Conversion Row Sparks Suspension of Rabbinal Court Appointments

Dayanim claim new appointments will reduce number of cases each one handles, threatening their livelihood.

Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar has paused the appointment of 22 new Jewish conversion court judges, further delaying reforms aimed at easing the difficult and lengthy conversion process.

Last week, Amar reneged on his decision to approve the appointments this week, in the face of strong objections from the 25 current religious court judges, or dayanim.

The judges are paid per court session. They claim that appointing new judges will reduce the number of cases each judge handles, and threatening their livelihood.

The judges claimed in a letter to the Civil Service Commission that the decision to appoint more conversion officials was unnecessary, because of the relatively small number of conversions the courts handle each year.

Critics of the courts, however, say the religious court judges' objection stems from their reluctance to open up the market to competition, and their vested interest in perpetuating the current situation of being paid per court session.

"The fact that presiding dayanim receive their salaries based on the number of sessions they hold means they have no motivation to speed up conversions," said one of the 22 new appointees. "They have a financial interest in lengthening the process, causing a headache for potential converts. The new religious court judges were going to change that situation, and create a market where different groups compete to treat converts more efficiently and more courteously."

The conversion court reform began a year ago, when a committee headed by Absorption Ministry Director General Erez Halfon submitted its report to the government, recommending more religious court judges be appointed to ease the conversion process. After repeated delays, the government approved the report's recommendation three months ago.

Two weeks ago Rabbi Amar declared his support for the decision, and even sent letters to the appointees telling them to which courts they would be appointed, a move that sparked protests by the current judges.

"Appointing new religious court judges takes away work from current religious court judges and that is illegal, which is why the new appointments were put on hold," the Civil Service Commission said.

An official at Rabbi Amar's office confirmed his decision to postpone the appointments, saying that talks would be held over the coming days with the Prime Minister's Office on integrating new religious court judges into the court system.

Currently, a religious court judge receives NIS 120 for every conversion court session. Some sessions last only 10 minutes. The judges are paid for every person they convert, even if they convert families together, such as in the case of the Falashmura, Ethiopians who claim Jewish descent and wish to convert to Judaism. Would-be converts arrive at conversion courts after going through several other stages where they study Judaism. In theory, conversions should be approved without lengthy discussions, but in at least 50 percent of cases, the religious court judges require the would-be converts to attend more than one court session.

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