Inside story'I am of the mindset that this may not work out'

A single absentee mohel is thwarting dozens of converts at very end of their journey

The government’s Conversion Authority has a long backlog of men waiting for months for a 10-second circumcision inspection to be considered Jewish

Canaan Lidor

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Illustrative: A man examines his pants with a magnifying glass (Juleta Martirosyan; iStock by Getty Images)
Illustrative: A man examines his pants with a magnifying glass (Juleta Martirosyan; iStock by Getty Images)

It takes years of studying, considerable devotion and a radical lifestyle change for someone born outside Judaism to pass a conversion test, conducted by three Orthodox rabbinical judges certified by the Chief Rabbinate to vet such processes.

So when one such young man recently passed the test, he believed that he had cleared the last hurdle on the way to realizing his dream of immigrating to Israel under its Law of Return for Jews and their relatives.

But that success proved to be only the beginning of a new and more frustrating battle for the convert, who spoke to the Times of Israel anonymously so as not to compromise his pending conversion process. His conversion and naturalization have been held up for months because of a final formality that he and others in his situation have been unable to complete since last year: a 10-second circumcision inspection by a mohel, a person whose job it is to perform this procedure.

The delay is reportedly due to the absence of a single employee of Israel’s Conversion Authority, which is allegedly preventing dozens of people from moving forward with the conversion and onward to other major life milestones, including getting married. Critics say the holdup by the Authority is part of a broader indifference and incompetence in the state’s handling of conversion to Judaism and fresh evidence of the need for an overhaul.

The Conversion Authority, which was established in 2000 to streamline and centralize state-recognized conversions, “has over and over again demonstrated  how it places unnecessary bureaucratic obstacles before people who are genuinely interested in converting, instead of welcoming them and making their process seamless,” said Seth Farber, an Orthodox rabbi who heads the nonprofit organization ITIM, which helps Jews navigate religious institutions.

According to Farber’s sources, the only mohel servicing the Conversion Authority had stopped performing his duties for unknown reasons.

Queried by The Times of Israel, a spokesperson from the Prime Minister’s Office, which is responsible for the Conversion Authority, acknowledged that brit milah services had been put on hold but insisted they will resume soon. The spokesperson declined to respond to the claim that a single employee had stopped the work, or to questions on why other mohels could not be called upon to ease the bottleneck.

The spokesperson’s statement, which follows multiple letters by ITIM urging the Conversion Authority to act, read: “Recently, for a combination of reasons that are not necessarily under the Conversion Authority’s control, it was not possible to carry out inspections and Jewish circumcisions on men undergoing conversion. We are pleased to report that an adequate solution has been found and we hope the backlog will be addressed in the coming weeks.”

The Conversion Authority “is making the utmost effort to make sure applicants are converted with dignity, support and maximum guidance,” the spokesperson added.

Illustrative: Conversion Authority staff, government officials and Israel Defense Forces representatives meet to discuss conversions in the army in Tel Aviv, December 22, 2021. (Courtesy of the Conversion Authority)

The convert who spoke with The Times of Israel described a different experience.

“I was never told where I stand by the Conversion Authority. It felt like I was being given the runaround without clarity,” he said.

For the convert, who is in Israel on a tourist visa that he needs to renew by leaving the country every three months, that has meant starting a life in Israel without knowing whether he would be able to stay.

Dozens of others, many of them Israeli citizens who grew up here after immigrating from the former Soviet Union, are waiting for the inspection so that they can marry their Jewish wives in a religious marriage ceremony – the only service available in Israel, which does not recognize civil marriages performed in its territory.

The convert added that months of wondering when the inspection would take place have eclipsed his initial qualms about why it was needed at all.

”On one hand, I totally understand that they need proof,” said the convert. “But on the other, reputable rabbis and a well-known mohel already oversaw my milah and attested that it’s kosher. So why do I need to be inspected? It seems disrespectful, not so much to me, but to the authority of the rabbis who vouched for it,” he said.

Farber also sees the need for an inspection, at least in some cases. “It’s a sensitive and perhaps uncomfortable situation. But I have personally been involved in cases where, two days before the wedding, it turned out the groom wasn’t circumcised at all,” he said.

“In some situations, it’s absolutely justified, necessary even. But in others, it’s not. That’s where sensitivity and individual attention to cases, missing with the Conversion Authority, need to come into the equation.”

Rabbi Seth Farber, head of ITIM (Courtesy)

The convert said he remains hopeful that his conversion and naturalization will be finalized this year. He sees his long-term future in Israel. He has found an Orthodox Jewish community that accepts him, where he has friends and a tight-knit social circle. He has another such circle in a sports club he’s joined.

This sense of community is precious and essential for the convert, who decided to become Jewish while living abroad in an English-speaking country after increasingly immersing himself in the spiritual lives of his Jewish friends.

But the uncertainty has taken its toll, and the convert is preparing for the possibility that his efforts and dreams could eventually be foiled by bureaucracy, which in some cases is complicated by the hardline attitudes of rabbis who seek to undermine the authority of counterparts in the Diaspora, often at the expense of earnest converts.

“I am of the mindset that this may not work out. And I might just have to spend a year living in the country as a tourist, not having healthcare, not being able to work, having to go in and out,” the convert said. “I figured I’ll give it a year and if it works, great. If not, I had an amazing experience in Jerusalem.”

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