Wednesday, August 22, 2007

New conversion recommendations slammed by Orthodox, Reform


Conversion is an individual matter which should be handled in an individual way. It was never something that could be codified. Like most Jewish law, each case is unique, and each case requires the wisdom, experience, and the knowledge of a supervising rabbi and a well-informed bet din.

Putting a booklet out, requiring some classes, and hoping for the best is not the way conversion should be.

By Anshel Pfeffer

The report submitted to the prime minister on Monday on the state of conversion in Israel managed for once to unite nearly all religious authorities - from the Reform movement to ultra-Orthodox rabbis - in opposition to its recommendations.

The committee recommended setting up a new conversion administration that would include courses to prepare converts, and the special rabbinical courts that perform the conversion in practice.

Israel's chief Sephardic rabbi, Shlomo Amar, would oversee the entire process.

A long series of bureaucratic and halakhic (Jewish law) obstacles has brought conversion almost to a standstill, with fewer than 3,000 immigrants per year converting, out of an estimated 300,000 who are unrecognized as Jews by the rabbinate.

"Converting the non-Jews is a national and strategic mission of vital importance to the future of the State of Israel," Immigrant Absorption Minister Jacob Edery said Monday.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert asked officials from Edery's ministry to come back with an operative plan for implementing the recommendations, including an estimate of how many converts would be added.

The committee was headed by Immigrant Absorption Ministry director general Erez Halfon, and represented all departments and agencies in Israel that deal with conversion, including the Chief Rabbinate, Israel Defense Forces, Jewish Agency and Education Ministry. It focused mainly on streamlining the entire conversion process, which currently takes more than two years and has a high dropout rate. Recommendations include adding 10 posts for rabbinical court judges (dayanim), and creating a volunteer-dayan post to boost the number of converts substantially.

But ministry officials concede that while they can perhaps solve bureaucratic problems, halakhic issues are within the rabbinate's province. Here they point with hope to Amar's consent to form a committee of dayanim to discuss the halakhic obstacles facing would-be converts, particularly various requirements to maintain a religious lifestyle.

The committee asked Amar to consider permitting conversion activity at non-religious schools with a large number of immigrants "in need of conversion"; not to require converts to transfer their children to religious schools; and to permit converts to appear before the court independently, without reference to a spouse's religious status.

A source close to Amar said yesterday that "the rabbi believes it is possible to rule on conversion matters leniently and remain within the realm of halakha," but declined to say how the rabbi would respond to the committee's requests.

Amar is expected to use the new posts to introduce like-minded dayanim, as a counter-weight to those who believe mass conversion should be discouraged.

The ultra-Orthodox daily Yated Neeman devoted two pages yesterday to attacking the committee's report. The paper, which is the mouthpiece for Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv - to whom many of the dayanim answer - blasted the report for enabling mass "fake" conversions.

For opposite reasons, Rabbi Gilad Kariv of the Reform movement's Israel Religious Action Center said that the committee's recommendations "do not herald any significant change. At best they are useless, and at worst they might deepen the ongoing crisis in the field of conversion, as a result of bolstering the involvement of the Chief Rabbinate and rabbinical courts in the conversion process."

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