Winter 2003-2004

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MERCAZ USA Newsletter — Winter 2003-2004

Shinui MK's Bring "Change" to Secular-Religious Debate

The Shinui Party is taking seriously its election platform to bring "change" to the current "Church-State" status quo in Israel and has announced several key decisions in the ministries it controls in Prime Minister Sharon's coalition government which promise to create a new framework for Israel as a Jewish state.

Among the proposals recently announced by Justice Minister Yosef (Tommy) Lapid and Interior Minister Avraham Poraz are that jurisdiction for the Chief Rabbinate's rabbinical courts would now be transferred from the soon-to-be-abolished Ministry of Religious Affairs to the Justice Ministry and that all conversions performed in Israel would now be treated equally by the Population Registry.

Minimally, the elimination of the Religious Affairs Ministry means that the responsibility to provide religious services would move from local religious councils, which were private fiefdoms of the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox religious parties, to local municipalities. Additionally, the transfer of the rabbinical courts means that this parallel judicial system would now function under the same administrative norms and requirements as the regular courts.

At the same time, the insistence on equal treatment for all the Jewish religious streams means that for the first time in Israel's history, all conversions to Judaism performed in Israel would be registered in the same way. In addition, although personally against awarding immediate citizenship to converts, Poraz now contends that as long as the Law of Return applies retroactively to Orthodox converts, he would demand that non-citizens who decide to convert to Judaism under the auspices of the Conservative or Reform Movements would similarly qualify for immediate Israeli citizenship upon completion of their conversion course.

Leaders of the Israeli Masorti Movement have praised the initiatives of the Shinui ministers. Rabbi Ehud Bandel, President of the Masorti Movement, labeled the Sephardic Chief Rabbi's protests against the transfer of the rabbinical courts as "prov[ing] that it is not halakha (Jewish law) that guides the Chief Rabbinate, but the desire to maintain its monopoly on power and authority." Bandel has also applauded the new policies announced by the Interior Minister as showing "that the way to equality between the [Jewish religious] streams is by recognition of all conversions, and the right of all converts to be granted Israeli citizenship."

As Rabbi Vernon Kurtz, MERCAZ USA President, has added, "the whole system of local religious councils made it impossible for Conservative and Reform communities in Israel to receive their fair share of resources to fund their congregations. Now that the local municipalities will be in charge, our fellow Masorti Jews stand a far better chance to get the support they deserve."

On a side note, the frustration in the Israeli government and Jewish Agency over the backlog in the Chief Rabbinate's official conversion courts has now led Prime Minister Sharon to demand that Rabbi Haim Druckman, from the National Religious Party, replace the SHAS Party's Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan as Director of the Special Rabbinical Conversion Courts.

To date, while more than 3,000 students have completed the studies at the government-sponsored Joint Institute for Jewish Studies, only a few hundred have been actually accepted by the rabbinical courts for conversion. The rest have been turned away or postponed indefinitely because of suspected "non-Orthodox" connections. For this reason, there has been an upsurge of conversion candidates at the Masorti Movement's Bet Din, even though a Masorti conversion still deprives the candidate of the Chief Rabbinate's religious services for marriage, divorce and burial.


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