Proposal to overhaul conversion in Israel would remove control from Chief Rabbinate

JERUSALEM (JTA) — A proposal to overhaul the conversion system in Israel would remove its control from the haredi Orthodox-dominated Chief Rabbinate.

The chief rabbis of Israel and dozens of haredi and religious Zionist rabbis are objecting to the plan, which recommends the establishment of a new state-run Orthodox authority.

The final report and recommendations written by former government minister Moshe Nissim was submitted Sunday to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Under the recommendations, conversions in Israel must still be conducted under Orthodox Jewish law. The proposal also calls for recognition in Israel of conversions by the Conservative and Reform movements carried out in the Diaspora.

Nissim said at a news conference that the proposal must be implemented to prevent a “spiritual Holocaust.”

“There are some 400,000 people without a religion in Israel today,” he said, including immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not recognized by the Chief Rabbinate as Jewish. “Every year, fewer than 2,000 people convert [to Judaism in Israel], while some 10,000 people without a religion are added. Today, there is 10 percent assimilation in Israel – and if we do not act now, this figure will only increase. There is no other possibility but to describe it as no less than a spiritual holocaust.”

Upon receiving a copy of the report, Netanyahu said: “We are continuing our constant efforts to find solutions that strengthen unity among the Jewish People in Israel and the Diaspora.”

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, who heads the Sephardi Orthodox Shas party, said he opposes the proposal and will not advance it as legislation in the Knesset. The interior minister is the lawmaker charged with submitting legislation for conversion.

Israel’s chief rabbis, David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef, convened an emergency meeting of haredi Orthodox and religious Zionist rabbis, calling on them to reject the proposal and saying it “must be buried.”

The rabbis signed a statement calling the plan “a danger to the unity of the Jewish people.”

“We, the rabbis of Israel, regard with concern the danger to the unity of the Jewish people as a result of the proposals for reform in conversion which include the appropriation of conversion from the Chief Rabbinate and the recognition of Reform and Conservative conversion,” the statement said.

Non-Orthodox Jewish movements in Israel also reportedly rejected the proposal because their conversions still would not be recognized.

Under the proposal, a state body would oversee five conversion centers across the country run by Orthodox officials who would conduct conversions based on Orthodox Jewish law.