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Thursday 23 August 2007

Ministry wants to head conversion body

Ministry wants to head conversion body

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is expected to close the Conversion Authority
operating within his office and to replace it with a new one to oversee
all of the country's conversion institutions, according to Immigrant
Absorption Ministry officials.
The final report of a panel set up by the ministry to improve the
Orthodox conversion process in Israel has recommended the establishment
of a new Conversion Authority.
The committee, which has been working on a solution to the conversion
problems facing the approximately 300,000 immigrants from the former
Soviet Union who arrived under the Law of Return but are not considered
Jewish according to Halacha, will present its recommendations to Olmert
on Monday.
The committee's aim is to increase the number of conversions among
immigrants from the FSU. To do this, it hopes to bring under its control
the special conversion courts that currently act in conjunction with the
Orthodox rabbinical establishment.
Currently, those in the Jewish sector not recognized as Jews cannot
marry in Israel. Rather, they must go abroad for a civil ceremony. Also,
they represent a threat to Jewish continuity, since a child born to a
non-Jewish woman is not Jewish according to Halacha. Every year,
approximately 3,000 children are born to this segment of the population.
Currently, there are 6,000 people undergoing conversion in Israel, but
only an estimated 2,000 will complete the process.
A Conversion Authority already exists under the jurisdiction of the
Prime Minister's Office. Set up in 2004, it is responsible for
appointing rabbinic judges to special conversion courts and for issuing
conversion certificates.
But it has lost the backing and trust of the Absorption Ministry, Chief
Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar and many immigrants. Rabbi Eliahu Maimon, the
authority's administrative head, has come under heavy criticism, blamed
for the decline in conversions and for not opening the authority up for
According to Absorption Ministry officials, should Olmert adopt the
committee's proposals - and the feeling inside the ministry is that the
prime minister will "take it with both hands" - a new conversion
authority will replace the present one, and will have expanded powers.
The new authority would centralize all the conversion activity presently
carried out by the Absorption and Education ministries, the IDF, the
Jewish Agency and several private conversion institutes. It is unclear
whether Maimon would head the proposed authority.
The committee, chaired by Absorption Ministry Director-General Erez
Halfon and made up of representatives from the Prime Minister's Office,
the conversion courts, the Education Ministry, the Jewish Agency and the
IDF, will present Olmert with a proposal to scrap Maimon's existing
operation and create a single Conversion Authority, complete with its
own budget, staff, and senior management, in an effort to remove "the
hardships and barriers currently in place in the conversion process,"
the Absorption Ministry said.
"We're talking about a real revolution," Halfon said. "The removal of
bureaucratic obstacles currently hampering the conversion process will
significantly increase the number of people converting every year. Our
proposals are designed to focus the conversion system on the needs of
those undergoing the process. They have already chosen to be a part of
the Israeli people, now it is our turn to allow them to close the circle."
It is unclear under whose jurisdiction the proposed authority would be
located, with Absorption Ministry officials vying for the new body to be
placed under their auspices, much like the Road Safety Authority is
under the jurisdiction of the Transportation Ministry.
"Conversion is a national strategic mission that is vitally important
for the future demographic nature of the State of Israel, and the state
has to provide solutions to help [converts] fully enter into the Israeli
nation," Immigrant Absorption Minister Ya'acov Edri (Kadima) said.
Some observers believe that if the new authority is placed under the
authority of the Prime Minister's Office, it might be hamstrung by
political considerations and pressure from the haredi parties. These
parties - Shas and United Torah Judaism - represent the Orthodox
monopoly on conversions in a country that has no separation between
religion and state. Furthermore, Olmert could have difficulties removing
Maimon from his position due to pressure from the Histadrut Labor
Federation, which organizes employees of the religious services unit in
the Prime Minister's Office.
Rabbi Seth Farber, director of ITIM: The Jewish Information Center,
which helps people navigate Israel's religious affairs bureaucracy,
criticized the proposal to set up a new authority.
"There is a certain absurdity in the situation that, in order to get rid
of one person [Maimon], you open up a new conversion authority," he told
The Jerusalem Post Sunday. "The Absorption Ministry has made Maimon, who
is only partly to blame for the low number of converts, into a scapegoat
for the entire system. Maimon has certainly not allowed sufficient
checks and balances to exist in the Conversion Authority, and he
protects his judges. I have had at least one judge tell me personally
that he will not, on principle, pass more than 50 percent of the people
brought before him, for no logical reason. And these are the people
Maimon protects, but there are larger problems of oversight and a lack
of checks and balances within the rabbinic establishment."
Other recommendations Halfon's committee has made include: The
employment of 10 new dayanim (religious court judges), which could serve
to increase the pace of conversion cases; the establishment of
conversion centers throughout the country, manned by volunteers and
under the supervision of the new authority; the significant shortening
of the conversion process and the removal of bureaucratic obstacles; the
establishment of a special committee of religious judges, under Amar's
auspices, to examine the halachic issues making conversion less
palatable to the immigrants; the establishment of an interministerial
committee under the prime minister to advance the issue of conversions
in Israel; giving money to organizations and schools preparing converts;
creating a more pleasant atmosphere in the conversion courts; and trying
to stem the tide of potential converts who drop out of the process.
While the makeup of the 10 proposed judges is still up for discussion,
there has been talk of appointing more "lenient" dayanim to offset what
is considered, by both those wanting to convert and by the Absorption
Ministry, too harsh of a conversion system.
According to Halfon, Israel's conversion system is currently operating
in a "disjointed and confusing" manner, which repels those wanting to
The ministry has identified the following as main problem areas causing
a dearth in those wishing to convert, and hardships for those already
inside the process: There are too many institutions dealing with
conversion and no central body coordinating their work and setting
policy, and there is no central database regarding those undergoing the
process, adding to the confusion in dealing with different conversion
bodies and government institutions.
Between 30% and 50% of those attempting to convert abandon the process,
and many others never make it to the conversion court. Those who do
manage to complete the process are often made to wait for long periods
before they receive their conversion certificates.
Very few immigrants from the FSU are trying to convert, due to the
perceived difficulties of the process and the fear that conversion is
meant to change their lifestyles.
Many Russian immigrants are particularly upset about certain conversion
court rabbis who follow up on recent converts to check if they are
observing the mandates of Orthodoxy. According to a survey conducted by
the Absorption Ministry, 70% of new immigrants who are not halachicly
Jewish believe that the current conversion process is designed to make
them "more religious," and not to turn them into Jews according to Halacha.
Farber, of ITIM, welcomed the proposals for greater diversity among
conversion court judges, and called for more judicial review within the
Conversion Authority.
The new authority, if established, will not deal with the issue of
Conservative and Reform conversions performed either in Israel or abroad.


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