Summer 2003

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MERCAZ USA Newsletter — Summer 2003

MERCAZ PM, JAFI Blast Conversions Bottleneck While Masorti Insitute Grows

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, declaring "it should be possible for anyone who wants to become a Jew to do so, " and Jewish Agency Chairman Sallai Meridor have called for the creation of alternatives to the Chief Rabbinate's conversion courts to begin addressing aggressively the situation of the more than 250,000 new immigrants to Israel who are not halachically Jewish.

At the same time, the Masorti Movement's independent Conversion Institute has seen a significant rise in the number of new students preparing for conversion. This increase has taken place since the ruling of the Israeli Supreme Court last year ordering the registration of all non-Orthodox conversions performed in Israel. The ruling finally resolved the status of a number of conversions performed by the Masorti and Reform Movements, including the adopted children who underwent ceremonies at Kibbutz Hannaton's mikveh in 1995.

Blasting the Orthodox rabbinical courts' foot-dragging practices, the Jewish Agency's Board of Governors, with its MERCAZ representatives, passed a resolution at its February quarterly meetings "call[ing] upon the State of Israel to deal immediately with the difficulties" which include the phenomenon of more than 1500 recent graduates of the government-supported Joint Institute for Jewish Studies whose conversions have been held up for months.

The Joint Institute, created in the wake of the 1997 "Neeman" Commission, which was headed by former Finance Minister Dr. Yaacov Neeman with the participation of Masorti Movement representatives Rabbis Reuven Hammer, David Golinkin and Ehud Bandel, sought to arrive at a formula for conversions that would be acceptable to all the religious streams. The proposed model called for a two-stage process. During the first stage, students would study a curriculum planned and taught by teachers representing the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Movements. Afterwards, graduates would appear before regular Orthodox-only rabbinical courts that would authorize the conversions without investigating too deeply into the details of the candidate's religious practice.

Yet, in contrast to the plan, the Chief Rabbinate's courts have taken to subjecting the Institute's graduates to detailed investigations regarding the environment in which the candidate lives. Conversions have been denied for such incidental issues as the potential convert's refusal to transfer his children to an ultra-Orthodox school or, as in the case of children living in Orthodox boarding schools, the parents' lack of Shabbat observance.

As a result, both the Jewish Agency and Israeli Army are looking into conversion alternatives. The Jewish Agency has proposed creating a special conversion camp, dubbed "Mt. Sinai", which would be opened in Budapest where non-Jewish new immigrants on their way to Israel would spend four weeks in intensive Jewish study culminating in a conversion ceremony performed by specially chosen Orthodox rabbis flown in from Israel for the purpose. At the same time, the Israeli Defense Forces are set to begin the systematic conversion of non-Jewish immigrant soldiers under the auspices of the IDF's own military rabbinate, rather than to continue to refer soldiers to the Joint Institutes for Jewish Studies and the regular Chief Rabbinate conversion courts.

The student body at the Masorti Conversion Institute, which is headed by Rabbi Yehiel Greinimann, comprises a diverse group of individuals. About one-third are youth, including infants and children adopted abroad by Israeli citizens. Another significant number are non-Jewish new immigrants who are dependents of halachically Jewish olim, particularly from Argentina where Masorti Judaism is the largest religious movement. A third group includes foreigners, such as diplomats, journalists and academics, who come to work in Israel and fall in love with the country and Judaism.

Questions, however, about the registration of non-Orthodox converts by the Ministry of the Interior continue, even after the Supreme Court's ruling. Unlike the conversions performed by the Orthodox rabbinical court, which acquire immediately Israeli governmental approval and registration, additional hurdles have been placed before non-Orthodox conversions. Before the recent Knesset elections, when the Interior Ministry was in the hands of the ultra-Orthodox SHAS Party, conversions performed by the Masorti Institute were deemed "private" events, and thus such a convert was required to petition the civil court in order to obtain an additional formal declaration regarding the change of status. While, as a result of the new governing coalition, the Ministry has now moved into the hands of the secular Shinui Party, which campaigned on a platform demanding equality among all the religious streams, it is still not clear if any of the obstacles before non-Orthodox conversions will be removed.

"While we applaud the change in leadership at the top of the Interior Ministry", added Rabbi Vernon Kurtz, "we must continue to watch the situation carefully. As we have seen in other issues, in most cases, it is the bureaucracy, not the politicians, that sets the tone governing operations. For too long, this ministry has been in the hands of those most opposed to accepting non-Orthodox conversions and until those civil servants hired by previous ministers are retrained or replaced, there will likely be obstacles in the path of our converts."

"Clearly, for Israel's sake, we must support all proactive efforts to bring as many non-Jewish olim as possible to Judaism. Otherwise, Israel's Jewish population runs the risk of becoming over time a minority in its own country."


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