Conversion bill still troubles U.S. Jewish leaders


(JTA) — American Jewish leaders said they remain concerned about Israeli conversion legislation following a meeting with high-level Israeli government officials.

Leaders of the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements met Tuesday in New York to discuss a conversion bill with Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon and Israeli U.S. Ambassador Michael Oren. 

"We remain concerned, even after yesterday’s meeting, that this legislation would drive a dangerous wedge between the State of Israel and Diaspora Jewry, 85 percent of which is not Orthodox," read a statement released Wednesday by meeting participants.

The participants said they hope to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the issue when he comes to Washington at the end of the month.

The pending legislation would empower any rabbi who is or was on a district rabbinate in Israel, or was or is the chief rabbi of a city or town, to perform a conversion for any Israeli regardless of place of residence. This would free would-be converts from the discretion of the special conversion courts and eliminate the curricular requirements for converts, leaving conversion to the discretion of local rabbis.

Under the proposed law, conversions could be voided only if the rabbinical court that conducted the conversion determined it took place under false pretenses, subject to the approval of the president of the national Rabbinic Court of Appeals. Also, a convert seeking to marry but encountering obstinacy at his local rabbinate could return to the rabbinical court that converted him to acquire his marriage license.

Critics say the bill does not go far enough to ease the conversion process, expands the power of the Chief Rabbinate, delegitimizes non-Orthodox conversions and does nothing to secure recognition in Israel for conversions performed in the Diaspora.

"As we have consistently said, and as we reiterated yesterday, conversion must not be tied to one religious stream or point of view," the statement from the U.S. religious leaders said. "Any legislation pertaining to conversion is by its nature directly linked to the Law of Return and is therefore a matter affecting the world Jewish community." 

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