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Conversion Institute Prepares to Open at Three Sites in Israel

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A long-awaited conversion institute integrating Orthodox, Conservative and Reform perspectives to Judaism is slated to open its doors in three Israeli cities next February.

According to Benjamin Ish-Shalom, chairman of the board of the new Institute for Jewish Studies, which is informally known as the conversion institute, the first locations will have space for a combined total of about 240 students.

A prime market to be targeted will be the 200,000 to 300,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not Jewish either by Jewish law or self- definition, but who were extended citizenship under the country’s Law of Return because they have an immediate relative who is Jewish.

A large percentage of the institute’s $700,000 budget for next year, which is provided by the government, will be devoted to reaching out to that population, Ish-Shalom said in an interview this week with JTA.

The idea for a joint conversion course was recommended by a government committee, chaired by Finance Minister Ya’akov Ne’eman, which was established to find a solution to the divisive debate over conversions performed in Israel.

Determining matters of personal status in Israel — conversion, marriage, divorce and burial — is the sole province of the Orthodox rabbinate.

The Reform and Conservative movements had sought to gain legal recognition for their conversions through the Israeli courts, while the Orthodox political and religious leadership pressed for Knesset adoption of a bill that would codify their control over conversions.

The Ne’eman Committee endeavored to put an end to both the legislation and the litigation related to conversions.

The board of directors of the new conversion institute is composed, as was the Ne’eman Committee, of representatives of each denomination — five Orthodox, and one each from the Conservative and Reform movements.

Subjects that will be taught to each student over the yearlong, 440-hour course will include Jewish history, halacha or Jewish law, and concepts related to Jewish peoplehood, said Ish-Shalom.

“We want to transmit the message that to join the Jewish people means to accept a whole system of ideas, values and practices,” he said. “The knowledge the students will get will satisfy the halachic requirements” for conversion.

After meeting weekly since last April, the institute’s board arrived at a consensus about the approach the course will take. It will use a historical approach to presenting classical Jewish sources, like the Bible and Talmud, Ish-Shalom said.

The board decided that the concept of “mitzvah,” interpreted by traditional Jews as “commandment or obligation,” and by many liberal Jews as “a good deed,” is a central concept to be taught.

“We didn’t define what mitzvah is but formulated the principle that Judaism is not just a world view or theoretical system, but a whole way of life with practical norms,” said Ish-Shalom.

Teachers for the course are now being hired and a curriculum developed, he said. Professionalism and a commitment to the institute’s approach are the criteria being used to select the educators involved, rather than denominational affiliation.

The ideological and theological differences between each of Judaism’s major denominations will also be addressed, said Ish-Shalom.

After completing the course, candidates will undergo an Orthodox conversion. They will go before a beit din, or religious court, which will assess their knowledge and commitment to a Jewish life, and determine whether they will be permitted to complete the process with immersion in a mikveh and, for men, a ritual circumcision.

Immediately after announcement of the institute’s plans last year, it came under fire by representatives of the Orthodox rabbinate. But so far, such opposition has not undermined the institute’s ability to move forward.

In the aftermath of the controversy, Israel’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Yisrael Meir Lau, said that each candidate for conversion would be evaluated fairly and that having studied in this new institute would not necessarily be detrimental to completing the conversion process.

His comment was interpreted as a softening of the Chief Rabbinate’s opposition to the interdenominational institute.

“We have agreement with many rabbis, and rabbis who are heads of the courts, who support our efforts and will examine our graduates from a very positive approach,” Ish-Shalom said.

In addition to the first three branches of the institute, three more will open by the fall of 1999.

“If we deal with just 50,000 people in the coming 10 years, it would be amazing,” said Ish-Shalom.

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