Tightening of Conversion Criteria in Israel Could Impact Immigrants

Israel’s Chief Rabbinate is seeking to tighten standards for conversion to Judaism, which will make the process more difficult for thousands of recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

Among the measures reportedly ordered by Sephardic Chief Rabbi Eliahu Bakshi-Doron is the closing, at least temporarily, of a number of special conversion courts located throughout the country.

The clampdown on conversions signals that Israel’s religious establishment will continue to move toward the right under the recently installed new chief rabbis.

Haredi, or fervently Orthodox, circles have long attacked the more moderate rabbinate for allowing conversions seen as insincere by the critics, since they did not result in full observance of biblical commandments and Jewish law.

At the same time, the rabbinate has often come under attack for putting hurdles in the way of immigrants, particularly Russians with Jewish spouses, who wish to join Israel’s non-Orthodox Jewish majority.

According to press reports, Bakshi-Doron is insisting that judges on religious courts require longer Judaism courses for prospective converts and seek from them a firmer commitment to lead observant lives after conversion.

He also reportedly wants converts to send their children to the state’s religious school system or to one of the fervently Orthodox systems, instead of to the secular schools.

According to some reports, Bakshi-Doron has also ordered all conversion cases to be sent to his own office for approval.

OLD RELIGIOUS ESTABLISHMENT LOSES GROUND

The move by the recently installed chief rabbi could affect the conversion plans of thousands of recent olim from the former Soviet Union.

According to reports in the media, Bakshi-Doron specifically cited volunteers on kibbutzim as requiring stiffer rabbinic criteria for conversion. The Israeli collective farms are seen as bastions of secularism.

Regarding olim, Bakshi-Doron is said to support the ongoing, low-profile conversion of thousands of members of mixed Jewish-Gentile families.

But he reportedly looks with less favor upon the conversion of immigrants whose family members are all Gentile.

Considerable numbers of such immigrants have settled in Israel, some with the aid of forged documents. The Israeli immigration authorities, whose work begins at the consulates in the states of the former Soviet Union, try to weed out such applicants but do not always succeed.

The Ashkenazic chief rabbi, Israel Meir Lau is keeping his distance from the potentially stormy issue of conversions.

He can do so on purely formal grounds, since Bakshi-Doron is president of the Supreme Rabbinical Court and therefore bears prime responsibility for issuing instructions to the dayanim, or religious court judges.

Under Israeli law, the two chief rabbis, who are elected for 10-year terms, rotate their two roles: One serves as chairman of the Chief Rabbinate Council and the other as president of the Supreme Rabbinical Court.

The special conversion courts closed by Bakshi-Doron were set up in recent years to contend with the swelling numbers of conversion candidates.

Among the conversion courts Bakshi-Doron has reportedly singled out for criticism is that of Rabbi Haim Druckman, a former Knesset member for the National Religious Party.

Druckman, a yeshiva dean, exemplifies the old-time religious establishment that has lost ground in recent years to the stricter Orthodoxy of the Shas party, with which Bakshi-Doron is associated.

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