Independent Conversion Courts See an Influx of Eager Applicants

Giyur Kahalacha reports large increase in requests for conversion since a High Court of Justice ruling that recognized private Orthodox programs.

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File photo: Chief Rabbinate-run conversion court in Jerusalem, May 23, 2004.
File photo: Chief Rabbinate-run conversion court in Jerusalem, May 23, 2004.Credit: Eyal Warshavsky

Call it the High Court of Justice effect: The March 31 ruling recognizing private Orthodox conversions is spurring a new rush of applicants for the alternative conversion programs. The independent Giyur Kahalacha courts report a major increase in applicants even though the network has yet to be officially recognized. The government conversion system has reported a steadily dwindling number of converts over the last few years. It now converts about 2,000 people a year, over two-thirds of them through the army’s Nativ program.

The High Court ruling concerned two specific Haredi courts, most notably the Badatz Bnei Brak court founded by Rabbi Nissim Karelitz. Someone from the court told Haaretz on Monday of a slight increase in the number of applicants for conversion, but also said the judges have no desire or intention to increase the number of converts under the High Court ruling, which the Haredi leadership opposed. The court repeated that it would only convert someone prepared to meet its strict standards of Torah observance.

The High Court’s ruling that non-Rabbinate Orthodox conversions can be recognized may also affect other courts. Giyur Kahalacha says that since the ruling it has been getting 20 to 30 inquiries a day, compared to 10 to 20 before the ruling.

The Giyur Kahalacha courts were established in August by leading religious Zionist rabbis, including Rabbi Nahum Rabinovitch of the Ma’aleh Adumim hesder yeshiva and Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat, who’d despaired of the state system, particularly after the blockage of the conversion bill that aimed to grant municipal rabbis the authority to oversee conversions. Since its inception, more than 200 people have converted through its courts, many of them immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Last month the chairman of the Knesset Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affair, MK Avraham Nagosa, cited a 10-percent decline in the number of converts through the Chief Rabbinate.

Giyur Kahalacha says the ruling that private Orthodox conversions must be recognized is “further shrinking the gap between private and state conversion and making private conversion another option for the thousands of Israelis who wish to convert.”

Ella, 41, a new immigrant who lives in Petah Tikva, recently converted along with her two children through Giyur Kahalacha. She approached the organization prior to the High Court ruling, after becoming fed up with the way she was being treated by the state conversion courts.

She says that even though it was made clear to her before the start of the process with Giyur Kahalacha that official recognition of her conversion could not be guaranteed, she still wanted “to immerse [in the mikveh] as a Jewish woman, even if the state wouldn’t recognize it.” Now, she says, she is also looking forward to official recognition.

“I didn’t come to convert in order to obtain a piece of paper or stamp of approval. I came in order to be able to immerse and to know for myself that I am a Jew. But the situation where we are not recognized makes no sense. There is no reason for this conversion not to be accepted.”