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Sunday, 9 March 2008

Agency demands Conversion Authority be more independent

Agency demands Conversion Authority be more independent
By HAVIV RETTIG
Controversy over a new State Conversion Authority is simmering on with
the Jewish Agency demanding this week that the government grant the new
authority greater independence from the Prime Minister's Office.
"The agency has been trying for more than 10 years to change the
conversion process in Israel, which is scandalous," explained agency
chairman Ze'ev Bielski. "The Jewish nation doesn't deserve a conversion
process like this."
The new authority was formally established by the government three weeks
ago, replacing the old authority of the same name. Conversion advisers,
more hands-on religious studies and new buildings for the conversion
court are all part of the reform.
The new authority was created to streamline the conversion process of
hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish olim who came to Israel as relatives
of Jews and, the government believes, wished to convert. About half of
the estimated 300,000 members of this group have expressed an interest
in converting, according to government officials, but most were turned
away from the process by stringent demands for religious observance and
an "unfriendly" bureaucratic environment. Only some 2,000 convert each
year.
The Jewish Agency's Board of Governors, which met in Jerusalem this
week, issued the call to the government after a vociferous debate in the
agency's Committee for the Unity of the Jewish People heard criticism
that the current status of the new authority limits its independence.
It is currently classified as a department of the Prime Minister's
Office, making it subject to the PMO's labor union, legal adviser and
financial control. In its unanimous call, the 120-member agency board
called for the conversion authority to be given the status of a
government authority, similar to the independent status of the Chief
Rabbinate, which would allow it to conduct separate hiring practices,
oversee its own budget and not be subject to junior PMO officials.
The agency also called for the approval of 50 new volunteer rabbinic
judges, whose appointment has been held up by Attorney-General Menahem
Mazuz and the legal adviser's office in the PMO out of concern over the
legality of unpaid public servants wielding authority over a citizen's
conversion process.
The idea of the volunteer judges came from former justice minister
Yaakov Neeman, and was intended "to create a class of judges who perform
conversions out of a desire to solve an acute problem," not just to hold
a government job, said one of the participants in the Jewish Agency
meetings.
The volunteer judges would still be chosen by Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar.
The agency also called for the government to work more closely with the
Institute for Jewish Studies, the conversion education program
established by the government and the Jewish Agency according to the
recommendations of the Neeman Commission.
The PMO and Absorption Ministry would not respond to requests for comment.
At the semi-official institute, aspiring converts study Judaism from a
pluralistic perspective that incorporates all the religious streams, but
undergo an Orthodox conversion at the State Conversion Authority.
The new authority was established based on the recommendations of the
Halfon Committee, headed by Absorption Ministry Dir.-Gen. Erez Halfon
and including representatives of the Education Ministry, Jewish Agency,
Conversion Authority in the Prime Minister's Office and the IDF.

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