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Rotem: Don’t Hold Back Russian Conversions
Special To The Jewish Week
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In the 1990s, 1.5 million new immigrants from the former Soviet Union made aliyah. Some were Jews according to halacha and some were not. Most integrated into Israeli society, completed their army service and fought to protect their country, and some paid with their lives.

Today, there are more than 400,000 Israeli citizens from the former Soviet Union who are not halachically Jewish, a fact that renders them unable to marry in Israel. (In Israel, marriage is governed by the Chief Rabbinate, which follows halacha — Orthodox Jewish law — regarding marriage.) A large part of this population seeks to join the Jewish people by Orthodox conversion but is met with an inflexible, unfriendly system that often makes it impossible for these people to convert.   

I want conversion to be available in every town by rabbis of the candidates’ choice, rabbis who are connected to the candidates’ communities and who are rooting for their success. But conversion by a sympathetic city rabbi would be of no use unless one could marry on that basis. Therefore, it is also essential to break the rabbinate’s monopoly on marriage. 

My sole interest in my bill is to allow hundreds of thousands of Israelis the chance to convert with ease and move on with their lives. And my bill in no way changes the rights or status of conversions carried out outside of Israel. Nor does my bill change the criteria of the Law of Return in any way.

I have spent the last two years seeking the legal remedy for those trapped in conversion deadlock. The result was an encompassing compromise that granted all city rabbis in Israel the authority to form their own conversion courts, breaking a 60-year monopoly of the Chief Rabbinate. Moreover, it would no longer be possible to annul a conversion except in cases of extreme fraud, in which case only the rabbi who performed the conversion in the first place would have the authority of annulment.

Additionally, city rabbis would have the authority to marry those they have converted, and the state would recognize these marriages. 

My bill includes the granting of responsibility of matters of conversion to the Chief Rabbinate. However, this responsibility is not absolute. The Chief Rabbinate will not be able to annul the conversions or marriages performed by city rabbis. 

I was unprepared for the strong opposition of diaspora leaders, particularly those of the Reform and Conservative movements.  They expressed concern that my bill relegated them to second-class status in the eyes of the State of Israel. Was I turning my back on American Jewry at a time when Israel needed them as much as ever?

Every time I visit the U.S., I am moved by the unwavering commitment to Israel of Jewish leaders there. I would never want to jeopardize that. Therefore, I emphasize that my conversion bill does not in any way affect the status of the different streams of Judaism worldwide. My bill pertains only to conversions carried out in Israel and does nothing to endanger the recognition of non-Orthodox conversions performed outside of Israel.

After many, often heated, discussions, I realize that many opposed to the bill would like to see Reform and Conservative conversions performed in Israel granted the same recognition as Orthodox conversions. However, public support in Israel is not there yet. To date, there are only approximately 200 non-Orthodox conversions performed annually in Israel. Is it justifiable to hold out for a more pluralistic law that is nowhere in the offing, while 400,000 people have no hope for conversion?

This Shabbat we read Isaiah’s words of comfort to a nation that has just been exiled. God promises (Chapter 40:4), “And the crooked shall be made straight.” We all have a duty to try to straighten the problems around us. I believe with all my heart that my conversion bill is the best chance the Jewish people has today to straighten the crooked situation of some 400,000 Israelis. 


Last Update:

08/04/2010 - 19:19
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The Rabbinate has failed in the areas of marriage, conversion, burial, Agunot, Kashrut, and human rights. Now along comes a bill that will give then (exclusive?) authority over conversion in Israel (this has not been enshrined in law to date) and deny the Masorti and Reform. By and large those from the FSU, owing to the degrading process, are no longer interested in conversion. So this bill will not bring in significant numbers at all. That train has left the station. It will only give increased power to an already corrupt rabbinate. As for the provision to allow local rabbis (who may be more liberal and enlightened) to perform conversions - this too is an illusion. For they too will only be allowed to convert with the OK of the Chief Rabbi. If Rotem really wanted to open the doors he would allow most Zionist Orthodox rabbis, as well as non-Orthodox rabbis, to convert. Then, those who follow in the path of Beit Hillel would be involved. A look at Jewish law (see the excellent book by Zvi Zohar of the Hartman Institute) will reveal just how many authorities permit, and even demand, an open path to conversion for those who have adopted Jewish history as their own, and who have tied their fate to the Jewish people by serving in the army or serving the country of Israel. This was the approach of Rav Uziel, Israel’s first Sefardi Chief Rabbi and even of Rav Gorin in the seventies. Those from the FSU don’t want to deal with THE rabbinate. They live just fine today as Jews - without actually being Halachicly Jewish. Does any clear thinker believe that the Haredi parties would be supporting this bill if it eased conversion?
Jew is the One recognized as SUCH by ITS COUMINITY.. (for the last 2000 years)... Israeli is a Citizenship (which arabs, and druze,Xcristians living in Israel have).. Jew is the One Who WANTS and is ACCEPTED as Such to belong to a COMUNITY of Jews (Say Ortdx, Conserv, refoems etc etc,) who act as HILLEL DEFINED " The RESPECT to the other).. We Havnt HAS A POPE EVER!!! Jews are by its OWN will sustainers of Israel, or even Enemies (as the Iranian mishpaja!!!9 they are Complete JEWS, let them be as they widh... but to make Jews DEPENDABLE of an NOT exactly ELECTED RABI similar to An Ayatholah, aImam, or a POPE is ANTY JEWISS!!. Let Me REMIND you that DAVIDS GRANDMOTHER was a SHIKSE!! a moabite!! and if a little concience look after any Printed Torah the section of ONKELOS...a CONVERT!! not too say whats written on OUR Torah about A GUER!!! even the Rabi has to guive Honor to him.. We preffer one converted son, than a LOOOSERED doughter!!. or SON !! Am ISRARL is BUT ONE even with Apicoreshim... since they ARE recognized by THEIR OWN COMUNITIES!!
If this isn't about solidifying the stranglehold of the Orthodox on conversions, simply modify your bill so all conversions by all ordained rabbis, regardless of affiliation, are recognized. Problem solved.
To Mr. Rotem - Hundreds of people in my congregation, and at least 80 of my friends and acquaintances are repelled by your proposed law. You make the deviously misleading comment that the intention of your law is "breaking the 60-year monopoly of the Chief Rabbinate". We know the comment is a lie and it is reminiscent of what the Ayatollahs are saying in Iran when they arrest (or worse) protesters as "endangering the public safety or the 'integrity of Islam'.... You burry deep inside your law a provision about converts having specifically to (I don't remember the exact wording)"accept and carry the weight and obey the commandments of the Tora and Halacha"....). Scores of my friends converted in the last 40 years here in New York, and they have dozens of children and 70-80 grandchildren. Well, this makes them to be "living in sin" if they did not use that wording, and their children to be "bastards". We are all embarking on a campaign urging contributors to stop supporting financially any activity that has to do with orthodox religious institutions in Israel.

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