Fresh Anxiety Over New Conversion Bill


The Israeli conversion bill shelved last year amid furious protests from liberal denominations in America is back. This time it is more confusing in that it seeks to make some concessions to the Conservative and Reform movements while maintaining a monopoly for the charedim.

Currently, the Chief Rabbinate approves every conversion. The new version of the bill, which is now under the review of the government, would put control in the hands of a conversion authority whose head would be chosen by the prime minister. The prime minister would consult the Chief Rabbinate, but that body wouldn’t have a veto.

What’s more, the 11-person committee that chooses conversion judges will, according to the bill, include two representatives of the non-Orthodox streams, namely Reform and Conservative.

Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, told The Jewish Week the new bill is a significant step for the liberal streams for two reasons: they now have a seat at the table and the new version reduces the direct control of the Chief Rabbinate over conversion.

But noting that the Reform leadership was burned last time year, Kariv said Reform leaders have not embraced the new proposal yet. “The challenge is, as we know, the concern that the government doesn’t keep its part in a compromise,” he said, noting that this is what happened in a deal reached for major changes in egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall, which was never implemented.

Part of the reluctance on the part of the Reform leadership is because the new bill is a setback for the cause of non-Orthodox conversions performed inside Israel.

Until now, rabbis and government ministers have worked out as they went along where to rest the authority over conversion. The bill would create an absolute monopoly on conversion performed in Israel for a centralized conversion authority.

Reform leaders are racing towards what they hope will be state recognition for the Jewishness of people they have converted here in Israel. The Supreme Court is widely expected to declare soon that people who passed through such conversions can be considered Jewish by Israel’s population registry and, if they are not yet Israelis, become citizens.

If politicians get the proposed monopoly — an Orthodox monopoly — enshrined in law before the Supreme Court makes its decision, then non-Orthodox leaders here won’t score this coup. The Reform and Conservative streams will have come tantalizingly close to a significant gain, only to see conversion formalized under Orthodox control at the last minute.

A tight state monopoly on conversion wouldn’t just eliminate hopes that Reform and Conservative streams have, but also undermine the authority of top charedi rabbis. Some of them perform conversions privately.

In a sense, they have more to lose than Reform and Conservative leaders, who want their conversions to be accepted by civil authorities, but who know that they stand little chance of getting them accepted by state rabbis for purposes of marriage. Converts who become Jewish through independent charedi rabbis already have all the benefits available — they get civil recognition for their conversion and are also able to get married via the chief rabbinate.

All of this could be about to change. If the new bill passes, then people converted by independent charedi rabbis, like the popular Nissim Karelitz of Bnei Brak, will be in crisis. Currently, their Jewishness is recognized by the state and normally they can marry through the Israeli rabbinate without problems. Under the bill, the state will reject conversions by independent charedi rabbis, and the chief rabbinate will be obliged to also adhere to the boycott against them.

Never before has the rabbinate been obliged by the state to reject charedi conversions, so it’s no surprise that charedi politicians are against the bill.

The Modern Orthodox Giyur Ke’Halacha conversion court will find itself in the same situation as the charedi rabbis. Styling itself as a more user-friendly option than those offered by the state, this court, headed by former New Yorker Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, has converted 600 people in just three years.

But the new bill will render Giyur Ke’Halacha conversions worthless from the state’s point of view, meaning that the Interior Ministry will refuse to register people converted there as Jewish, and will also stop these people from marrying in Israel unless they re-convert through the new state authority.

Rabbi Seth Farber, who directs Giyur Ke’Halacha and also runs ITIM, a group that advocates for converts, said, “We finally got some momentum going and now they’re coming along and saying, ‘Let’s kill it.’”

He thinks that the new bill could be the “death knell” for Reform and Conservative hopes for full recognition of their conversions.

As he sees it, the new bill creates few winners and harms the main group it should be helping, namely potential converts who should have easy access to conversions. Rabbi Farber concluded: “I don’t think the new bill will enable any more people to convert, which is what is needed today to solve the crisis facing conversion. It won’t move the issue forward in any meaningful way. This is not the breakthrough that is so sorely needed.”

Steven Bayme, national director of contemporary Jewish life at the American Jewish Committee, agreed that the new bill would “extend a bad monopoly. He noted that “while Prime Minister Netanyahu refers often to Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people, in effect it is the national state of some Jewish people,” namely the Orthodox. n

Nathan Jeffay’s column appears twice a month.