Photo: Brian Hendler
Rabbi Seth Farber,at his office in the Jewish Life Information Center in Jerusalem, helps potential converts navigate the rabbinate bureaucracy.

By Dina Kraft

JERUSALEM (JTA) -- Stacks of booklets on Jewish life-cycle rituals are piled high in the back closet at the Jewish Life Information Center’s Jerusalem offices. One, a 49-page handbook, describes the process of conversion in Israel in three languages: Hebrew, English and Russian.

The booklet, produced by the center and since adopted by the government as its official handbook on conversion, is intended to remove some of the fog surrounding the subject of conversion in Israel.

"We get hundreds of calls a month from people, including immigrants stuck in the system," said Seth Farber, an Orthodox rabbi and immigrant from New York who founded the center, known as ITIM. "The conversion process has been transformed from a personal experience to a very disempowering one."

Largely as a consequence of frustration with the sluggish pace of converting immigrants -- Israel has some 300,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not Jewish according to halachah, or Jewish law -- the government is planning a new state conversion agency.

This will be the government’s fourth such attempt in the last decade to improve a process long criticized for being overly rigid.

Advocates of the new authority say it will be a more user-friendly agency, with staff to help shepherd prospective converts through a yearlong course of study and rabbis to help speed up the process at conversion courts.

Others, however, question whether the authority will eliminate what many see as the major stumbling block to conversion: seemingly harsh and arbitrary decisions made by the rabbis who oversee the process and demand that converts follow a high level of religious observance.

Orit Lev, a client of ITIM who adopted a baby girl from Guatemala, said she was rebuffed by the rabbinical conversion courts for not leading a religious enough lifestyle. Lev has little hope the new agency will help her situation.

"I come from a traditional home. We are Yemenite and celebrate the holidays and lead a very traditional Jewish life, but that is not enough for them," she said of the rabbinical court judges who turned down her conversion request. "So I am skeptical. It's hard to imagine that with such an Orthodox rabbinate still in place they will be anything but inflexible."

Jewish conversions traditionally have been conducted by the same rabbis who tutored the intended convert. In Israel, rabbis who are state employees have assumed that role.

"Here it is very bureaucratic, and the challenge is to make it more seamless," said Farber, whose organization has become a watchdog on conversion issues but whose broader mission is to provide support and information on Jewish life.

ITIM runs a 24-hour hotline for those who need assistance on anything related to the Jewish life cycle.

In its effort to help clients seeking conversions, ITIM has been lobbying the Chief Rabbinate to recognize overseas conversions for the purposes of marriage, has petitioned Israel’s Supreme Court on recognizing overseas conversions for the purpose of aliyah and is working to help non-Israelis be allowed to begin the conversion process.

Under the new conversion agency, Rabbi Shlomo Amar, the chief Sephardic rabbi of Israel, will oversee the entire constellation of conversion in Israel, including the hiring of 10 rabbinical court judges. Amar is considered more progressive on conversion issues than his Ashkenazi counterparts.

But critics say they are concerned that as long as the process is under Amar's jurisdiction, candidates will endure the same bureaucratic complications they do today: confusion about the basic steps in the conversion process, the irrelevant personal questions in interviews and delays in receiving conversion certificates that are approved.

An aide to Amar told JTA the rabbi plans to streamline the conversion-related bureaucracy and took issue with the charge that rabbinical judges are overly stringent in their demands of potential converts. He said he was aware of some problematic judges but that the majority did impeccable work.

The aide, who asked that his name not be used, said Amar was working to make the overall process more welcoming.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said the new authority will help those who wanted to integrate into Israel.

"Jews from all corners of the globe continue to arrive in Israel. We must not pile up more difficulties than they have already encountered on their way here," Olmert said recently. "Over the years, many unnecessary impediments were added to the conversion process."

The decision to establish the new agency was based on the recommendations of a committee headed by Erez Halfon, the director general of the Absorption Ministry.

A senior official in the Absorption Ministry told JTA the authority would only be a success if all its recommendations were implemented. He said he was concerned that the recommendation for the appointment of so-called "friendly rabbis” who might make the process more welcoming and accepting had not yet been approved.

"If everything we recommended will be accepted, it will be nothing short of a revolution, but if they are not implemented the situation will be worse in the future than it is today," said the official, who insisted on anonymity.

Some say things have deteriorated in recent years as a Chief Rabbinate dominated by the fervently Orthodox has waged a power struggle with Modern Orthodox Jews, including those in the Diaspora. More than a year ago the rabbinate declared it would no longer accept all conversions conducted by Orthodox rabbis abroad but rather only those from a list of approved rabbis would be accepted.

"Power is being concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, and only into the hands of those who agree to adopt stringent and restrictive positions,” Rabbi Marc Angel, past president of the Rabbinical Council of America, the main Orthodox rabbinic association in the United States, wrote in the Forward newspaper last fall.

“The result is that many non-Jews who considered halachic conversion will turn to non-halachic means of conversion or will give up on conversion altogether," Angel wrote. "This is a tragedy -- and an unnecessary one at that, since there is no halachic reason why the Chief Rabbinate's view should carry the day. The Talmud and classic codes of Jewish law actually grant considerable leeway in the halachic acceptance of converts.”

The RCA, however, agreed to create regional rabbinic courts and new conversion protocols.

Meanwhile, at the ITIM office in Jerusalem, the phone and fax line continues to ring.

One call is from a refugee from the Ivory Coast wants to know about the possibility of conversion. Another is from a woman who was a child when her mother converted and wants to know whether she will be allowed to marry as a Jew.

"We are always emphasizing that we want people to make decisions based on knowledge, not based on what some rabbi or clerk says,” Farber said. “Here we are applying that to Judaism.”

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