Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

25 Tammuz 5764 - July 14, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








The Immigrant Conversion Industry

by Binyamin Y. Rabinowitz

Writing in the national-religious daily Hatsofe, Rabbi Yaakov Ariel, like many chareidi activists, sounds very worried over the threat of intermarriage, assimilation and the loss of Jewish identity here in Eretz Yisroel. Only his solution is very peculiar.

In his recent article, he encouraged the national-religious sector to take on the task of "a massive informational campaign among the immigrant population, even going door-to- door . . . to open additional institutes for the study of Judaism to be followed by additional benches on conversion courts."

He also suggests an entirely novel approach to conversion, ostensibly based on halachic sources. "Usually, coercive conversion is not conversion and nobody would consider such a possibility. Furthermore, in most cases there is nothing to be gained. The non-Jew will not change his identity as a result of external coercion. But we can learn from here that when there is a serious concern of a widespread stumbling- block, an appropriate conversion policy should be followed."

Another article, written by Dr. Amnon Shapira also in Hatsofe, offers further indications of what Rabbi Ariel hopes to achieve. Under the headline, "The Opportunity That Can't be Missed," Shapira writes that in the State of Israel today there are some 300,000 non-Jews from the former Soviet Union. "In Eretz Yisroel (unlike the US where every man does what he deems right and converts) a unique solution sprouted up--the Joint Institute for Jewish Studies. This was in response to the Ne'eman Commission, with Knesset and government approval but against an explicit decision of the Chief Rabbinate.

"Seven representatives sit on the Joint Institute board: one Reform, one Conservative and five Orthodox. The partnership, which has no precedent anywhere in the world, is intended to prevent conversion not in accordance with halacha. And all this is based on a consensus that only the study and inquiry in advance of the conversion is done by all three movements in cooperation. The conversions themselves are done solely in the rabbinate batei din by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel."

Gedolei Yisroel zt"l and ylct"a issued clear statements against the Ne'eman Commission, but for now we will continue with Shapira's article, which raises the obvious question of how one can set up a study program for conversion when the board includes non-Orthodox members.

"My answer is that from the start the question was laid before the leading rabbonim of religious Zionism in Israel and it received their blessing. And indeed we took no steps, big or small in any matter, without consulting them first and we received their detailed guidance, for conversion is a purely halachic matter, and not merely a public matter."

Rather than reaching the conclusion that the Ne'eman Commission has caused and continues to cause widespread ruin and destruction of the pure lineage of Kerem Beis Yisroel, Shapira sees the commission as a "rare and worthy achievement for Torah and history. If there were no Joint Institute in Eretz Yisroel and there were only the Rabbinate conversion courts, the non-Orthodox would have conversions done freely with High Court sanction and later Interior Ministry officials would be required to list these `converts' as Jews in every way (just as they are required to list the Reform conversion performed abroad). Therefore the Joint Institute is a major tikkun in itself . . . "

Shapira has yet to realize that, while having the word "Yehudi" printed on one's national ID card means next to nothing and certainly not in terms of marriage from a halachic perspective, the fictitious conversion certificates the conversion courts issue are valid at official Rabbinate institutions. Today, after these innovations and in the absence of genealogical records, there is no way of verifying whether a marriage candidate is really Jewish, since the computers at official Rabbinate institutions list him or her as Jewish.

Shapira also reveals a very dangerous plan formulated by the Joint Institute. Called the Decade Plan it aims to provide Jewish studies and convert 50,000 non- Jews in the next ten years, focusing on young women, "thereby effectively solving the conversion problem for the large wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union."

Shapira himself acknowledges that non-Jewish immigrants have no genuine desire to convert, for they have already found "that even without conversion, all of their economic rights remain intact, including starting a family (through civil marriage), and Jewish society in Israel accepts them with open arms even without Orthodox conversion. Based on a reasonable estimate, one-fourth of all combat soldiers are not Jewish. Dr. Asher Cohen of Bar Ilan University calls this process of absorption into Israeli society `sociological conversion.'"

"The non-Jews do not want to convert because they have already converted through sociological conversion," says Dr. Cohen. "Therefore converting 50,000 and solving the problem of conversion [shows that] absurdity has no limits."

Shapira has high hopes that the man who will solve the problem by giving conversion a tremendous boost is none other than Bnei Akiva head Rabbi Chaim Druckman. Shapira believes he was appointed in order to "provide a long-term solution for the problem of converting the immigrants . . . as the person in charge of an independent conversion apparatus and one would hope this appointment will indeed succeed in pushing the clambering wagon forward."


