Professor Benjamin Ish-Shalom is head of the Joint Conversion Institute, a network of study centers aimed at helping immigrants, including the estimated 300,000 people from the former Soviet Union, convert to Judaism. The Institute, which represents Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews, was established by the Israeli government and the Jewish agency following the Ne’eman Commission’s recommendations in April 1998. As a showdown between Israel’s rabbinate and its ever-growing opponents over thorny conversion issues becomes increasingly likely, The Jewish Week spoke to Ish-Shalom during his recent visit to New York to talk about the conversion issue.
The Jewish Week: You are threatening to create independent conversion courts should Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar refuse to heed two-month-old recommendations set forth by a governmental committee calling for the replacement of the current crop of haredi conversion rabbis. What are some problems afflicting the rabbis approved by the Chief Rabbinate?
Benjamin Ish-Shalom: Many of the rabbis who serve in the batei din for conversion are not open-minded enough and are not welcoming the potential converts. They don’t understand the social, cultural and mental conditions of the converts. Instead, they adopt a very strict approach. The outcome is that many who want to convert cannot overcome the examinations of the batei din. Others hear about the difficulties and obstacles and hesitate to join the process and don’t attempt to convert at all. It was always this way, but it’s becoming more and more difficult.
What sort of difficulties are you referring to?
Many of these obstacles are unrelated to underlying halachic demands. It’s a question of approach, of rabbinic policy. They are not willing to convert a woman who wears trousers. They want her to dress like a religious Orthodox woman. I know of a policewoman, who has to wear a uniform. They recommended that she switch jobs. There was another woman who represented the State of Israel at the Olympics. They demanded that she leave the sport and switch to another occupation. She did it because she wanted to be converted. But this is not a halachic demand.
You also complain that the conversion process is often dragged out for far longer than it needs to be. Can you describe other barriers to conversion that concern you?
The percentage of people who cannot overcome the exams is growing. They expect the convert to know many things that even religious people may not, including knowing the text of lengthy blessings by heart and answering questions regarding intricate details of halacha. Generally speaking, they expect the convert to become observant to the extent that he or she can be fully integrated into the religious community. They won’t convert someone who lives on a [secular] kibbutz.
What about your claims that the beit din prolongs the conversion process in order to deter converts?
It takes too long. [The rabbis] don’t want to make it too easy. It can take from a month or two to six months, a year. And then it takes another half a year until they receive the conversion certificate. It all depends on the impression that the rabbis get from meeting with the convert. Also, currently the rabbis are paid for every time they meet with the convert. Therefore, they have no reason not to invite them for another meeting. We recommend that they get paid on a monthly basis.
You’ve had considerably more success in converting Russian immigrants who are in the army, through the Institute’s Nativ program. Why is that?
The Nativ program offers three months of full-time learning about Judaism, halachic observance and Israel, as well as Shabbatonim in which students visit various Jewish communities. The first seven weeks offers a basic background in the Bible, Jewish history and Zionism. Visits to archeological sites enhance the day-to-night Torah learning sessions. They then get a month’s break to determine whether they want to continue with the conversion process. If they decide to go ahead with it, they then spend several weeks studying more intricate areas of halacha. Finally, they appear before a rabbinical military court to be converted to Judaism.
Since the program debuted in 2003, close to 80 percent of the 3,000 soldiers enrolled have been converted. Conversions in civilian conversion courts have around a 50 percent success rate. Part of the success is the fact that soldiers are living on a military base that is halachically observant. They have a kosher kitchen and a synagogue on premises. All the conditions are in place in order to maintain an observant lifestyle. It’s immersion.
Is the number of IDF conversions growing?
There are more and more rabbis in the civilian track who speak against the “easier” way of converting soldiers. They’re putting pressure on rabbis in the IDF.
Why the move to set up independent conversion courts?
Since the chief rabbinate does not face the real needs of the people, it ignores its own responsibilities and loses its relevance. If there’s no change, the whole structure of the conversion authority is questioned.
It seems unlikely that Rabbi Amar will heed the recommendations and appoint volunteer religious judges to replace the haredi rabbis currently serving in the conversion courts. What’s the timetable for establishing independent conversion courts?
We would prefer not to have any confrontation with the official rabbinic establishment. But we have no choice. We’re losing time and we’re losing the people.