Rabbis Protest Jewish Agency Initiative to Oversee Conversions

The agency decided that it would establish an independent rabbinical court that would perform conversions, which would be deemed acceptable for immigration to Israel.

Yair Ettinger

“A breach of Judaism’s ramparts” was the label given by the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) newspaper Yated Ne’eman to a Jewish Agency plan to establish an independent rabbinical court for the purpose of performing Orthodox conversions overseas, unconnected to the Chief Rabbinate in Israel.

“These converts will have to be marked – they won’t be recognized as Jews,” MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) was quoted as saying in the paper’s main headline. The paper devoted a big part of its new coverage to this story.

The protest followed a decision made by the board of governors of the Jewish Agency, as reported on Thursday in Haaretz, according to which for the first time ever the Agency would take an active role in conversions. The board decided on Wednesday to establish an independent rabbinical court that would perform conversions according to strict Orthodox rules, which would be deemed as acceptable for qualifying as an immigrant under the Law of Return. These conversions would not necessarily be recognized by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate when it came to marriage. The new court will have itinerant teams which would reach different communities for short periods in order to perform the conversions, in collaboration with local Orthodox rabbis.

The bureau of Israel’s Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, who oversees conversions in Israel, responded on Thursday stating that “the body standing behind rabbis who perform conversions abroad is irrelevant. When a convert from abroad comes here, the identity of the rabbi who performed the conversion is investigated. If he is known here, the rabbinate will recognize the conversion.”

Rabbi Yitzhak Peretz, who is in charge of local conversions, told Haaretz that the Jewish Agency needs to get approval for its decision from the Chief Rabbi. “They have to appear before Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, and if this is serious he may approve their decision. I don’t understand why the Agency is entering a sphere of activity which is not under their purview, trying to bypass the Rabbinate.”

Yated Ne’eman used harsher terms in describing the Agency’s decision, calling it ‘dangerous’, ‘shocking’, ‘a move which could lead to disastrous assimilation’. One headline amidst the wide coverage described a ‘breakdown in the walls protecting conversion and a breach in Israel’s vineyard.’ The paper quotes retired rabbinical judge Rabbi Avraham Sherman who ruled in 2008, while serving in the high rabbinical court, that thousands of converts who had passed through the state’s conversion process were not Jewish. “They want to create two sets of laws, God forfend, to tear up the Torah and the people of Israel. This is a terrible calamity”, said Sherman at that time.

MK Gafni was quoted by the paper as saying that “the law stipulates that the head of the religious community – the Chief Rabbi – is the one authorized to accept conversions. These new converts will need to be marked, and when fake rabbis working on behalf of the Jewish Agency are exposed, the conversions will not be recognized. They claim to convert according to the Halakha [Jewish religious law] but everyone knows this to be a lie. If it’s true, why don’t they reveal the names of these rabbis who conduct these fake ceremonies?”

MK Uri Maklev (United Torah Judaism) also assailed what he defined as a “counterfeit and dangerous procedure, based on deceiving and deluding the aspiring convert”.

The new initiative was also attacked by another Haredi newspaper, Hapeles, which stated that “following the failure to pass a conversion law during the previous Knesset term, different agencies started looking for gimmicks for bypassing the status quo, searching for solutions that would enable a fast and abbreviated process.”

In contrast, MK Aliza Lavi (Yesh Atid) welcomed the initiative. “This is a fateful decision, coming after years of struggle against impediments we created ourselves, standing in the way of people who want to join the Jewish people. This initiative will dismantle the cruel bureaucratic hurdle, which humiliates and exhausts anyone trying to join us. In the Israel of 2015 there are hundreds of thousands of citizens who came here legally, who serve in the army, work and pay taxes, and who want to feel like they are an inseparable part of Israeli society. Assimilation is surging across the Jewish world, that’s no secret. Many people have lost their faith in the system and have fled far away. I experience this with women going through the lengthy and meticulous conversion process. The new initiative is a convergence of Jewish and Israeli forces that will minimize the longstanding damage which lies at the juncture of Halakha and the ingathering of Diaspora Jews.”