Jewish, Jewish, Everywhere, & not a drop to drink
Saturday, October 20, 2007
Conversions news. Who is a Jew & Who is a Rabbi
Chief rabbi to demand stricter conversions during U.S. visit

By Anshel Pfeffer
Thu., October 18, 2007

Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar is visiting the U.S. this week in order to approve the appointment of religious court judges (dayanim) to the conversion courts of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA).

The agreement reached between the RCA and Amar gives the Israeli Chief Rabbinate practical control over the conversion process in U.S. It will also create new problems for those wishing to convert to Judaism there, similar to the kind that exists today in Israel.

For years, the religious councils in Israel accepted conversions performed by rabbis of the RCA, the largest body of Orthodox rabbis in North America. But in recent years, marriage registrars in local religious councils here have refused to recognize conversions by the RCA, and refused to allow those converted to marry in Israel. This new policy was dictated by Amar, who also provided the councils with a limited list of American rabbis who were the only ones authorized to conduct acceptable conversions.

Amar is actually considered to be more lenient in conversion matters in Israel, but he is under strong pressure from ultra-Orthodox rabbis who want to severly restrict the number of conversions, and who are demanding that all converts keep a strict Orthodox lifestyle.

The ultra-Orthodox rabbis object to the RCA in the U.S., which is identified more with the Modern Orthodox community, and have even set up a rival organization, Netzah Mishpahat Yisrael, to provide stricter conversions. The new group is trying to achieve full control of the conversion process in both the U.S. and Israel. As a result, Amar gave the RCA a list of demands in order for their conversions to be recognized in Israel.

Among other things, Amar demanded to end the common method of conversion in the U.S. whereby local rabbis were allowed to do conversions in their cities. Instead, Amar is demanding that only special conversion courts undertake conversions, and that he approve the members of these courts.

These demands were a source of controversy within the RCA, and a number of members even threatened to secede from the council and set up a separate organization. However, in the end they gave in and agreed to Amar's demands, since a lack of recognition of RCA conversions by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate would seriously harm the RCA's standing and cause potential converts to go elsewhere.

The new conversion courts will potentially force converts in the U.S. to travel long distances in order to be converted by an approved conversion court, which will demand that candidates keep a strict Orthodox way of life, without knowing them or their personal history.

"The rabbi went to meet the religious judges and check the courts," Amar's office said. "They were not promised anything, and they did not promise us anything. In the meantime, the Rabbinate is continuing to recognize conversions by the rabbis it recognized in the past."

Rabbi Basil Herring, the executive vice president of the RCA, said in response: "We are pleased to host Rabbi Amar on his visit to New York and Chicago. We are discussing a number of important matters with him, including the issue of conversion."


Zionist rabbis consider independent conversions

By Anshel Pfeffer
Thu., October 18, 2007

Forty-five rabbis from the national-religious movement have agreed to serve in proposed independent conversion courts that would operate without the recognition of the Chief Rabbinate. This challenge from within the Orthodox establishment to the Rabbinate's control of the process of converting to Judaism in Israel is a response to a long-standing perception that the rabbinical establishment is in thrall to the ultra-Orthodox tradition of making conversion difficult.

That position ignores the plight of the more than 300,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not Jewish according to halakha. If the recommendations of the interministerial committee on conversion to expedite the process are not implemented soon, the rabbis are expected to establish the proposed conversion courts. That would represent another stage in the undermining of religious-Zionist rabbis of the Rabbinate, following struggles over marriage, kashrut and shmita in the past several months.

The latest steps began about six months ago with a conference of the Joint Conversion Institute, which prepares most prospective converts in civilian and military frameworks. After the head of the institute, Prof. Benjamin Ish-Shalom, announced that the requirements of the religious courts kept many graduates from completing their conversion, 45 rabbis agreed to officiate in religious courts that would convert the graduates, even without recognition from the Rabbinate. Most of the rabbis, the majority of whom who prefer not to be identified, are associated with with Religious Kibbutz Movement and the Tzohar rabbis? organization.

