Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, President of the Conference of European Rabbis
Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, President of the Conference of European Rabbis Eli Itkin

The leaders of the Conference of European Rabbis have issued a sharply worded letter addressed to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana, criticizing Kahana’s proposed reforms to the official conversion system that were published last week.

The signatories are the President of the Council, Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, chairman of the conference Rabbi Menachem Gelley, and the rabbinic director, Rabbi Moshe Lebel.

“We, the central body that represents the various chief rabbinates and Jewish communities of Europe, are appealing to you on this issue that is currently on the agenda in Israel – that of altering the system of conversions,” they write.

“Our communities are deeply connected to Israel and we follow with deep interest everything that happens there,” they continue. “Although it is not our custom to intervene and present our own views on matters occurring within Israel, the issue at hand is one that directly impacts the future of the Jewish People, and therefore we feel a moral imperative to warn you of the immense danger that lies hidden in the proposed reforms.”

The rabbis note that, “We European rabbis are on the front lines dealing with the difficult problem of assimilation among our youth, and the rabbis of our communities are extremely concerned about its impact on the future existence of the Jewish people, a concern that gives them no rest, day or night. With regard to the question of converting minors, for instance, our rabbis have given a great deal of thought to the question over the past years, and after consulting with experts, they have concluded that any lessening of the conditions for converting minors will actually encourage assimilation among the younger population.

“Tens of thousands of young Israelis can be found at any one time in Europe,” they continue, “most of whom are studying in universities and plan to return to Israel when they complete their studies. Some of them drop in on our communities from time to time, usually on festivals, and we wish to make you aware of the fact that broadcasting a message that conversion is about to become easier will be understood by them as legitimization of breaking down barriers [between Jews and non-Jews], leading to the undeniable danger of greater assimilation among these young people.

“In our view, one of the most essential preconditions for conversion is that the prospective convert and his family should take an active part in Jewish community life and Jewish institutions, and should provide their children with a Jewish education. Therefore, the only conversion process that has a chance of succeeding is one that is conducted within the community [where the convert lives], by the local beit din [rabbinic court] which accompanies the convert throughout the process.

“The reforms now being proposed,” they warn, “are likely to encourage any European who is having difficulty in completing the conversion process within the community where they are living, to sidestep the issues they are having, travel to Israel, and return with a conversion certificate. In the past, many obstacles accumulated when rabbis from Israel failed to recognize the complexity of this issue … In recent years, this was largely resolved following discussion with the Chief Rabbinate, and a general acceptance of the necessity of all conversions in Israel being under the supervision of a single, strong and united official body.

“Given that any decision you reach will have far-reaching and deciding influence on our communities, as well as on the future lives of tens of thousands of Israelis currently in Europe, and could weaken our battle against assimilation, we are now warning you not to make any changes in this issue that could bring disaster upon our communities,” they stress.

“We beg of you that our voice be heard and heeded before you reach any decision on dramatic changes to be made on this issue,” they conclude, “as this is an issue that affects not only the social fabric in Israel but also the lives of Jews in the Diaspora.”

Meanwhile, a letter signed by many of Israel’s most prominent Religious-Zionist rabbis, also published on Sunday, stressed their opposition to any reform to the conversion system that would remove the Chief Rabbinate from its position of authority over the process.

The letter was signed by Rabbi Haim Druckman, Rabbi Yaakov Ariel, Rabbi Dov Lior, Rabbi Eytan Eizner, Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, and many others.

Kahana is reportedly under great pressure from his coalition partners from the secularist Yesh Atid and Yisrael Beytenu parties, to agree to a conversion reform that leaves the final decision in the hands of local rabbis, as was allegedly agreed upon in the coalition accords. Kahana has claimed that he has the support of Rabbi Druckman and other prominent rabbis from the Religious-Zionist sector for his proposed legislation, but the secular parties in the coalition have made it clear that Rabbi Druckman’s condition, that the Chief Rabbinate remain the final authority in conversions, is unacceptable to them.