Before bringing the response from Vaad HaRabbonim LeInyonei Giyur, we will quote an interview conducted on Erev Shavuos with Former MK Alex Lubotsky and Gilad Kariv, a Reform clergyman and one of Shapira's co-workers at the Joint Institute for Jewish Studies. Both of them are of the opinion that the established system follows a rigid policy on conversion.

"There is a lot of light and there are also many shadows," says Lubotsky. Today 4,000 people convert annually, he says, and "this is a drastic increase over the period preceding the conversion crisis."

Lubotsky has especially high praise for the IDF Rabbinate conversion industry. "And I want to give special praise to what is done in the IDF by Chief Education Officer Elazar Stern and the army rabbi, Rabbi Weiss, and a great many [soldiers] convert there."

Stretching the Limits

Lubotsky, like Shapira, says that the vast majority of these 300,000 non-Jewish immigrants (500,000 according to Vaad figures) known and listed as goyim, are not pushing their way into line to convert "because Israeli society, perhaps unfortunately, perhaps not, accepts them and they become rooted in the life of the State of Israel even without conversion. And I know people like that who hold positions as instructors at the university, students of ours who are not necessarily interested in undergoing conversion. It doesn't bother them. They are accepted by the crowd . . . "

And just as Lubotsky praised the military conversion apparatus, a Reform rabbi named Kariv sings the praises of the Rabbinate conversion courts. "I must express--and it is my pleasure to express--praise for the [conversion courts], at least those I've encountered, which really do stretch the limits of halacha as much as possible . . . I also have my criticisms and I would be glad if more were done, but it seems to me that to come and see only the negative is not right today. Today, they definitely convert people they would not have converted according to the standards of 10 or 20 years ago and I think that there is understanding in the system that we are now in a very special time in history. And for the very reason that Israeli society accepts them, it is in the interest of the religious society to convert them. Otherwise, it will create a problem of mixed marriages in the State of Israel."

Thus, of all people, Reform rabbis, who were responsible for the destruction and the terrible tragedy in the entire Diaspora and whose synagogues in America are made up of some couples in which one was "converted" by them and many who were not converted at all, are worried about mixed marriage in Israel.

Similarly Lubotsky brims with praise for Druckman and his work in the field of conversion. "The government sets up special botei din headed by Rabbi Druckman and regardless of what one thinks about him on policy issues, everybody knows he is among the people who really do love the converts. I hope I am not damaging him here, for he is very lenient . . . "

Altering Halochoh

Although he heads the conversion apparatus at the Prime Minister's Office, those who initiated his appointment admit that Rabbi Druckman is cut off from the system he was chosen to run. They blame Rabbi Eliahu Ben-Dehan. Recently, Minister of Justice Tommy Lapid has threatened to take the entire Conversion Beis Din away from the Chief Rabbinate and put it into the Justice Ministry.

"Nobody will be more lenient than the batei din of today," says Rabbi Ben- Dehan. "Rabbi Druckman thinks he is in a position to change halacha? Is Rabbi Druckman capable of running the Rabbinate beit din system?"

Rabbi Ben-Dehan claims that the only way to increase the number of converts is through information campaigns. "They have to be persuaded and it has to be explained to them why it's worthwhile for them to convert."

HaRav Nochum Eisenstein, chairman of Vaad HaRabbonim HaOlami LeInyonei Giyur founded by the late Antwerp Gavad HaRav Chaim Kreiswirth zt"l, told Yated Ne'eman, "As Lubotsky says, the special conversion courts lowered the standards of 10 to 20 years ago and today many more people are converted without carefully ensuring they have accepted the mitzvos wholeheartedly. According to the leading poskim, conversion without true and complete acceptance of the mitzvos invalidates the conversion even bedi'eved. Mere declarations are worthless and the beis din must investigate the convert's true intentions."

A letter dated 15 Sivan 5744 and signed by HaRav Y. Y. Kanievsky (the Steipler), HaRav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, HaRav Elozor Menachem Man Shach and ylct"a HaRav Yosef Sholom Eliashiv, reads:

"Dear Rabbonim and Dayonim.

"Since, to our great dismay, of late there has been an increase in the number of cases in which converts are accepted and it has been found that a large percentage of them did not intend to keep Torah and mitzvos, at the time of the conversion process. We hereby warn that it is a very serious prohibition to accept converts without being convinced that they indeed want to truly accept the yoke of Torah and mitzvos. Clearly, conversion without an acceptance of carrying out Torah and mitzvos is not conversion at all, even bedi'eved.

"We also hereby warn all marriage registrars that the halochoh requires that they check everyone who presents a conversion certificate, whether from Eretz Yisroel or abroad, to ascertain whether it really was a conversion according to halochoh as per the above, and only afterwards can they be registered for marriage."

HaRav Eisenstein claims that, according to the Vaad's research, over 90 percent of converts at the special conversion courts do not keep Torah and mitzvos even a short time after the so-called conversion.

