Israel's Spending on Conversion to Judaism Increased, as Number of Converts Declined

In his first annual report, State Comptroller Joseph Shapira suggests rethinking Israel's conversion system and perhaps cutting its funding. Other parts of the report address the poverty of Ethiopian immigrants, severe gaps in medical services across the country and nepotism in the marriage system.

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The Israeli government's spending to encourage conversion to Judaism has increased steadily from year to year while the number of people who actually converted declined “significantly” from 2007 to 2011, according to a new state comptroller’s report.

This decline occurred despite the fact that the number of people who define themselves as having no religion actually rose slightly to 327,000, wrote State Comptroller Joseph Shapira. Because these people are usually of Jewish descent who immigrated under the Law of Return, they are the main targets of the state’s conversion program.

In 2008, the government decided to do more to encourage conversions and even set quantitative targets, such as 8,300 in 2011 and 10,000 in 2012. But in practice, Shapira wrote, “There were some 8,000 converts in 2007, about 6,200 in 2008 and 2009, about 4,600 in 2010 and about 4,300 in 2011.” That latter figure, he noted, is almost a 50 percent drop from 2007.

Given this low output, Shapira said, the state should rethink the need to maintain such a large system of conversion courts, which currently employ 29 religious court judges. It should also urgently appoint someone to head the conversion administration, a post that has been vacant since Rabbi Chaim Druckman retired in February 2012. This lengthy delay has hurt the conversion effort, he said.

The state conversion system, first established in 2003, has been undermined badly in recent years by the opposition of the official rabbinate, which is dominated by ultra-Orthodox rabbis. These rabbis often refuse to recognize people who converted to Judaism through the state system, and have, for example, refused to marry them to other Jews.

Shapira wrote that despite the cabinet’s 2008 decision to set up a ministerial or steering committee to ensure that the conversion program produced results, this never happened. The money the government spent on the program, he said, hasn’t been spent wisely.

Altogether, Israel has 14 institutes of Jewish study that prepare people for conversion, two state-sponsored and the rest private. The largest is the state-sponsored Joint Conversion Institute, which is jointly run by representatives of the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform movements. Its budget has grown steadily over the years, to NIS 26 million in 2012, or about 60 percent of total government spending on conversions. But from 2000 through 2011, only 39 percent of those who attended the institute actually finished the conversion process. Among soldiers, the rate was even lower: Only 27 percent of soldiers who attended the institute from 2002-2009 actually converted. 

The institute said this is because many of its students never intend to convert; they merely want to expand their knowledge of Judaism. But the comptroller said the institute receives government funding to promote conversions, and if the money isn’t being used for that purpose, the government should consider cutting its funding.

Finally, the comptroller criticized the exceptions committee. The state conversion system normally deals only with people who are eligible to immigrate under the Law of Return. Other people who want to convert – say, tourists or migrant workers – can start the process only if approved by the exceptions committee. But Shapira said the committee’s conditions for even considering an application are so stringent that it may well be rejecting many applicants who sincerely want to join the Jewish people without even giving them a hearing.

A spa mikveh in Givat Shmuel. Credit: Limor Edrey

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