First Meeting of Knesset Lobby Tackles 'Colossal Failure' of Conversion Project

Everyone in the first meeting of the Knesset's conversion lobby agreed on one thing: the conversion operation in Israel is a colossal failure. "Things must be said out loud," said Rabbi Michael Melchior, former chairman of a ministers' conversion committee and current Knesset Education Committee chairman. "The conversion project was vitally important to prime minister Ariel Sharon and even he couldn't get it going."

Sharon set up the conversion administration in the Prime Minister's Office in 2003 and gave it the authority to convert to Judaism.

At the beginning of the decade, Israel declared the conversion of 300,000 non-Jewish immigrants a national challenge, yet has been converting only 0.4 percent of them a year.

In 2004, Israel spent NIS 10 million annually on conversion courses. Today it spends NIS 30 million. This means that in recent years, the state has invested at least NIS 20,000 in every convert who immigrated from the Commonwealth of Independent States.

"It's not a budgetary problem. I can get every shekel I need," said Avigdor Levitan, head of the Absorption Ministry's conversion department.

"It's a total colossal failure on the part of Israeli society," said National Religious Party (NRP) chairman Zevulun Orlev.

Nobody, however, could agree on the guilty party. The lobby's foundation meeting turned into a battlefield of personal accusations and soul-searching.

"I belong to religious Zionism, a movement that saw the state as the beginning of our redemption. We changed our prayers accordingly and observe precepts we hadn't observed in the past," Orlev said.

"It is inexplicable how a person who immigrated on the basis of the Law of Return, who sees himself as a Jew and lives in Jewish environment, must undergo the same conversion process as a gentile in Europe," Orlev said.