Analysis: Conversion does need to be changed. But not like this.

By Rabbi Seth Farber, March 11, 2010

Despite its problems, this new conversion bill is a first step in transforming the conversion process in Israel. More than 300,000 non-Jewish immigrants from the Former Soviet Union live in Israel. In the past year, less than 2,000 conversions were completed for them.

Unfortunately, because conversion in Israel is overly politicised, even the smallest nuances take on disproportionate significance. And while the strictly Orthodox protest and the Reform contest, potential converts wait for deliverance.

The bill originally set out to expand the number of rabbis who are able to engage in conversion in Israel. Rather than relying on specially appointed conversion courts, the bill seeks to empower rabbis of cities (appointed by the Chief Rabbinate) to effect conversions. Ultimately, this will probably have little effect on the number of converts, but would be a symbolic victory as it will decentralise conversion.

On Sunday, the strictly Orthodox United Torah Judaism party threatened to leave the government if the bill was ratified. They are afraid that decentralising conversion will create halachic abuses and, down the road, allow for non-Orthodox conversion to be recognised. Such claims are specious at best, given that city rabbis generally stem from the strictly Orthodox community.

But the secondary clauses in the bill are of genuine concern. One clause takes away the right to citizenship from anyone who converts in Israel and was ineligible prior to their conversion. Such a statute would differentiate between classes of Jews. Those born Jewish or converted overseas would be eligible for aliyah, while converts in Israel would be denied.

Additionally, the bill - while seeking to prevent conversion annulments - actually legitimises the behaviour of marriage registrars who refuse to recognise state conversions, by allowing them to refer converts who come before them to get married back to the rabbinical courts. This is completely unacceptable in a democratic society.

There is a genuine need to upgrade the conversion process in Israel. Conversion needs to be transparent, accessible and meaningful. There needs to be clarity and coherence. And, ultimately, there needs to be an embracing environment which welcomes converts who seek to tie their fate to that of our people.

Rabbi Seth Farber is the director of ITIM: The Jewish Life Information Centre

Last updated: 3:37pm, March 11 2010