During Tuesday’s meeting of the Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs, officials involved in the conversion process disagreed on the number of people who complete the process each year.
The head of the Conversion Authority, Rabbi Yitzhak Peretz, claimed that 80% of those who begin the conversion program complete it. “The [Conversion Authority] is not responsible for recognizing [the conversion of] olim. That is the state’s responsibility,” he said, adding, “Everything that is said about the conversion system is part of a smear campaign.”
The State Conversion Authority came under heavy fire from the state comptroller in 2013 for not fulfilling targets to convert Israelis of Jewish descent who are not Jewish under Jewish law.
Any individual, regardless of former religion, race, color or sex, is eligible to apply for conversion. A prerequisite for conversion, however, is possession of Israeli citizenship. Foreign citizens whose immigration to Israel has been approved are also entitled to go through the conversion process in Israel—after presenting an approval certificate of Aliyah from the Jewish Agency.
The conversion process consists of the five following steps:
1. Presenting documents and enrolling in the conversion process 2. Judaism studies in a conversion course 3. Applying to a conversion court 4. A ceremony in the Rabbinical court which includes an immersion in a Mikvah (women and men) and performing a Brit Mila (men). 5. Getting a conversion certificate and updating the religion status in the Ministry of Interior.
Prof. Benjamin Ish-Shalom, the head of the Joint Conversion Institute, a network of multi-denominational study centers for those seeking to convert to Judaism, argued that the state’s conversion system does not have the ability to deal with all new immigrants who wish to convert. “Only about 40% complete the conversion process,” he said.
According to Rabbi Binyamin Holtzman of Kibbutz Ma’ale Gilboa, who serves as a judge in a “Giyur Kahalacha” private conversion court, the problem does not lie with the Chief Rabbinate, but with a number of people who control the conversion arena on the ground.
Committee Chairman MK Avraham Neguise (Likud) noted the importance of integrating new immigrants in Israeli society. “Conversion is critical, and conversion that is recognized by the state is necessary,” he said, while noting that of the 350,000 non-Jews who have immigrated to Israel, only 3,600 convert each year. He called on the heads of the state conversion system to discuss the matter with the “Giyur Kahalakha” (conversion according to Jewish law) movement in order to find a solution for those who converted through “Giyur Kahalakha.”
MK Yoel Razvozov (Yesh Atid) noted that some two years ago the government decided to allow conversions in private courts, but the decision has not been implemented. “The Chief Rabbinate has a monopoly on Judaism, and the result is that new immigrants are abandoning the [conversion] process,” he stated, while MK Yael Cohen Paran (Zionist Camp) said “there is Orthodox coercion against those who are living in Zion, and there needs to be recognition of other movements in Judaism in order to convert olim.”
Ely Cohen, a member of the board of directors of ITIM, an organization that “helps people navigate the religious authorities’ bureaucracy in Israel,” provides information and offers free advocacy services “in order to simplify the process and find solutions to complex problems,” said that over the past six months his organization has converted 150 people, mostly women and children. He reported that ITIM has received some 600 additional conversion requests in the past two months alone.
The Chotam Forum, which aims to strengthen Jewish identity in the country, says the operation of private conversion courts by rabbis who hold official positions in the state is forbidden and goes against basic ethical guidelines.