'An avoidable bureaucratic absurdity'

Government failure to arrange circumcisions delays conversion to Judaism for 98 men

A soldier fighting in Gaza nearly spent NIS 7,000 of his own money to finalize the process, an activist representing him says

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

Oded Forer, chair of Knesset Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs, attends a committee meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem on January 19, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Oded Forer, chair of Knesset Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs, attends a committee meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem on January 19, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

At least 98 Israeli men who completed their Orthodox conversion to Judaism have been waiting since April for a government-funded circumcision that would finalize the process, officials said, citing bureaucratic complications and funding issues.

The delay, which is affecting several converts serving in Gaza and preventing some from getting married, was discussed at length Tuesday at the Knesset Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs during a session attended by representatives of the state’s Conversion Authority, the Chief Rabbinate, the Jewish Agency, the health ministry, and others.

The discussion ended without a concrete solution to the problem, which the Conversion Authority, a government arm established in 2000 to streamline conversions, said it is working to solve in the coming weeks.

Rabbi Seth Farber, the director of the ITIM nonprofit helping converts and others navigate Israel’s religious bureaucracy, told The Times of Israel that the delay was the result of “a completely avoidable bureaucratic absurdity.”

The Conversion Authority said it had inherited the problem on January 1, when the Chief Rabbinate transferred responsibility for converts’ circumcision to the Conversion Authority, according to its acting director, Rabbi Yehuda Amichai.

To arrange circumcisions, Amichai said, the Authority is legally required to issue a tender, which has to be approved by an external committee, for hospitals. A new tender is needed because the Rabbinate’s previous tender expired and its contractor, the Assuta private hospital in Ashdod, won’t renew the contract.

Head of ITIM Rabbi Seth Farber. (Courtesy)

Under the now-expired contract, Assuta received from the government about NIS 3,400 ($900) for each circumcision it performed.

In 2022, Assuta performed about 150 circumcisions a year on adult converts, according to Yehuda Cohen, the Chief Rabbinate’s director general, who attended the discussion. That number went down to only seven in 2023 because of the nonrenewal.

Rising costs rendered the Health Ministry’s rate of NIS 3,400 unattractive to hospitals. The Conversion Authority is working on issuing a new tender with more attractive rates, Amichai said. Hospitals typically charge double that for privately funded circumcisions, he added.

“There’s no incentive, it seems, to perform the procedure under the current rate,” said Dr. Yakir Kaufman, a senior official in the Health Ministry, which he represented in the discussion. “From a bottom-line perspective, it’s not cost-effective. There’s a problem with the procedure’s pricing to hospitals,” he added.

“I hope it’ll be worked out now that [circumcision] is transferred to the Conversion Authority,” Cohen said at the discussion.

A Conversion Authority rabbi gives a lesson on Judaism to people undergoing conversion in Jerusalem, Israel on January 3, 2022. (Courtesy of the Conversion Authority)

The Conversion Authority, which has an annual budget of more than NIS 100 million ($26 million), is looking for ways to come up with the funds necessary to cover circumcisions, Amichai told the Knesset committee’s chair, Oded Forer, who urged Amichai to solve the problem.

About 3,000 people convert to Judaism annually through the Conversion Authority and the Israel Defense Forces, which has its own conversion course. Most converts are women — in some years they account for 80% of the total — and many of the male converts are already circumcised when they convert.

Some converts were born in Israel and many are young immigrants from the Soviet Union, who came to Israel as children under its Law of Return for Jews and their relatives but are not considered Jewish according to the Orthodox interpretation of halachah, Jewish religious law.

More than half of the converts who are in limbo due to the circumcision delay are Ethiopians from the Falash Mura minority, whose immigration to Israel is conditioned on the completion of an Orthodox, state-supervised conversion, Amichai confirmed. The Ethiopians are living in Jewish Agency for Israel facilities. Forer pressed the Jewish Agency to divert funds to resolve the problem involving the Ethiopians at least.

Israel’s Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau, left, and his Sephardi counterpart Yitzhak Yosef attend a religious ceremony in Jerusalem on April 4, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Finance Ministry is processing a request for a budget adjustment to cover circumcisions, Cohen, the Rabbinate’s representative, said at the discussion. Forer urged the Conversion Authority to use its ceiling of NIS 50,000 for special projects without the need for a tender to fund operations for at least some of the men waiting for a circumcision.

Farber, the founder of ITIM, accused authorities of letting converts suffer needlessly. One convert whom ITIM is helping and who is currently serving in Gaza was preparing to pay NIS 7,000 out of his own pocket during a break from the fighting to have a circumcision, Farber said. Eventually, several donors stepped in and funded the operation for him within the past few days, Farber said. The convert did not wish to be interviewed, Farber said.

ITIM got involved with the current delay in circumcisions after being approached by several couples. The delay was holding up their marriage, which Israeli authorities — in this case the Rabbinate — will perform for Jews only if both spouses are Jewish. Israel has no civil marriage option. The convert who wanted to pay for the operation planned to do this so as not to delay his wedding.

“The silver lining of this convert’s story is that Israeli society has such charitable people who stepped in where the state failed this man, but dozens are still in a similar position,” Farber told The Times of Israel.

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