What is the conversion bill?
It’s a bill that Yisrael Beiteinu promised its voters, intended to jump-start the stalled conversion system.
To whom is this law important?
Some 320,000 people who are not Jewish according to halacha live in Israel, most of them from the former Soviet Union. Though they are Israeli citizens, they cannot marry in Israel, and after their death, they cannot have a Jewish funeral. Yet many converts who invested many years and large sums of money in converting, including some who made personal sacrifices for their choice to be Jewish, have either discovered that their conversion is not recognized by the charedim who lead the Chief Rabbinate or even had it annulled by the rabbinical courts.
Hasn’t the state found a solution?
After the Chief Rabbinate started refusing to perform conversions due to charedi objections, former prime minister Ariel Sharon set up special conversion courts under the auspices of the Prime Minister’s Office. Dozens of rabbinical judges were recruited for the project, most from the religious Zionism movement. The system was headed by Rabbi Chaim Druckman, and Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar had supreme authority over it.
Many of the converts were soldiers, who complete the process during their military service via the army’s Nativ project. And last week, Beit Morasha, a Jerusalem center for Jewish studies, inaugurated the Israel Institute for Conversion Policy, which will focus on converting teens.
So where’s the problem?
The charedi rabbonim may no longer be part of the conversion process, but they have found a way to impact converts’ lives. Some marriage registrars refuse to register converts if they think they are not observant enough, and dayanim have revoked the conversions of converts who sought a divorce. In 2008, the Rabbinical Court of Appeals retroactively annulled every conversion ever performed by Druckman’s courts. Since then, conversion in Israel has been stuck in a rut.
What difference will the new bill make?
Since the government’s conversion courts are weak, the bill offers a user-friendly process for those who want to undergo a charedi conversion. Its sponsor, MK David Rotem, proposes that municipal rabbis, who are part of the Chief Rabbinate, be allowed to set up conversion courts and carry out conversions even for those who do not live in their cities.
The bill increases the Chief Rabbinate’s authority over conversions and requires the rabbinate to approve the appointment of conversion judges. But Rotem’s assumption is that the Chief Rabbinate is not entirely charedi; it also contains religious Zionist and modern Orthodox rabbis – and it is they who will perform the conversions. The bill also makes it harder to revoke conversions, saying botei din may do so only if the chief rabbis approve.
Charedih, in contrast, hope the Chief Rabbinate will pressure municipal rabbis to adhere to their more rigorous conversion standards.
What are Reform and Conservative rabbis afraid of?
They are concerned that for the first time, Israeli law is giving the Chief Rabbinate authority over conversion. The rabbinate does not have that power today. They are also concerned by the bill’s statement that conversion will be recognized only if the convert “accepted the Torah and the commandments in accordance with halacha.” This unprecedented stipulation boruch Hashem excludes the Conservative and Reform communities.
Finally, they fear it would effectively overturn a 2002 High Court of Justice ruling that required the Interior Ministry to recognize converts of all denominations, whether performed in Israel or overseas.