Jewish Federation Head Calls for Extended Moratorium, More Dialogue on Civil Conversion Bill

As a bill seeking to regulate military conversions continues to dominate the headlines, representatives of Diaspora Jewry are increasing their efforts to extend a six-month moratorium of a further-reaching bill concerning civil conversions, which expired on December 31.

"There needs to be more time and more dialogue," said Jerry Silverman, president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America told Anglo File this week. "I am hopeful that the dialogue can continue and there can be a solution." Silverman added that he supported an extension of the initial moratorium, during which all sides of the conversion debate pledged to refrain from unilateral steps through courts or legislation.

Both current conversion laws were authored by Yisrael Beitenu MK David Rotem. The military conversion bill regulates and validates conversions to Judaism conducted during a soldier's service by the army's chief rabbi. It currently threatens the coalition because Shas opposes the bill, arguing that all conversions need to be overseen by the country's Chief Rabbinate.

In the civil conversion bill, MK David Rotem seeks to allow municipal rabbis to perform conversions, which currently very few courts are authorized to do. Opponents agree the core intent of helping 350,000 mainly Russian-speaking non-Jews living in Israel is worthy, but they take issue with the bill's wording, which de facto grants sole authority over conversions to the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate.

"When you look at the bill there is some wording and some language that need to be changed," said Silverman. "The bill became political and we need to move out of the politics and say what the original intent of the bill is." In its current form, the bill "will create terrible disunity and really create a crevice between [Israel and] Diaspora Jewry," he added.

A storm of protest by Jewish communities around the world, which broke out in the summer after a preliminary reading of the bill passed in the Knesset, led Prime Minister Netanyahu to agree to the first moratorium. Netanyahu appointed Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky to mediate between the parties.

While Sharansky says the Jewish Agency "fully support[s]" the IDF conversion law, he reiterated last month that he "vehemently" opposed the civilian conversion bill in its current form and had support from the Reform and Conservative movements to extend the moratorium.

Rotem could not be reached for comment.