"These figures clearly indicate they did not have any serious intentions at the time of the conversion. Several times we contacted officials in the conversion apparatus [asking them] to conduct inquiries and surveys among converts three months after the time of the conversion and to see whether they made a serious commitment to keeping mitzvos, but of course this was not done."

HaRav Eisenstein goes on to say that the current conversion system "works in close collaboration with the Joint Institutes, a heretical organization that was banned by the rabbonim, including the Chief Rabbinate, and in decisions issued by the Chief Rabbinate Council in 5758 (1998).

"A conversion candidate who learns in the atmosphere prevailing at the Joint Institutes cannot be expected to really accept the yoke of Torah and mitzvos in a fitting manner."

In response to Dr. Shapira's claim that all moves regarding the Joint Institutes were made in consultation with "the leading rabbonim of religious Zionism," HaRav Eisenstein says, "Shapira does not reveal who these rabbonim are. No one knows who they are; their identities were never made public. And as we said, the Chief Rabbinate and the Chief Rabbinate Council have prohibited all cooperation with this institute."

On the issue of large-scale conversion in the IDF, HaRav Eisenstein recounted the story of a ger tzedek who had undergone conversion in the Army and later "came before a beis din tzedek with a request to conduct giyur lechumro since he himself understood that the conversion done in the IDF is unacceptable to anyone who is chared ledevar Hashem zo halochoh. Based on testimony we have on file, the conversions are conducted in an inappropriate atmosphere with mixed programs of men and women and no notion of the gravity of the matter of how to truly live as an observant Jew."

HaRav Eisenstein says that according to daas Torah stated on several occasions in the past by maranan verabonon, the army is no place for an independent conversion system. "The sole purpose of these types of frameworks is to circumvent the established botei din, which hear every conversion request with gravity and convert them only after thoroughly inquiring into the conversion candidate's true intentions."

He says that today the conversion system is in the hands of the special conversion courts where the vast majority of dayonim wear knitted kippahs. "These botei din conduct assembly-line conversions without checking the candidates' true intentions and rely on tests of knowledge and extremely superficial checks . . . According to halochoh, they remain goyim in every respect, with a hechsher certificate from the Chief Rabbinate . . .

"Assimilation in Eretz Yisroel is the worst in the world because the Chief Rabbinate authorizes these marriages rather than fighting against them. The Chief Rabbinate must restore [conversion] to its former pedestal by setting up a conversion system run exclusively by talmidei chachomim yirei Shomayim in permanent\, respected botei din. According to Rabbi Eli Ben-Dehan's directives, regular botei din have stopped handling conversions and the special conversion court system converts all those who the regular botei din refuse to convert."

In conclusion, HaRav Eisenstein says that Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar told him he is aware of all of these problems "but they are still waiting for a constructive and pragmatic step on this issue. At present, the situation is such that a real convert has no [official] permanent, respectable beis din tzedek to handle him.

"It must also be made clear that conversion should not be used as a solution for all of those hundreds of thousands of goyim who arrived during the past decade from the former Soviet Union. Conversion is a purely halachic act, requiring a full and genuine acceptance of mitzvos, which cannot be expected of people who were severed from every trace of religion for 80 years. The government must look for other ideas rather than compelling the rabbinical establishment to solve the problem they themselves created by bringing half a million goyim to Eretz Yisroel."

The Special Conversion Courts are Working with the Joint Conversion Institute

by Betzalel Kahn

The Special Conversion Court system continues to work with the Joint Conversion Institute, an organization sponsored by the Jewish Agency and the Reform and Conservative Movements, despite the strong opposition by maranan verabonon that was later also adopted by the Chief Rabbinical Council.

Something called the Conversion Dayanim Information Committee, whose members are Rabbi Yisrael Rosen, Eliyahu Birnbaum and Rabbinical Courts Director Rabbi Eli Ben-Dehan, recently issued a press release refuting an earlier announcement by the Jewish Agency claiming the Special Conversion Courts do not accept Joint Institute graduates.

"For over two years we have been demanding that the Joint Institute bring to the [Conversion] Courts `its thousands of graduates' . . . In a series of written and oral contacts we asked that they be brought before us, the conversion dayanim, and we will receive those who are worthy with open arms . . . We would very much like to see an increase in converts in Israel, and are prepared to meet the challenge.

"On 12 Sivan of this year we, the representatives of the dayanim, sent an irate letter to Rav Druckman asking him to apply all the weight of his standing to have the [Joint Institute] candidates come before the Court."

The three also claimed that it could very well be the Joint Institute does not have "thousands of graduates" but rather a very short list. Despite tremendous funding, the Joint Institute has yielded only approximately 100 converts, compared to the conversion study programs under the Education Ministry, which have been producing about 4,500 conversion candidates per year.

