As demand for Orthodox Jewish conversion soars, the number of successful cases dips

The government’s protracted process is not appealing to most of the half-million Israelis who are not recognized as Jewish by the Rabbinate

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

File: Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau (L) and Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef convene an emergency meeting against a new proposal to overhaul the conversion to Judaism system, on June 3, 2018. (Courtesy of the Chief Rabbinate spokesperson)
File: Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau (L) and Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef convene an emergency meeting against a new proposal to overhaul the conversion to Judaism system, on June 3, 2018. (Courtesy of the Chief Rabbinate spokesperson)

The number of completed Orthodox conversions to Judaism in Israel decreased by 5 percent last year over previous years, despite an increase in applications for the process.

This data, presented in the annual report on conversions by the Itim nonprofit, underlines multiple longstanding issues involving Orthodox conversions, whose availability impacts the lives of hundreds of thousands of Israelis, including many immigrants from the former Soviet Union and their descendants.

Last year was a record year for applications for an Orthodox conversion, with 3,904 individuals opening a file with the Conversion Authority, a unit of the Prime Minister’s Office entrusted with handling the issue. The figure constituted a 45% increase over the annual average in the past nine years, according to the report by Itim, which helps Jews and people interested in converting navigate Israel’s religious bureaucracy.

Yet the Conversion Authority issued just 2,091 conversion certificates last year, signifying the process’ successful completion. It marked a 5% decrease over the average annual tally in recent years, the report said.

The Conversion Authority’s budget, meanwhile, has risen by about 16% over 2021 to about NIS 116 million ($31 million) in 2022, said the report, which was published this week.

Itim publishes the report every year ahead of Shavuot, a Jewish holiday with a backstory that is strongly connected to the status of converts in Judaism.

A separate conversion route performed in the Israeli military leads to the successful conversion of about 720 individuals annually, said the report.

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

Israel’s Interior Ministry recognizes multiple kinds of conversion, including non-Orthodox ones, which can serve as the basis for naturalization under Israel’s Law of Return for Jews. An institution founded by Itim, called Giyur K’Halacha, also performs Orthodox conversions that are recognized by the Interior Ministry.

However, the Rabbinate, an Israeli organ of state that regulates many aspects of Jewish religious life, recognizes only ultra-Orthodox conversions that its rabbinical judges perform, mostly through the Conversion Authority. Although the authority is not part of the rabbinate, its rabbinical judges are all approved by the Rabbinate, which Itim says enjoys significant control over the authority’s actions.

On Tuesday, Israel Hayom reported that the chief Ashkenazi rabbi of Israel, David Lau, has decided to allow the head of the Conversion Authority, Rabbi Yehuda Amichai, to finalize conversions approved in principle by his rabbinical judges. This decision is meant to address situations where stringent rabbinical judges would hold out on the finalization of approved conversions, sometimes introducing last-minute stipulations and requirements that delayed the process for years.

The Rabbinate may deny service to people recognized as Jews by the State of Israel, but whom the Rabbinate does not consider Jewish according to halacha (Jewish law).

This has far-reaching implications for the lives of converts without the Rabbinate’s recognition because they cannot get married in Israel, where a civil marriage option does not exist. Jewish marriages can be certified only by the Rabbinate, which certifies unions only by Jewish men and women. Marriages of Muslims and Christians are certified by their respective clergy.

Non-Jews and Jews with a non-Jewish partner may enter a civil union that gives them the same legal rights as married couples, but any children born of the union would not be recognized as Jewish, passing down to the new generation the complication, as well as the feelings of frustration and estrangement from Israeli society that often come with it.

Convert ‘Katya’ and her daughter sit before the independent Giyur K’halacha conversion court, led by Rabbi Nahum Rabinovitch (center) on August 10, 2015. (Courtesy)

This issue is affecting the lives of many Israelis defined as “without religion,” who either came from the former Soviet Union or whose parents did, under Israel’s Law of Return. Whereas the Rabbinate recognizes as Jewish only people whose mothers are Jewish, the law allows for naturalization in Israel of spouses, children and grandchildren of Jews.

Those naturalized but not converted make up the bulk of about 510,000 Israelis who are defined by the Interior Ministry as “without religion.” Many of them were born in Israel and view themselves as Israeli Jews, having been brought up in the Israeli education system and served in the army alongside fellow citizens who are recognized as Jewish.

Yet few from the “without religion” demographic seek to undergo a conversion, in what Itim and other observers of the issue attribute to an overly stringent attitude by the Conversion Authority and the Rabbinate.

The data in the report suggest a stagnation in the demographic’s desire to convert, a process that may take months or often years, and involves intensive studies of halacha, quizzing and circumcision for uncircumcised men.

Whereas the number of Israelis “without religion” grew by more than 100,000 people since 2019 – the effects of mass emigration from Russia and Ukraine due to the war there as well as natural population growth in Israel — only 0.75% of people in this category applied for a conversion in 2022.

This figure is almost identical to the annual average in previous years, Itim said.

“Instead of recognizing the national challenge of half a million citizens who feel and live as Jews but are not recognized as such by halacha, the Rabbinate adopts rigid and stringent attitudes that drive away potential converts,” Itim founder Rabbi Shaul Farber said in a statement. “Instead of adopting accepted halachic attitudes that recognize the national interest, the Rabbinate’s conduct means that fewer than 4,000 people apply for conversion each year, and of those only half successfully complete the process,” he added.

The report’s breakdown of the number of conversions performed each month of 2022 shows an irregular distribution that Itim said may owe to political struggles that should not be allowed to delay conversions.

In the first 10 months of the year, the Conversion Authority approved just 881 conversions. The remaining 1,210 conversions were approved in November and December. The current coalition, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and five hard-right Knesset factions with highly conservative views, won the election on November 1.

In January, Netanyahu appointed Rabbi Yehuda Amichai, a veteran rabbinical judge, to head the Conversion Authority. He replaced Rabbi Benayahu Brunner, who had been appointed by former religious services minister Matan Kahana.

Kahana served in a coalition led by former prime minister Naftali Bennet, who also has hawkish policies but who made history in 2021 for forming a government made up of parties from across the political spectrum, including the first Arab party.

Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox coalition partners objected to extending Brunner’s stint.

Contacted by The Times of Israel, a Conversion Authority spokesperson wrote that the government body “constantly strives to serve the public and perform conversions in rabbinical courts regardless of who heads the Authority. It is noteworthy that a conversion certificate may be issued only after the chief rabbi or his representative approves it.”

“Due to halachic considerations, the chief rabbi exercised his authority to examine and approve each conversion file, and that had an impact on the issuing of conversion certificates. No one in the Authority, including its head, would delay the work, which was carried out in accordance with binding procedures,” the spokesperson added.

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