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In Israel, Liberal Conversions Equal Those of Chief Rabbinate

The Chief Rabbinate in Israel gets some 10,000 requests for conversions a year but completes only about 400, according to Reform sources.

After the Israeli Supreme Court last year issued a decision that opened the door to the possibility that the government might recognize Reform conversions done within Israel, the movement there was flooded with people seeking to become Jewish, said Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America.

Outside of the rabbinate, which recognizes only Orthodox conversions, the Reform movement now converts between 300 and 350 people a year in Israel, he said, about two-thirds of them immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

The movement requires converts to study Judaism for several months, establish that they are keeping a Jewishly observant home and attend religious services. Then most leave the country to complete the process because the government will not recognize a Reform conversion done in Israel, only one done outside the country.

Many of the converts finish the process in England, Holland or the United States, where they go to a Reform religious court, or beit din; immerse in a ritual bath, called a mikvah; and for men, have a symbolic brit milah, or circumcision.

When they return to Israel, they are immediately recognized by the government as Jewish, Hirsch said.

So are the hundreds of babies each year adopted by Israelis from Eastern Europe and South America. The new parents have the babies converted to Judaism by non- Orthodox rabbis in Europe and North America, he said.

On the other hand, the Masorti movement, sister to North America’s Conservative movement, last year performed about 100 conversions to Judaism in Israel, according to Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary.

Those conversions are begun and finished in Israel even though the converts are not recognized as Jews by the state.

“The legal status of the converts is in dispute but they are willing to test the law with us,” said Schorsch.

In fact, the Conservative movement has a lawsuit pending before the Israeli Supreme Court, seeking to have recognized as legally valid the conversion to Judaism of 21 infants.

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