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5 Shevat 5760 - January 12, 2000 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Future of Joint Conversion Institutes in Doubt

by B. Kahn and Yated Ne'eman Staff

The joint conversion institutes proposed by the Neeman Commission as a solution to the issue of registering non- Orthodox converts as Jews, appear to be under attack on two fronts: from the religious parties, which would prefer to see them disappear, and from the Finance Ministry, which would cause them to disappear by withholding the budget needed for their development.

Professor Binyamin Ish-Shalom, the chairman of the institutes' board which also has Conservative and Reform representatives, found himself facing the first challenge at the meeting of the Knesset Immigration, Absorption, and Diaspora Committee, when he warned that withholding the budget could have disastrous repercussions for the Jewish people. Ish-Shalom said that he is still hoping that the Treasury will approve the proposed budget of some NIS 37.5 million (over $9 million).

The attack from the religious parties came during a meeting of the Ministerial Committee on Conversion chaired by Minister Michael Melchior, when Religious Affairs Minister Yitzhak Cohen threatened to break up the coalition over the issue of removing the responsibility for conversion from his ministry. Cohen apparently told those present that Shas did not want the institutes and that if the Treasury wanted to give out money, it should give it to the Religious Affairs Ministry.

The NRP's leader, Construction and Housing Minister Yitzhak Levy, also said the institutes must be overseen by the Religious Affairs Ministry.

Although the Conservative and Reform movements have sent representatives to the institutes' board, the movements have rejected the institutes as solutions to the problem of registering their "converts" as Jews because the chief rabbis have not said that they would convert all graduates.

At the moment there are fewer than 200 students -- all of them Russian-speaking -- in the institutes, which have classes in Haifa, Beersheva, and Upper Nazareth.

Although the first class, which started with 35 students, was to have ended in March, it is now expected that they will complete their studies only in May or June.

The office of Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau has officially announced its opposition to inclusion of the Reform and Conservative movements in conversion procedures in Israel as proposed by the Ne'eman Committee.

"In contradiction to reports which alleged that the Chief Rabbis support conversion ulpans that include the Reform and Conservative movements, we hereby state that the Chief Rabbinate Council issued a statement after the release of the Ne'eman Committee report, saying that `the Rabbinate is required to deal only with the issue of conversion itself. Even though its unequivocal opinion is that one may not collaborate with those who deny Torah min haShomayim, the Council only discusses the issue of conversion.'"

The Office of the Chief Rabbi cited remarks made by Rabbi Lau last week at the meeting of the Ministerial Committee for Conversion. He totally negated conversion institutes that include Reform or Conservative movement representatives "when some of these movements even purport that one whose father is Jewish but not the mother doesn't have to undergo conversion, and is a bona fide Jew. Since this is obviously against halacha, how is it possible to collaborate with them?"

Chief Rabbi Lau said at the meeting that conversion is a personal act which can be performed only in a rabbincal court authorized by the Chief Rabbinate. In a reference to the conversion institutes he explained, "We won't check out the names of the ulpans in which conversion candidates studied. But we won't conduct an automatic laundromat, in which a non- Jew enters, and leaves the front door with a tag on his forehead saying that he's a Jew."

He added that for humanitarian reasons, we want people to know that there are intermarried couples and personal tragedies. "We will extend our help to whoever needs it."

The Rabbinate statement came in light of persistent media reports, that said the Chief Rabbis approved the "mass conversion" plans proposed by Minister Michael Melchior including a system of over 100 ulpans, all run in collaboration with the Conservative and Reform movements. These reports are traceable to Minister Melchior who purported to express the opinion of the Chief Rabbinate that it supports his plans.

The Vaad Harabbonim Haolami leInyonei Giyur headed by Harav Chaim Kreiswirth of Antwerp, demanded that the Chief Rabbinate issue a clear statement on this matter. The Vaad accused the Chief Rabbinate of acting like politicians, issuing vague statements which left room for misinterpretation by the interested parties.

Subsequently, at the request of Yated Ne'eman, the Chief Rabbinate indeed issued a clarification stating unequivocally that it rejects the Ne'eman solution.

The Vaad expressed the hope that that the position of the Chief Rabbinate regarding conversion itself will also be made clear, that it is impossible to convert a candidate who does not seriously intend to observe Torah and mitzvos and therefore a mass conversion plan is not feasible.

A beis din may convert a candidate only after it is thoroughly convinced of the sincerity of his intention, and certainly a condition that his intention is sincere is that he lives in conditions which make it possible to observe the mitzvos. In the past, candidates have claimed to want to observe mitzvos even though it was quite evident that they never had any sincere intention of keeping their promises.

The Vaad has letters from both of the Chief Rabbis, in which they state that a prospective convert may only be converted if his intentions to accept the yoke of the mitzvos are sincere and feasible, and that massive conversions can in no way be authentic.

In the wake of various administrative changes, the Conversion Administration is currently being transferred to the Rabbinical Court Adminstration. In the meantime, all activity in special conversions courts is at a standstill. It is hoped that with the renewal of the conversion court system under the Rabbinical Court Administration a drastic change will take place and that the courts will use a test of the sincerity of the candidates in keeping Torah and mitzvos, and not just the knowledge-based system that was used in the past.

Last week, Minister Melchior met with a delegation of rabbonim from the Vaad who told him, in the most unequivocal manner, of maranan verabonon's opposition to his plans to conduct massive conversions.

On the other hand, though, the members of the Vaad supported the plan to delete the nationality clause from identity cards and to limit -- or even cancel -- the Law of Return. Chief Rabbi Bakshi Doron also supports Melchior's proposal to change the Law of Return. He says that new immigrants come to Israel for "non-Jewish considerations," such as receiving an absorption basket.

The rabbonim of the Vaad told Melchior that conversion is not a solution for the problem of the massive immigration of non- Jews from the CIS, and that other solutions should be found.

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