Defying rabbinate, rabbis set up alternative Jewish conversion court

Leader David Stav denies move is ‘rebellion’ against religious authorities, but procedures not likely to be recognized by state

Rabbi David Stav, co-founder and chairman of the Tzohar rabbinical organization. (Flash 90, File)
Rabbi David Stav, co-founder and chairman of the Tzohar rabbinical organization. (Flash 90, File)

A group of religious-nationalist rabbis have established an institution offering an alternative for conversion to Judaism to Israel’s Chief Rabbinate.

Rabbis David Stav and Nahum Rabinovitch announced the move Monday and said that they have already started the conversion process for several Israelis. The conversion candidates’ parents immigrated from Russia and other European countries, but aren’t recognized as Jewish in the eyes of Israel’s religious authorities.

“The ingathering of exiles and as part of it, the substantial immigration from the former Soviet Union, pose significant challenges to the State of Israel that demand responsible and courageous attention from national leaders,” Stav and Rabinovitch said in a statement. “Our moral responsibility is to attend to the absorption of immigrants and their full integration, for their sake and for the sake of the continuation of the Jewish people.”

The two rabbis are joined by a number of Orthodox rabbis, including Efrat Chief Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, who seek to liberalize the conversion process by bypassing the government’s religious authority while maintaining adherence to Jewish law.

“It’s really not [a rebellion against the rabbinate],” Stav said in a Channel 2 interview Monday. “We won’t let politicians… be the gatekeepers of tradition.”

The state and the Chief Rabbinate are not expected to recognize the authority of the newly established conversion courts, which will likely precipitate an appeal to the High Court of Justice.

The new initiative was welcomed Monday by Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky.

“We all wish to continue the process of ingathering the exiles from throughout the world in an era of lost identities and growing assimilation,” Sharansky said in a statement. “In order to keep the gates of Israel open to all who wish to join our people in accordance with halachah (Jewish law), it is important that rabbis who have been authorized by the Chief Rabbinate to conduct conversions participate in this process, and this new initiative will enable them to do so.”

The move by Stav and his colleagues came about a month after Israel’s cabinet repealed an initiative put forward last year that would reform Israel’s conversion laws.

The conversion initiative, which granted local rabbis authority to oversee conversions, was passed by the Knesset Law Committee last year and was considered to be one of the previous government’s major achievements before elections were called and the legislation process was halted. But the policy was repealed as part of the coalition agreement between the Likud party and the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party.

Stav heads Tzohar, a moderate Orthodox organization offering alternative weddings for secular couples and other religious services aimed at encouraging inclusion of non-religious Israelis in Jewish tradition.

“Over the past few decades, Israel’s religious establishment has become bureaucratic, dysfunctional and highly political. This has created obstacles to practicing Judaism, resentment towards Jewish tradition and continues to fuel an alarming wave of assimilation & intermarriage in Israel,” the organization says on its website.

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