalem Post on Monday. “In an average month, 300 people turn to ITIM for help in navigating the conversion process in Israel, and we feel strongly that the process is too bureaucratic and not personal enough. Our hope, by having brought the report to the Knesset today, is that there will be greater resources dedicated toward easing the process of conversion and guaranteeing the security of those who convert in the context of the Israeli Rabbinate.”
Also present at Monday’s committee meeting was Rabbi Gilad Kariv, head of the Reform Movement in Israel, who called upon the Knesset’s State Control Committee to establish an official committee of inquiry into the “ongoing failure” of the establishment to deal with the conversion crisis in Israel.
“The endless chain of decisions on conversion reached by Israel’s governments is useless in face of the ongoing helplessness in dealing with the crisis,” Kariv said. “A committee of inquiry should focus on the government’s powerlessness, and point to the possible solutions to promote this important and fateful Zionist mission.”