It is one of Israel’s paradoxes that, while the country accepts any conversion made abroad for purposes of aliyah, not even many Orthodox conversions made abroad are sufficient to render a future Israeli Jewish for personal status purposes. That’s because only Orthodox conversions made in the country under the auspices of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate — or conducted abroad by Orthodox rabbis on an “approved” list — are considered kosher.
For quite some time, this fact, worsened by increasingly strict conversion requirements, has been a thorn in the side of non-Haredi Israelis and large portions of the American Jewish community. Now, we can add the Jewish Agency for Israel — the quasi-governmental body responsible for, among other things, recommending people for aliyah according to Israel’s Law of Return — to the list of those who have had enough. Its board of governors has recommended the creation of traveling conversion courts, panels of rabbis to perform conversions in the Diaspora, where other options don’t exist.
The proposal was hailed by many Jewish organizational leaders, both for its attempt to preserve Jewish unity and for its pushback against the rabbinate, whose restrictions are becoming so onerous that an increasing number of rabbis — including many who are Orthodox — have expressed significant concern over the delegitimization of religious conversions in the Diaspora. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, praised the Jewish Agency for ensuring that Jews “are no longer held hostage by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate on matters of Jewish status.”
But Rabbi Avi Shafran of the Haredi Orthodox Agudath Israel of America, told The Jerusalem Post that the plan “will lead to precisely the opposite of Jewish unity.” Israeli Reform Rabbi Uri Regev, meanwhile, said that an easier fix would be for Israel to recognize non-Orthodox conversions performed in the country.
Details on how the Jewish Agency plans to create, organize and administer its planned conversion courts are slim, and one wonders if the vote was taken for purely symbolic purposes. Even so, the move by the Jewish Agency’s directors should be applauded as yet another step in the effort to limit the worldwide religious power grab on the part of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate.
As we have pointed out numerous times in this space, Israel should be a nation of laws, not religious dictates. We join with those who assert that religious pluralism is not merely an issue for Diaspora Jews. Israeli Jews also have a right to religious pluralism. We hope the conversion court idea gains traction and will provide strength to the growing movement within Israel to chip away at the dominating political force that the rabbinate has become.