Defying Chief Rabbinate, Prominent Rabbis Form Alternative Conversion Court

Six minors recognized as Jews by religious Zionist rabbis after government scrapped conversion reform.

A conversion class at Beit Daniel, a Reform synagogue in Tel Aviv.
Nir Keidar

Six minors were converted to Judaism in a private ceremony conducted on Monday by religious Zionist rabbis, marking the first act of mutiny against the Chief Rabbinate’s restrictive control over the conversion process. The ceremony came in the wake of the government’s decision to bury an initiative for conversion reform. 

One of the goals of the Conversion Law, and of the attempted conversion reform that followed, was to facilitate the conversion of minors, a relatively quick and easy procedure from the perspective of traditional Jewish law. However, there is wall-to-wall opposition among rabbis from the Chief Rabbinate and the ultra-Orthodox community to conversions of minors, even though these conversions rely on the halakhic (Jewish law) rulings of major rabbis.

In response, religious Zionist rabbis have established a private religious court, separate from the Chief Rabbinate, to convert both adults and minors (with their parents’ approval). Monday’s conversion ceremony was performed by Rabbi Nahum Rabinowitz, a leading Zionist rabbi, along with two other well-known rabbis, Rabbi Re’em Hacohen, head of the Otniel Yeshiva, and Rabbi Ariel Holland from the settlement of Tekoa. 

The rabbis and organizational heads involved in the conversions stressed in a press release that “the new religious court will completely fulfill all halakhic requirements for conversion while accompanying the converts after conversion.” 

According to the announcement, the process is intended to help thousands of people whose legal status in Israel is in limbo because they cannot convert to Judaism under the Chief Rabbinate’s regulations. They called on Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef to cooperate with the new venture.
The government decided at the beginning of July to cancel the conversion reform it had adopted just eight months earlier. The reform was originally meant to enable municipal rabbis to convert non-Jewish Israelis, particularly minors.

In the wake of the cancellation, religious Zionist rabbis began acting independently of the Chief Rabbinate and its special conversion courts. Besides Rabinowitz, a host of prominent rabbis will take part in the private religious court, including Rabbi Yaakov Medan of the Har Etzion hesder yeshiva; Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, chief rabbi of Efrat; and Rabbi David Stav, chief rabbi of Shoham and chairman of the Tzohar rabbinical association. 
The Tzohar group is also tied to the initiative that was accepted in the Jewish Agency, reported by Haaretz, to establish a private, mobile religious court that will assist with conversions in communities abroad. The Jewish Agency is also involved in the new religious court, along with various NGOs.
Opponents of the Chief Rabbinate’s power applauded the move.

Minister of Religious Services Naftali Bennett said that all of Israel's religious services, including conversion, should be performed by the official state body, the Chief Rabbinate. "Unfortunately, the rabbinate is not functioning as it should and this is why other conversation bodies were formed." Bennet said that this is a wake-up call for the rabbinate to "pull itself together" and undergo reforms that would make other conversion courts unnecessary.  

“We believe any move to establish community institutions that will offer the public a variety of religious services using different approaches will strengthen Israel’s Jewish and democratic identity,” said Rabbi Gilad Kariv, director of the Israeli branch of the Reform movement. “It’s clear the new rabbinical court’s halakhic policy differs from ours, but we believe a multiplicity of approaches in Israeli Judaism is a blessing and source of strength. 

“Unlike the new rabbinical court, which will focus on converting minors, the Reform movement’s conversion court will continue to open its doors to any Israeli citizen of any age,” he added. 

Prof. Aviad Hacohen, dean of the Sha’arei Mishpat Academic Center, said the new conversion court was essential.

“In contrast to marriage and divorce, Israeli law never regulated conversion through primary legislation, and certainly didn’t authorize the Chief Rabbinate or the rabbinical courts to perform conversions,” he said, noting that a nine-justice panel of the High Court of Justice is currently hearing a petition on the legality of private conversion courts. “It’s important to remember that halakhically speaking, converting minors is much easier than converting adults, and the many obstacles the state poses to these [conversions] violates not just Israel’s democratic values, but also its Jewish values.”

The liberal Orthodox group Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah similarly welcomed the move, noting that it had worked for years to try to liberalize conversion procedures, to no avail. “Any delay on this issue increases the problem of assimilation every day and drives many Israelis away [from Judaism],” it said. “We hope the state will be wise enough to embrace these courts and make them an inseparable part of the conversion process.”

Liberal Orthodox MK Rachel Azaria (Kulanu) praised the rabbis involved for their “leadership and courage.”

“Creating an alternative to the rabbinate, as has already been done with kashrut, is the right move for Israel’s Jewish character,” she said.

Meretz Chairwoman Zehava Galon, however, said the initiative makes no difference as it excludes other Jewish denominations. "This doesn't change anything for hundreds of thousands for of Israelis who continue to feel like second class citizens," she said, and called for the recognition of non-orthodox conversion, be it Conservative, Reform, of other.

Even with the establishment of the new conversion courts, " the entry ticket to Judaism continues to depend on Orthodox coercion – be it imposed by Haredi rabbis or national (Zionist) religious ones," she said. "Demanding conversion candidates to lead a religious lifestyle and to send their children to religious schools won't allow people who don't believe in god, don't observe Shabbat and don't use teffilin to convert. As a result, most of those converting are forced to lie."