Army conversion track to close Friday over budget shortfall
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Army conversion track to close Friday over budget shortfall

Some 2,500 students converting to Judaism, many of them IDF soldiers, will be left in limbo as Nativ track set to end activities

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center), along with the IDF's then-chief education officer Brig. Gen. Eli Schermeister (right), and several participants in the army's Nativ conversion course on December 15, 2010. (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO, File/Courtesy)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center), along with the IDF's then-chief education officer Brig. Gen. Eli Schermeister (right), and several participants in the army's Nativ conversion course on December 15, 2010. (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO, File/Courtesy)

The Israel Defense Forces’ popular Jewish conversion course is set to close its doors on Friday over a budget shortfall of some NIS 20 million ($5.6 million), leaving some 2,500 students undergoing conversion, many of them soldiers, in limbo.

Nativ is the only state-recognized conversion system in the country not controlled by the Chief Rabbinate. Hundreds of soldiers, most of them non-Jewish relatives of Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union, enter the army’s conversion system each year. Thousands have successfully finished the program and converted to Judaism through the IDF’s rabbinic court.

But the program was set to end its activities at the end of this week, barring any last-ditch agreements between the Prime Minister’s Office and the treasury on its funding.

A Nativ spokesperson told The Times of Israel that as of Thursday afternoon the program had not heard from the PMO on a possible bailout. The PMO did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the negotiations.

In a statement, the Finance Ministry said the budgeting of the program falls under the purview of the Prime Minister’s Office.

“In recent days, it has come to our attention that a budgetary problem is expected for the rest of the year due to the increased activity of the conversion system in its present mode of operation,” said the treasury.

“Together with the Prime Minister’s Office, we are currently examining possible solutions,” it added.

The Nativ program said IDF soldiers in the program will no longer be permitted to stay in its facilities upon its closure on Friday.

In a letter sent to the PMO on Wednesday, the army-run conversion program warned of the looming shutdown, dispersal of the 2,500 students, and layoffs of some 180 teachers from June 1.

A similar budget dispute between Nativ and the PMO and Finance Ministry threatened to derail the program in 2015, though it was later resolved.

Yesh Atid MK Elazar Stern — a founder of the program during his earlier military career — expressed hope that the government would step in to bail out “one of the most important projects for the IDF as a people’s army.”

Yesh Atid MK Elazar Stern, speaks during a conference for Young Leadership programs, at Haifa University, April 11, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Stern said it was “very upsetting to hear that the course, through which some 10,000 young people converted, will close. As one of the cornerstones of conversion in Israel, the Nativ course has frequently proven itself more [effective] than the state conversion system.”

Yesh Atid MK Aliza Lavie sent a letter to the cabinet secretary on Wednesday night, imploring Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to intervene.

“If the government can’t find such a small sum for the continuation of Nativ’s activities, it would be a disgrace that reflects an entirely distorted set of priorities,” said Lavie in a statement.

She said the cabinet secretary had informed her the matter was being dealt with, “and I hope the prime minister comes to his senses and immediately transfers the budget for this important enterprise.”

The first Nativ course opened in 2001.

Times of Israel staff and Tamar Pileggi contributed to this report.

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