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.