Religious services minister unveils government plan to reform conversion system

Matan Kahana touts ‘historic opportunity’ to address problem of close to half a million Israeli residents of Jewish ancestry who are not considered Jewish by state

Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana (Yitzhak Kelman)
Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana (Yitzhak Kelman)

Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana on Wednesday unveiled his government-backed proposal to reform the state-sponsored process for converting to Judaism.

Submitting an official memorandum of the plan, Kahana called the proposal “a historic opportunity that we must not miss.”

He promised that the reform — which has drawn sharp criticism from ultra-Orthodox figures, including the chief rabbi — will address issues that are causing Jews within Israel to slip away from Judaism, a circumstance that is, he said, “unacceptable.”

Kahana said there are 450,000 people living in Israel who have Jewish ancestry but are not considered Jewish under Orthodox law, mostly immigrants from former Soviet Union countries. The proposed legislation, he said, “is the only way to deal with this challenge.”

Referring to the pushback the plan drew before it was even presented, Kahana said: “I try to be coordinated with the chief rabbis. Unfortunately, this coordination does not always go smoothly.”

The bill was drawn up with advice from several leading rabbis in the Modern Orthodox movement, including Rabbi Chaim Druckman, a top figure in religious Zionism, Kahana said.

Rabbi Chaim Druckman attends the campaign launch of the right-wing Yamina party, ahead of the Israeli general elections, February 12, 2020.(Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Currently, state-recognized conversions to Judaism are controlled by the Chief Rabbinate, which is dominated by the ultra-Orthodox. There are only several dozen rabbis and four conversion courts in the country that can legally perform conversions to Judaism.

Converts to Judaism who move to Israel but whose conversions are not recognized by the Chief Rabbinate cannot marry in Israel, as the rabbinate controls marriages. Reform and Conservative conversions performed in Israel have not been recognized for years, and Kahana’s plan would not change that.

The new proposal will enable city rabbis to carry out conversions under the auspices of a central system and steering committee that will define the rules for conversion and monitor their implementation, making the process uniform across the country but transferring sole power away from the Chief Rabbinate.

“I trust the city rabbis,” Kahana said, noting that the plan also allows for the chief rabbi or a steering committee to fire a rabbi from a local conversion board if he is found to have violated any of the rules.

A woman in a conversion court. (photo credit: File/Flash90)
Illustrative image: A woman in a conversion court. (Flash90)

As part of plans to make deep changes in state-controlled Jewish religious services, Kahana announced last week that conversions to Judaism will be headed by Rabbi Benayahu Brunner, who is affiliated with Tzohar, a group of relatively liberal Orthodox rabbis. The move prompted outrage from ultra-Orthodox lawmakers and religious leaders.

Kahana’s decision came despite a threat from Chief Rabbi David Lau that he would not approve any future conversions to Judaism if the government continues to advance the reform plan.

Last week a man was indicted for a death threat against Kahana due to his reforms on religion and state, which also include a major shake-up of the kosher certification system.

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