The main obstacle to the initiative will be the Rabbinate?s refusal to recognize their conversions, which will prevent the converts from registering for marriage later on. Among the 45 is at least one municipal rabbi who has promised to enable converts in his jurisdiction to register at his city?s Religious Council.

The existence of non-Rabbinate Orthodox converts is likely to ignite a struggle on the part of the national-religious public, much of which has already severed its connections to the Rabbinate, and could end up in the High Court of Justice.

One of the rabbis involved in the new initiative is Rabbi Benjamin Lau of Jerusalem?s Ramban Synagogue. "I said that not only am I willing to take part in it, but also that I would house a rabbinical court in our synagogue," Lau said. He said that some members of his congregation served as rabbis and rabbinical judges in the United States and have experience with conversion.

"I think there will be no alternative, the Rabbinate is undergoing a process of dissolution. We saw it with the issues of marriage, kashrut and shmita, and conversion is the core of the matter. One of our roles as rabbis is to serve the public and I see this issue as fulfilling our function," Lau said.

Despite several cabinet rulings calling for the institution of an accelerated conversion process to expedite the integration into Israeli society of non-Jewish immigrants, only 2,000 people are converted each year on average. The Joint Conversion Institute was created about 10 years ago, in the wake of a government committee?srecommendations, as a combined Orthodox,Conservative and Reform institution for teaching prospective converts. Conversion itself remained in the hands of special conversion courts, whose judges were appointed by the Rabbinate, which also set the conditions for conversion. Most of the judges are under the influence of the Haredi Council of Torah Sages, which opposes large-scale conversion and requires converts, as well as their children and families, to adopt an observant lifestyle.

In many cases these demands delay conversion, even for candidates who have studied for years in preparation for conversion. The strict image of these courts has scared away many would-be converts. According to studies carried out by the army?s conversion program, Nativ, about 40 percent of non-Jewish immigrants expressed an interest before they immigrated in converting, while after a one year in Israel the number dropped by at least 20 percent.

Three and a half years ago, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered the creation of a state conversion program that would facilitate the process, but the new arrangement did not change the basic stance of the religious judges. In many communities, the local religious councils and the local rabbis refuse to recognize the conversion certificates presented by immigrants when they come to register for marriage.

Two months ago an interministerial committee headed by Absorption Ministry Director General Erez Halfon submitted a comprehensive report on the issue. It recommended, among other things, appointing to the conversion courts 40 volunteer judges who would not be beholden to the Haredi rabbis and would introduce a willingness to help the converts in their desire to join the Jewish people instead of finding reasons to prevent their conversion. It also called for giving Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar full authority over conversion issues. Amar opposes the idea of the volunteer judges, on the grounds that they will not be rabbis vetted by him and operating in accordance with his directives. Justice Ministry officials, meanwhile, argue that volunteers cannot hold official judicial positions.

Olmert has not yet approved the committee?s recommendations. The heads of the Joint Conversion Institute believe the volunteer initiative will not be implemented. Ish-Shalom refused to comment on the issue, but sources in his institute said that if the problem is not solved during a meeting scheduled for next Tuesday in the Prime Minister's Office, the plan for independent conversion courts will go ahead.


Peres reaches out to leader of British Reform Jews

By Daphna Berman
Sun., October 21, 2007

President Shimon Peres called yesterday for a more inclusive definition of Judaism and said the Jewish people have the right to decide who is a rabbi. He made the comments in his first official meeting with representatives of the Reform movement since he assumed the post in July. The meeting yesterday with leaders of Britain's Reform movement came in the wake of last year's crisis after then president Moshe Katsav refused to use the title "rabbi" in addressing Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, which represents some 1.5 million Reform Jews in North America.

During the half-hour meeting at the President's Residence, Peres addressed delegation leader Rabbi Dr. Tony Bayfield as "rabbi," according to participants. Bayfield heads the Movement for Reform Judaism in the United Kingdom.

"If rabbis have a right to decide who is a Jew, the Jewish people have a right to decide who is a rabbi," Peres reportedly told the group. The president also said that he was "troubled" by attempts to narrowly define Jewishess. "We are a disappearing people," he said. "We are not the Chinese. There are only 14-15 million of us. We need to be more careful, generous and understanding."
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