Courts to Perform Secular Conversions Which Bypass Rabbinate

Goal is to create two new tracks for conversions to Judaism, one secular and one national-religious.

The Knesset caucus for secular Judaism and organizations from all streams of Judaism have created a coalition of conversion courts independent from the Chief Rabbinate. The coalition, which was approved last week, is being coordinated by PANIM for Jewish Renaissance, an advocacy group for pluralistic Judaism.

The goal is to create two new tracks in Israel for conversions to Judaism, one secular and one national-religious, both independent from the Chief Rabbinate. These come on top of the conversion courts of the Reform and Conservative movements, which produce about 300 converts a year.

Converts of the new coalition will not be permitted to marry through the rabbinate, but rather in accordance with a ruling by the High Court of Justice that these converts will be registered as Jews in the Interior Ministry's Population Registry.

One of the coalition's main innovations is the inclusion of Ne'emanei Torah Vaavodah, a moderate Orthodox movement, in a forum that recognizes Reform, Conservative and secular conversion. The chairman of Ne'emanei Torah Vaavodah, Yonatan Ben Harosh, said at the forum's latest meeting that his movement plans to establish independent conversion courts "in close cooperation with two other organizations: Mavoi Satum (Dead End) and Kolech, Jewish Woman's Voice."

The forum's founding document explains that "300,000 of the immigrants to Israel who are eligible under the Law of Return are not recognized in Israel as Jews in the Population Registry. Most have integrated into Israel and have forged a covenant of fate but are not accepted by us into the Jewish people, with all that entails: the stripping of citizenship rights, alienation and rejection."

The organizations in the forum say that "the opportunity given by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel by the state to respond to the challenge of conversion in Israel has been exhausted. [The rabbinate's] monopoly must be taken away from it."

The main obstacle to mass conversion is the demand by the Chief Rabbinate and Conversion Administration that converts conduct a religiously observant lifestyle and send their children to religious schools. The crisis between the national-religious public and the government's conversion system was created by a ruling by the Great Rabbinical Court seeking to void even conversions carried out by the head of the administration, Rabbi Haim Druckman.

The Reform and Conservative movements, like the Conversion Administration, require potential converts to complete hundreds of hours of instruction in Judaism. The secular Judaism institutions might very well do the same, but they will not demand that converts change their lifestyle.

The secular Knesset caucus is headed by outgoing Meretz MK Yossi Beilin, a pioneer of the idea of secular conversion. Currently the only secular organization initiating a secular conversion process is Tmura, the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism. Rabbi Sivan Maas, a director and assistant dean of Tmura, said the organization's first conversion course is scheduled to begin in January.

Rabbi Gilad Kariv of the Reform movement's Israel Religious Action Center told Haaretz that the organizations recognize that a secular convert is part of the Jewish people. However, secular converts who want to join a Reform congregation may be asked to make up for gaps in their conversion.

Yelena Vaganov, 46, immigrated from Russia two years ago and is preparing for her conversion at Haifa's Or Hadash Reform congregation. She views this as joining the Jewish people. She says she heard about Reform conversion from her life partner, an immigrant who converted to Judaism in South Africa.

Yelena says she wants to convert because "I want a family that is more Jewish because I always felt Jewish, and that's why I'm in Israel. It's more harmonious for me." Her father, she says, was a Jew, and when she was a child he took her to events in the Jewish community. "During World War II he was a boy, and his whole family was killed. That's another reason why it's important to me to be Jewish."