Ministers conditionally approve conversion reform bill

Legislation seeks to create some 30 new conversion courts garnering opposition from senior rabbis from national religious, haredi world.

Conversion 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Conversion 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
A bill proposed by Hatnua MK Elazar Stern to expand the number of rabbis who can perform conversions was approved by the Ministerial Panel for Legislation Sunday afternoon, and will now be passed to the Knesset for the continuation of the legislative process.
As with other recent reforms to religious services, the bill has generated opposition from the Chief Rabbinate, while Religious Services Deputy Minister Eli Ben-Dahan insisted on several changes to the bill before agreeing to allow a vote on it in the ministerialpanel .
Before the bill goes to the Knesset plenum for its preliminary reading, Ben-Dahan has insisted that he first be allowed to come to an agreed-upon version of the proposed law with Chief Rabbi and Supreme Rabbinical Court president Yitzhak Yosef, as well as the Justice and Interior Ministries.
In addition, several senior rabbis from both the national-religious and haredi world also voiced opposition to the proposed legislation.
The bill seeks to create some 30 new conversion courts, comprised of three rabbinical judges, by allowing any chief municipal rabbi of a city or regional council to establish a conversion court.
Practically speaking, another 90 rabbinical judges will be added to the current list of 31 rabbis who are able to perform conversions in Israel.
At the moment there are just four conversion courts in the country, located in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa and Ashkelon.
The new chief municipal rabbis will come from towns and cities around the country, which would make it easier for conversion candidates not living in the cities in which there are currently conversion courts to embark on the conversion process.
Additionally, the bill seeks to open up the registration areas for conversion registration to enable candidates to choose which rabbi they would like to convert with.
Stern says this provision will help candidates who encounter an unhelpful or overly stringent rabbinical judge to nevertheless continue with their desire to convert, by finding a more supportive and sympathetic rabbi to covert with.
Following the conditional approval of the bill, Ben- Dahan said it was critical to get the agreement of the chief rabbis on the issue.
“We’re talking about the unity of the Jewish people for coming generations, and we must proceed with maximum national responsibility,” the deputy minister said.
Ben-Dahan and Yosef will meet shortly in order to deliberate on the exact terms of the bill.
Stern welcomed the approval of the bill, saying it had been one of his first priorities upon entering the Knesset as an MK, adding that it was based on a bill submitted by Yisrael Beytenu MK David Rotem during the last Knesset.
“There is still a long way to go until the legislation is approved, but we hope to make it as short as possible. With every day that goes by without solving the conversion issue, we are contributing to assimilation,” said Stern.
The MK, who is Orthodox from the national-religious camp, along with others in the less conservative wing of Orthodox Judaism, contend that the current conversion system discourages and alienates potential converts.
In a situation where a potential convert is in a committed relationship with someone who is Jewish according to Halacha, Stern and others argue that if the non-Jewish partners are put off from converting by unsympathetic rabbis or bureaucratic problems, they will give up on the possibility of converting but nevertheless remain in their relationship and have children.
Although the bill was approved in the ministerial committee, Chief Rabbis Yosef and David Lau have expressed heavy opposition to several aspects of the bill.
In a statement released on Thursday, the chief rabbis said that “everything must be done to improve the service provided to converts, but there can be no compromise on the requirements of Jewish law as it relates to conversion.”
The chief rabbis claimed that the bill grants powers to bureaucratic clerks who are not qualified to to deal with the laws pertaining to conversion, “endangering the halachic validity of conversion in Israel.”
MK Aliza Lavie of Yesh Atid, one of the signatories to the proposed legislation, said the bill was an important step to substantial change in the conversion system.
“Israeli society has neglected the plight of hundreds of thousands of [potential] converts, and it is incumbent on us regardless of political affiliation to come together and return this issue to the top of our priorities,” Lavie said.