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Non-Orthodox say pluralist conversion institute not living up to promise

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Rabbi Chaim Iram, CEO of the Joint Institute for Jewish Studies, says the institute's conversion programs are pluralist. (Ben Sales) 

Rabbi Chaim Iram, CEO of the Joint Institute for Jewish Studies, says the institute’s conversion programs are pluralist. (Ben Sales)

JERUSALEM (JTA) — In the years after he moved to Israel from Uruguay in 1995, Rabbi Mauricio Balter brought nearly 500 South American families to the Jewish state, some of whom settled near his home on the northern coast.

A handful of the new arrivals were not Jews by birth, thus Israel’s Orthodox-dominated Chief Rabbinate did not consider them as Jewish. So Balter, a Conservative rabbi, and his wife began preparing them for conversion under the auspices of a quasi-governmental body established to help resolve the longstanding conversion conundrum in Israel.

Created following the mass Soviet immigration in the early 1990s that brought untold numbers who were not recognized as Jews by the Chief Rabbinate, the Joint Institute for Jewish Studies was meant as a compromise, an attempt to create a pathway for immigrants not considered Jewish under religious law.

Candidates for conversion would be exposed to a range of non-Orthodox approaches to Jewish practice, but ultimately an Orthodox religious court would certify their conversion, satisfying longstanding Chief Rabbinate policy.

But when Balter’s students came before the court, they were ordered to stop attending his Conservative synagogue and commit to send their children to Orthodox schools. In the end, only three of the 14 students were approved for conversion.

“The court told me I wasn’t teaching them in an Orthodox way,” Balter told JTA. “The Joint Institute didn’t stand by its promises.”

Some non-Orthodox leaders agree and say the Joint Institute for Jewish Studies, also known as the Joint Conversion Institute, wound up cementing divisions between the religious denominations in Israel.

So these non-Orthodox leaders are shifting focus to their own conversion efforts: private religious courts that certify non-Orthodox conversions but are not recognized by the state.

“After a few years of trying very hard, we discovered that in the end the students in this institute meet the troubling and rough policy of the courts,” said Israeli Reform movement CEO Gilad Kariv, who is also a member of the institute’s board. “We do not understate the importance of the institute, but today this is not our main venue for dealing with conversion in Israel.”

Non-Orthodox leaders say that exposure to non-Orthodox ritual was minimal. Kariv says the institute has had no Reform teachers for four years and there have never been Reform adoptive families, an aspect of the institute’s program intended to expose would-be converts to Jewish life.

Students learn about the major denominations in class, and former teachers say they were able to teach their movement’s particular perspective on Judaism. But critics say it doesn’t matter because the conversion courts, which were intended to take a more lenient approach to religious law, operate in strict accordance with Orthodox standards.

Some students who complete the course but don’t observe Orthodox Jewish law do not even bother appearing before them.

“Success depends on what happens at the end,” said Reuven Hammer, a Conservative rabbi and member of the institute board. “The whole idea of the institute is that they would find an Orthodox court that would be more liberal toward the candidates for conversion than the usual court has been in Israel.”

The institute’s CEO, Chaim Iram, insists the institute includes Reform and Conservative teachers, but provided few specifics. He declined to tell JTA the number of non-Orthodox teachers or what percentage they represent of the overall number of instructors. Nor would Iram provide details about the curriculum.

As for the courts, the vast majority of candidates who appear before them are converted, but those involved in the process acknowledge that candidates who practice non-Orthodox Judaism are more likely to drop out early and never come before the judges.

Iram says the solution is not to make the courts more lenient but to ensure the institute’s training does a better job preparing students for traditionally Orthodox conversion.

“Our role is to help the convert convert,” Iram said. “We need to do everything to help him pass the conversion process. In the end the convert needs to take into account what the court wants from him.”

In a few weeks, the institute’s board will gain full authority over the organization, a change from the current arrangement in which authority is shared with the Jewish Agency for Israel, the institute’s parent organization.

Board Chairman Benjamin Ish-Shalom believes the changes will make the organization more pluralist, though he acknowledges that a candidate’s immersion in a non-Orthodox setting has led the courts to block conversion.

Given current policy and the small size of Israel’s non-Orthodox streams, however, Ish-Shalom believes the institute offers the most practical solution.

“I’m not ignoring the fact that we had problems with the court when a person was adopted by a non-Orthodox family,” he said. “Naturally there are more Orthodox families and Orthodox teachers. But we make efforts in our education plan to express all of the streams.”

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