Israeli court delays decisions on conversions

JERUSALEM, Nov. 4 (JTA) — Israel’s Supreme Court has delayed until next April a hearing on the legitimacy of Conservative conversions of adopted babies.

Reform and Conservative leaders, who originally rejected a delay, accepted Thursday’s decision with mixed feelings.

They said they are unhappy with the delay, but are pleased that Justice Aharon Barak, the president of the Supreme Court, also agreed Thursday to address the general issue of conversions in April by lumping together more than 50 other outstanding conversion cases.

That decision could set the highest-level precedent on non-Orthodox conversions.

According to a statement issued by the Masorti, or Conservative, movement, Barak agreed that the special panel to convene in April “will discuss the issue in principle of the State of Israel’s recognition of non-Orthodox conversions.”

Reform and Conservative leaders had recently turned down a request to delay the hearing made by Rabbi Michael Melchior, minister of Diaspora affairs, who is heading a new governmental conversion committee.

The committee represents the first high-level attempt to address the controversial issues that have divided the movements since Prime Minister Ehud Barak was elected in May.

The liberal movements have repeatedly sought to gain recognition for their movements and institutions in Israel. The Orthodox fear that any change in the so-called status quo, which gives the Orthodox control over Jewish religious issues, would weaken the Jewish character of Israel.

Melchior, a modern Orthodox rabbi, said the committee’s purpose is to “strengthen unity among the Jewish people in Israel and the Diaspora” and to promote “dialogue between the streams.”

Although Reform and Conservative leaders are pleased with his goals to promote dialogue, they say they don’t expect much from the committee and are disappointed that they are not on the committee itself.

“I do not have high expectations from this committee,” said Rabbi Uri Regev, director of the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center.

“The committee does not have the authority to decide. It will have to go back to the government and I feel that the committee may be an unfortunate exercise in further prolonging the process.”

In expressing his hopes for the committee, Melchior has pointed to the fact that Cabinet ministers across the political spectrum will address the issues there.

Yitzhak Cohen, the Shas head of the Religious Affairs Ministry, who sits on the committee, could not be reached for comment.

The liberal streams also expressed dismay that one of the committee’s first acts was to ask the court to delay next week’s hearings.

“We welcomed the establishment of the ministerial committee on conversion, but we are sorry about the fact that the government exploited this committee in order to delay the legal procedures on the matter once again,” said Rabbi Ehud Bandel, president of the Masorti movement, after Thursday’s decision.

The hearing that was originally scheduled for next week was to debate the case of a single adopted child who was converted by the Conservative movement in Israel. The case is the remnant of a legal process that began in August 1995 with 18 converted children, most of whose families eventually tired of the struggle and converted them through an Orthodox rabbinical court.

In addition, the family involved in the single remaining case does not live in Israel anymore, a fact that could have posed technical problems.

Meanwhile, the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center is representing an additional 52 cases of adults and children who were converted in Israel and abroad but were not recognized by Israel. Their files also include one modern Orthodox woman whose conversion in New York has not been recognized by Israel.

Regev said that although he, too, was upset with the delay, the April decision will now include these cases as well as an additional two Conservative cases.

He said the resulting decision could produce a much more powerful precedent than what would have occurred on the single Conservative conversion.

“We have the whole gamut,” said Regev. “All the issues are now coming to the fore.”

He said the delay would also give the Melchior committee a chance to prove whether it was capable of delivering a technical solution favored by both non-Orthodox movements, such as the removal of the nationality clause from identity cards, which could pre-empt a return to court.

“If Melchior points in the direction of a technical solution,” said Regev, “then I believe within a short period of time we can come to an agreement, and many of the pending cases will not need to come to a hearing.”

Interior Minister Natan Sharansky, who has been accused by the Reform and Conservative movements of reverting to pro-Orthodox policies on conversion, welcomed the decision.

He said the postponement marked the “Supreme Court’s confidence in the process” being implemented by a joint conversion institute that educators from all of Judaism’s three main streams teaching potential converts.

Meanwhile, Barak also agreed to allow the movement’s to submit a petition in 10 days demanding that the state grant temporary residency status to those converts whose status is still unresolved.

The liberal streams have accused the government of causing great personal stress to these immigrants, since they are required to renew tourist visas every three months and are not able to get jobs or health insurance.

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