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Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Zionist rabbis agree to serve on independent conversion courts

Zionist rabbis agree to serve on independent conversion courts
By Anshel Pfeffer, Haaretz Correspondent

45 rabbis from the national-religious movement have agreed to serve in
proposed independent conversion courts that would operate without the
recognition of the Chief Rabbinate.

This challenge from within the Orthodox establishment to the Rabbinate's
control of the process of converting to Judaism in Israel is a response
to a long-standing perception that the rabbinical establishment is in
thrall to the ultra-Orthodox tradition of making conversion difficult.

That position ignores the plight of the more than 300,000 immigrants
from the former Soviet Union who are not Jewish according to halakha. If
the recommendations of the interministerial committee on conversion to
expedite the process are not implemented soon, the rabbis are expected
to establish the proposed conversion courts. That would represent
another stage in the undermining of religious-Zionist rabbis of the
Rabbinate, following struggles over marriage, kashrut and shmita in the
past several months.

The latest steps began about six months ago with a conference of the
Joint Conversion Institute, which prepares most prospective converts in
civilian and military frameworks. After the head of the institute, Prof.
Benjamin Ish-Shalom, announced that the requirements of the religious
courts kept many graduates from completing their conversion, 45 rabbis
agreed to officiate in religious courts that would convert the
graduates, even without recognition from the Rabbinate. Most of the
rabbis, the majority of whom who prefer not to be identified, are
associated with with Religious Kibbutz Movement and the Tzohar rabbis'
organization.

The main obstacle to the initiative will be the Rabbinate's refusal to
recognize their conversions, which will prevent the converts from
registering for marriage later on. Among the 45 is at least one
municipal rabbi who has promised to enable converts in his jurisdiction
to register at his city's Religious Council.

The existence of non-Rabbinate Orthodox converts is likely to ignite a
struggle on the part of the national-religious public, much of which has
already severed its connections to the Rabbinate, and could end up in
the High Court of Justice.

One of the rabbis involved in the new initiative is Rabbi Benjamin Lau
of Jerusalem's Ramban Synagogue. "I said that not only am I willing to
take part in it, but also that I would house a rabbinical court in our
synagogue," Lau said. He said that some members of his congregation
served as rabbis and rabbinical judges in the United States and have
experience with conversion.

"I think there will be no alternative, the Rabbinate is undergoing a
process of dissolution. We saw it with the issues of marriage, kashrut
and shmita, and conversion is the core of the matter. One of our roles
as rabbis is to serve the public and I see this issue as fulfilling our
function," Lau said.

Despite several cabinet rulings calling for the institution of an
accelerated conversion process to expedite the integration into Israeli
society of non-Jewish immigrants, only 2,000 people are converted each
year on average. The Joint Conversion Institute was created about 10
years ago, in the wake of a government committee's recommendations, as a
combined Orthodox, Conservative and Reform institution for teaching
prospective converts. Conversion itself remained in the hands of special
conversion courts, whose judges were appointed by the Rabbinate, which
also set the conditions for conversion. Most of the judges are under the
influence of the Haredi Council of Torah Sages, which opposes
large-scale conversion and requires converts, as well as their children
and families, to adopt an observant lifestyle.

In many cases these demands delay conversion, even for candidates who
have studied for years in preparation for conversion. The strict image
of these courts has scared away many would-be converts. According to
studies carried out by the army's conversion program, Nativ, about 40
percent of non-Jewish immigrants expressed an interest before they
immigrated in converting, while after a one year in Israel the number
dropped by at least 20 percent.

Three and a half years ago, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered the
creation of a state conversion program that would facilitate the
process, but the new arrangement did not change the basic stance of the
religious judges. In many communities, the local religious councils and
the local rabbis refuse to recognize the conversion certificates
presented by immigrants when they come to register for marriage.

Two months ago an interministerial committee headed by Absorption
Ministry Director General Erez Halfon submitted a comprehensive report
on the issue. It recommended, among other things, appointing to the
conversion courts 40 volunteer judges who would not be beholden to the
Haredi rabbis and would introduce a willingness to help the converts in
their desire to join the Jewish people instead of finding reasons to
prevent their conversion. It also called for giving Chief Rabbi Shlomo
Amar full authority over conversion issues. Amar opposes the idea of the
volunteer judges, on the grounds that they will not be rabbis vetted by
him and operating in accordance with his directives. Justice Ministry
officials, meanwhile, argue that volunteers cannot hold official
judicial positions.

Olmert has not yet approved the committee?s recommendations. The heads
of the Joint Conversion Institute believe the volunteer initiative will
not be implemented. Ish-Shalom refused to comment on the issue, but
sources in his institute said that if the problem is not solved during a
meeting scheduled for next Tuesday in the Prime Minister's Office, the
plan for independent conversion courts will go ahead.

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