Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Committee to Reform the Conversion Process in Israel

by Hana Levi Julian

(IsraelNN.com) A panel of three rabbinical judges (dayanim) has been assigned the sticky task of sorting out the issues that have muddied the process of conversion to Judaism in Israel.

Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar decided to establish the panel in anticipation of upcoming recommendations by an inter-ministerial committee headed by Erez Halfon, Director-General of the Ministry of Absorption, on how to improve the conversion procedure.

The rabbinical judges will examine the Jewish legal issues that have affected conversions in Israel. The rabbis are expected to organize and clarify the rules governing the procedure.

The inter-ministerial committee was appointed five months ago to draft a plan to reform the process, which currently involves an intricate network of independent conversion programs, rabbinical councils, the Interior Ministry and the Immigration and Absorption Ministry.

At present, the different offices are loosely organized under the Conversion Administration created by former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The Administration was established in an effort to ease the conversion process for non-Jewish immigrants from Russian-speaking countries. The Jewish Agency, funded in part by the United Israel Appeal, brought hundreds of thousands of non-Jews to Israel from the Former Soviet Union.

The process for a prospective candidate for conversion in Israel is cumbersome at best, regardless of whether the candidate intends to live a Torah-observant lifestyle or not. At worst, it is a nightmare of trips shuttling back and forth between offices, paper-shuffling and fighting for administrative recognition of the months – and often years – of study that precede the final step of conversion.

It is expected that Halfon’s committee will tighten the structure by setting up a unified Conversion Authority, which would either report to the Immigration and Absorption Ministry or directly to the Prime Minister’s Office. The Authority, if established, will be headed by a rabbi appointed by the Prime Minister.

The Chief Rabbi would clarify and delineate the halachic (Jewish legal) standards under which the authority would operate. A report in Haaretz speculated that former Knesset Member Rabbi Chaim Druckman, who now heads the conversion courts, would be appointed director of the authority.

A second recommendation expected in the report will suggest doubling the number of rabbinical judges who review conversions.

The committee is also expected to broaden the criteria for rabbinical judges appointed to the panels, an issue that is sure to raise more red flags among the religious Jewish community.

“Rabbinical courts are intimidating converts as well as rabbis by setting unreasonable requirements,” declared Halfon almost three months ago, complaining that “they even demand that converts’ partners adopt a religious lifestyle.”

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