Rabbinical Court  in session (file)
Rabbinical Court in session (file)

Four months after an inter-ministerial committee submitted its recommendations regarding the state-sanctioned conversion process, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called for those bodies involved in the matter to draw up an agreed-upon plan of action. The objective,

Approximately 1,300 (immigrants) decide to convert every year.

Olmert's Cabinet Secretary wrote in a letter to government officials, is “to improve, streamline and expand Israel's conversion system."

In his letter, sent on Monday, Cabinet Secretary Oved Yehezkel said that representatives of the relevant government ministries, of the Chief Rabbinate, of the IDF and of the Jewish Agency will be called upon in coming days to meet and agree on operative recommendations for the prime minister to review. Yehezkel's letter was sent to more than a dozen officials, including Absorption Ministry Director General Erez Halfon, who headed the conversion committee, Rabbi Haim Druckman, head of a conversion administration in the Prime Minister's Office, and Major General Elazar Stern, head of the IDF Manpower Division.

The Halfon Committee, established in March 2007, submitted its final report in August. Among the committee's recommendations were consolidating state-sanctioned conversions under a single Conversion Authority. The authority, which would be overseen initially by Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, would include conversion classes and rabbinical courts dedicated to conversion matters. In addition, the committee recommended increasing the number of rabbinical court judges involved, with 10 more posts and the option of adding volunteer positions, as well.

Aside from the structural issues, the Halfon Committee also addressed some of the rabbinical court requirements currently enforced on would-be converts. Rabbi Amar was asked to reconsider the demand that converts transfer their children to religious schools and that the convert's spouse adopt a religious lifestyle as well. Earlier this month, Jewish Agency Chairman Ze'ev Bielski sent a letter to Rabbi Amar asking him to forgo the requirement that Ethiopian children attend religious schools while their parents are converting to Judaism.

In August, a panel of three rabbinical judges was assigned to address the issues of religious law related to the process of conversion to Judaism in Israel. Chief Rabbi Amar decided to establish the panel in anticipation of the Halfon Committee recommendations. The rabbis are charged with organizing and clarifying the rules governing the procedure.

Approximately 300,000 people who immigrated to Israel in recent years, most of them from the former Soviet Union, are not Jewish. Approximately 1,300 decide to convert every year.

Several government officials have blamed the rabbinical courts for the fact that most non-Jewish immigrants choose not to convert, saying that if the courts were more lenient there would be many more converts. Sources in the Chief Rabbinate argue that their standards are based in Jewish law, and say that most non-Jewish immigrants are simply not interested in becoming Jewish.

Reform Movement Petitions Court Over Conversion

In a related development, the Reform Movement in Israel has filed a court petition against the Jerusalem Religious Council, saying the council discriminates against those who wish to convert according to Reform and Conservative standards. Would-be Reform converts

The lawsuit against the Jerusalem council would be the first in a series.

who identify themselves as such are turned away from public mikvaot (ritual baths), which are used in the final stage of the conversion process according to Jewish Law.

The Israel Religious Action Committee (IRAC), the Reform movement’s legal wing, filed a suit in 2006 with the High Court of Justice over the policy at the nation's mikvaot. The Supreme Court told the group to petition against individual religious councils. IRAC officials said the lawsuit against the Jerusalem council would be the first in a series of similar petitions.

Rabbi Menachem Blumenthal, the head of public mikvaot in Jerusalem, confirmed that the religious council only grants access to converts approved by the Chief Rabbinate. Mikvah employees do not check for identification at the buildings’ entrance, he said, and only those who identify themselves as planning a Reform or Conservative conversion are denied access.

IRAC lamented that the intense “involvement of the Chief Rabbinate and rabbinical courts in the conversion process.“