A Small Step for Religious Freedom

In a success for religious freedom in Israel, a new conversion process passed a cabinet vote at the beginning of this month.  The change will allow municipal rabbis to set up special conversion courts, thus dramatically increasing the number of rabbis who can perform conversions.  Unfortunately, the new process doesn’t allow for the recognition of Reform or Conservative conversions – a key demand pressed by NIF-backed organizations.

Currently only 33 rabbis employed by the Religious Affairs Ministry can perform official conversions. Meanwhile, over 330,000 immigrants (and their children) –  8% of Israel’s Jewish population – who made Aliya as Jews under the Law of Return are not Jewish according to Orthodox law, which means they can’t marry in Israel or be buried in the regular section of Jewish cemeteries.

Anat Hoffman, Executive Director of NIF grantee Israel Religious Action Centre (IRAC), said: “Although this decision does not directly affect Reform and Conservative conversions in Israel, any measure to change the status quo of religion and state in Israel is a positive advancement towards religious pluralism. The State of Israel took a small step forward on a long road ahead.”

The Reform Movement in Israel also worked with the Attorney General, who helped make sure that the change in procedure would not negatively affect non-Orthodox conversions, including ongoing legal cases being fought by IRAC.

Similarly, Yizhar Hess, Director of NIF grantee the Masorti Movement, responded: “We welcome the government decision on the conversion issue. While it doesn’t touch directly or indirectly on non-Orthodox conversions, this is a type of democratization of the official, corrupt rabbinate, and this is a small but meaningful step towards a gradual breakup of the Orthodox establishment.”

Around 1,800 people converted in 2013 through Israel’s conversion courts, while at least 7,000 Jews who are not recognized as such by the state join Israeli society each year.

This cabinet decision was proposed as an alternative to a more forward-looking bill put forward by MK Elazar Stern (HaTnua), which would have recognized conversions by the Conservative and Reform movement, and eliminated the requirement that the chief rabbi approve conversions performed by municipal rabbis.

November 2014