This morning, Jews around the world read the Book of Ruth in Shavuot prayers. The story of the most famous convert to Judaism has its inevitable ups and downs, tragedy and triumph, but the actual conversion, the acceptance of Ruth, the Moabite princess into another nation was remarkably straightforward. She simply said to her mother-in-law, Naomi – "Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried." And that was that.
Today of course, conversion is both a business and bureaucracy, a lengthy and cumbersome process which is not only intentionally designed to make things as hard as possible for potential converts, but combines all the worst attributes of government red-tape, religious corruption, and legal obstructionism. Last week, the State Comptroller published his annual report which includes a 50-page chapter on the manifold failings of the governmental conversion apparatus. The report makes for depressing reading and is a damning indictment of everything both the government and the rabbinical establishment have done on the issue over the last decade.
Here are the national conversion system's top ten screw-ups, and no, it won't get any better by next Shavuot.
1. Despite the recommendation of two different government commissions on conversion (Neeman 1998, Halfon 2008), two major reorganizations of the state conversion apparatus in 1995 and 2003, which brought it under the responsibility of the Prime Minister's Office, a special ministerial steering committee which was established in 2008 (but was never convened), and a steady increase in the state budget dedicated to conversion (32 million NIS in 2011), the actual number of conversions was nearly halved from 2007 to 2011, down from 8000 to 4300, with 26 percent of conversion candidates failed to complete the process.
2. The main motivation behind the attempts to improve the conversion system was to alleviate the predicament a large number of immigrants from the former Soviet Union found themselves in. Despite receiving Israeli citizenship due to their Jewish ancestry they were not considered Jews according to the Orthodox rabbinate and were therefore classified as being "without religion" and thus barred from getting married in Israel. But despite their plight and the government's efforts, the number of citizens "without religion" has only grown from 320 to 327 thousand, in 2012.
3. Sixty percent of the conversion budget went to the "Joint Institute" which employs teachers from the Orthodox, Reform and Conservative streams. Despite the funds and the endorsement, only 39 percent of students who began their studies at the "Joint Institute" converted successfully.
4. While financing the "Joint Institute," the government funds another Education Ministry conversion college and subsidizes some of the fourteen private colleges. Despite recognizing their students, supervision of these colleges is patchy and the National Conversion Authority does not inform prospective converts of their existence.
5. Despite the fact that new legal procedures for the Rabbinical Conversion Courts were formulated by the chief rabbi in 2006, they have still not been formalized and legally codified as a procedure obliging all the courts.
6. Rabbinical court judges have in the past been paid according to the number of sessions they attend. Some have been accused of delaying procedures so they could make more money per convert. Despite a government decision in 2008 to change their pay structure, the change was not implemented. Neither has the problem of the rabbinical judges' chronic tardiness, often opening sessions over two hours late, been solved.
7. The final stage of the conversion process is ritual immersion in a mikve. For some reason, despite there being thousands of mikvaot, throughout the country, built and operated by state-funded religious councils, only four are used for conversion ceremonies. This causes a bottleneck in the end of the process with hundreds of converts forced to wait, some for close to a year, and on average in 2012, 43 days, to complete their conversion.
8. Even after completing the entire process, converts have to wait many months for their conversion certificate which allows them to get married. A third received their certificate only a year after the process was over. This is due to endemic chaos in the filing and the computer system of the Conversion Authority. Converts details in the Interior Ministry's Population Registry are not updated due to the bureaucratic muddle.
9. An "exceptions committee" set up stringent conditions that bar nearly every non-Israeli candidate from beginning a conversion process. Ostensibly, the committee's aim is to block those who are trying to take advantage of the Law of Return to receive Israeli citizenship but the conditions keep out also earnest candidates who simply want to be Jewish who are not even allowed to appear themselves before the committee.
10. The previous head of the Conversion Authority, Rabbi Chaim Druckman retired in early 2012, after years of valiant but ultimately doomed attempts to improve the conversion process. Fifteen months after vacating the position a replacement has yet to be appointed.
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