Taking on the Chief Rabbinate, Jewish Agency to Create Its Own Conversion Court

Organization to dispatch rabbis to Orthodox communities unable or unwilling to provide this service.

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky.
Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky.Credit: Mark Israel Salem
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

In a bold challenge to the authority of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, the Jewish Agency is to launch a brand new service to communities overseas: Orthodox conversions.

Israel's two chief rabbis: Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau, left, and Sephardi Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi and Uriel Koby / Wikicommons

The Jewish Agency Board of Governors, convening Wednesday in Tel Aviv, passed a resolution to establish its own special conversion court that would dispatch rabbis from Israel to communities overseas who find themselves increasingly challenged by the stringent requirements and vetting powers of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate.

“This is an important step in saying that the Chief Rabbinate does not have a monopoly in determining who is a Jew,” said Rabbi Seth Farber, the founder and executive director of ITIM, a non-profit that assists individuals encountering problems with Israel’s religious bureaucracy. “It’s also an important message to Orthodox communities around the world because it says that the state of Israel supports Jewish life independent of the Rabbinate.”

In recent years, the Chief Rabbinate has been blacklisting certain Orthodox rabbis, both in the United States and in Europe, considered too progressive in their approach to Judaism, and has refused to recognize conversions performed by them. As a result, rather than set themselves up for disappointment and humiliation, some have simply stopped performing conversions, said Farber.

“The case of Rabbi Avi Weiss in New York, whose conversions were rejected by the Rabbinate, is well known,” he noted, “but ITIM has been in touch with at least 10 other communities in Europe, where Orthodox rabbis are afraid to engage in conversions because of the Chief Rabbinate.”

In some communities, particularly in Europe and South America, the problem is also that there are not enough certified local rabbis to perform Orthodox conversions. Jewish law requires a conversion court to be comprised of three rabbis. In those communities where there are only one or two rabbis on the ground, the new conversion court would fill in the gaps.

This new “traveling” conversion court is the initiative of Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky. Sharansky told Haaretz that the service would be provided both to individuals seeking to convert who planned to remain in their local communities and those interested in immigrating to Israel. “We have received many requests from Jewish communities in Spain, Portugal, France, Germany and Colombia,” he said.

The Jewish Agency resolution, however, underscores the need to assist interfaith families in their “full integration into the Jewish people via conversion, as well as through the possibility of Aliyah.”

The Chief Rabbinate is expected to fight this new initiative, which means that individuals who undergo conversions with the new Jewish Agency-sponsored rabbinical court would not necessarily be accepted as Jews in Israel and would, therefore, may not be permitted to wed in the country.

Farber surmises that many would go through the process anyway “because it is the equivalent of receiving a certificate of kashrut from the Jewish Agency.”

Nor is it certain at this point whether those converted by the Jewish Agency court would be able to gain automatic citizenship in Israel under The Law of Return. The law stipulates that anybody who converts abroad – regardless of the affiliation of the rabbis supervising the process – is eligible for citizenship, providing that the conversion was undertaken in a recognized Jewish community and by recognized local rabbis. In the past, the Israeli Ministry of Interior has challenged conversions undertaken by rabbis who were not local, but rather, flown in.>

The Jewish Agency is now discussing with the Ministry of Interior what would be required to gain recognition under the Law of Return for conversions overseen by its new court.

A driving force behind this initiative is Benjamin Ish-Shalom, the founder and president of Beit Morasha in Jerusalem, a modern Orthodox leadership training institute. He worked together with Sharansky on drafting the resolution.

Another effect of the increasingly stringent conversion requirements imposed in recent years by the Chief Rabbinate, said Farber, is that some Orthodox rabbis abroad have been adopting a more extreme approach in order to measure up to the standards of the Chief Rabbinate. In the process, he said, they have deterred many prospective converts. “The result is that fewer Orthodox conversions are being performed abroad,” he said.

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