Israel's Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar on Wednesday accused some Orthodox rabbis outside of Israel of authorizing conversions to Judaism in exchange for bribery payments.
"We have received reports of several rabbis who convert for money," Rabbi Amar said at a special meeting of the Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs at Amar's offices in Jerusalem.
Amar claims that the phenomenon takes place in North America, South America and Europe and referred to the example of a convert who testified to him that he was converted by an Orthodox rabbi for the sum of one million dollars.
"Certainly this is an exceptional case," said Rabbi Amar, "but there are also examples of conversions for less than a million dollars," though he would give no other specific examples.
Rabbi Amar's remarks were made in support of the policy of the Chief Rabbinate and the Interior Ministry for the last two years to not recognize the conversions of most Orthodox rabbis outside of Israel.
The implication of the decision of the Chief Rabbinate is that only some people who converted to Judaism outside of Israel are eligible to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return, which grants automatic Israeli citizenship to Jews.
Kadima MK Yohanan Plesner and Meretz MK Nitzan Horowitz convened the meeting of the Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs after an article published in Haaretz in February exposed the phenomenon which increases the power of the Israeli Rabbinate to have jurisdiction over Jews all over the world.
According to a High Court decision, the civil registry must grant Reform and Conservative converts to Judaism the status of new Jewish immigrants, but paradoxically, the court determined that the Israeli rabbinate would retain jurisdiction over conversions conducted by Orthodox rabbis in the Diaspora.
At the meeting, Horowitz pointed out the irony: The Orthodox rabbinate is thus actually pushing prospective immigrants to opt for Conservative or Reform conversions instead.
Rabbi Joel Tessler, who heads a large Orthodox community in Potomac, Maryland, also addressed the meeting. He is one of the rabbis whose conversions the rabbinate refuses to recognize, and he said there was no justification for this.
Attorney Daniel Solomon of the Interior Ministry outraged Plesner when he was unable to produce a list of which overseas rabbis are recognized and which are not. But he insisted there is nothing new in the ministry's policy of consulting the rabbinate on this issue.
Amar revealed that a team of jurists and representatives of various government offices are now trying to draft a policy on Orthodox conversions overseas that would withstand a legal challenge.
But he stressed that the decision to recognize American and Canadian conversions by selected rabbinical courts only had the full consent of the Rabbinical Council of America, a leading American organization of Orthodox rabbis.
Many Orthodox rabbis, especially from the Modern Orthodox movement, do not belong to the RCA, and they say this decision was aimed primarily at reducing their power. But Amar insisted that the decision's sole purpose was to create an "orderly" conversion process run by "worthy" rabbis.
Committee chairman Likud MK Danny Danon accepted this claim, saying, "we all want to see more and more Jews immigrating to Israel, but we aren't willing to accept conversion over the Internet or by mail."
Haaretz publicized the story of Thomas Dohlan, a Canadian soldier who converted to Judaism but was not recognized as a Jew under the Law of Return. The Interior Ministry said that it does not recognize the Orthodox rabbi that converted him, even though he is the rabbi of a large community in Canada.
Dohlan later received an immigrant's certificate and an Israeli identity number when he arrived here with his Israeli wife and four children later last month, apparently due to Haaretz's report. But he still hasn't received his all-important identity card, and yesterday, the Interior Ministry again refused to issue it.
Rabbi Seth Farber of ITIM, the Jewish Life Information Center, who has been helping the family, said in response to Amar's statement yesterday that "the decision not to recognize all Orthodox conversions in the Diaspora because of a few cases of local corruption is utterly out of proportion."
"Clear criteria must be set under the Law of Return as to what constitutes a recognized community, and then we should rely on the local professionals," said Farber. "The Interior Ministry doesn't have enough information to determine what is or isn't a recognized community."