Based on this letter then, on their own initiative, the Special Conversion Courts are calling on the heads of a Reform and Conservative body to cooperate with them in "converting" non-Jews. The letter provides confirmation of reports in Yated Ne'eman during the past several years, that conversion courts have turned into an assembly line that does not adequately inquire into candidates' intentions of keeping Torah and mitzvos.

Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar denied that the Conversion Courts collaborate with the Joint Institutes. "Even students who studied at the Joint Institute and want to convert--we don't accept them from there. There are a few who have come to the beis din on an individual basis and were accepted if they were found worthy."

In reaction to Rabbis Rosen, Birnbaum and Ben-Dehan's remark that they "would very much like to see an increase in converts in Israel," the Chief Rabbi said he has not seen the letter, and insisted the beis din system does not seek and has not sought out non-Jews to convert.

Meanwhile the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) has been at odds with the Justice Minister's Bureau on the question of where the Chief Rabbinate's Conversion Administration will be transferred. The PMO would like to see authority handed over to former NRP MK Rabbi Chaim Druckman, who Sharon appointed to increase the number of conversions in the State of Israel. On the other hand, Justice Minister Lapid insists on leaving authority over the Conversion Administration in his ministry, together with the Rabbinate Beis Din system.

According to the Vaad HaRabbonim LeInyonei Giyur founded by the late Rav Chaim Kreiswirth, "Authority must remain in the hands of the Chief Rabbis alone. The Chief Rabbis must work to prevent any breaches and to oversee the conversion system to be sure it is run according to halochoh, which requires that conversions are performed only once the beis din is convinced the candidate truly intends to keep Torah and mitzvos in their entirety."

Chief Rabbi Amar said he has not yet finalized his stance regarding the transfer of authority over the Conversion Administration. Nevertheless, figures at the Office of the Chief Rabbi acknowledge that, while the authority to sign a conversion certificate belongs to the Chief Rabbi as under the previous Chief Rabbis, in practice Rabbi Eli Ben-Dehan, director of the Rabbinate Botei Din, does the signing.

Special Conversion Courts to be Transferred to Prime Minister's Office

by Betzalel Kahn

The cabinet reached a decision this week that the special conversion courts will no longer be subject to the Chief Rabbinate Beis Din Administration which is under the jurisdiction of Justice Minister Tommy Lapid, but would instead be transferred to the Prime Minister's Office. Prime Minister Sharon announced former NRP MK Rabbi Chaim Druckman would head the conversion apparatus.

At a cabinet meeting Sharon said the decision would not cause leniencies in halachic matters, conversion conditions and performing wholesale conversions, but would lead to a system that would centralize all of the administrative issues involved in conversions performed in the State of Israel. "The botei din will remain in the same locations and with the same staff," said Sharon, who stressed everything would be done in full coordination with the Chief Rabbis, who will be the ones signing the conversion certificates.

Reform, Conservative and Jewish Agency figures issued a demand that responsibility for the conversions be transferred from the Chief Rabbinate and the Rabbinate Beis Din Administration in order to bring about extensive leniencies in handling conversion candidates. "Now the stumbling blocks will be removed from before those undergoing conversion," said Jewish Agency Chairman Sally Meridor. "The conversion system headed by Rabbi Druckman from the Prime Minister's Office will allow many thousands to convert in a seeming and friendly manner."

Rabbinical figures said the Chief Rabbis must stand firm to maintain proper standards of conversion proceedings and to accept only those worthy of receiving a conversion certificate after they have committed to the observance of Torah and mitzvas in real and practical terms.

The Chairman of Vaad HaRabbonim LeInyonei Giyur, founded by the late Antwerp gavad HaRav Chaim Kreiswirth, said this is an opportunity for the Chief Rabbis to set up an independent conversion beis din system comprised of talmidei chachomim yirei Shomayim who would perform conversions only after the beis din was convinced the candidate really does want to accept Torah and mitzvas in full. "This system must be kept small, for the masses of goyim who arrived in the last waves of immigration cannot be expected to change their lifestyle entirely and accept mitzvas in a fitting way."

The Vaad also reiterated warnings by HaRav E.M.M. Shach, HaRav S.Z. Auerbach, HaRav Y.Y. Kanievsky and ylct"a HaRav Y.S. Eliashiv that in the case of every marriage candidate who presents a conversion certificate, halochoh requires marriage registrars to check whether the conversion was halachically valid. Conversion without accepting ol mitzvos is clearly not a genuine conversion at all, not even bedi'eved.

According to an initial legal opinion the Vaad obtained, the law permits marriage registrars to investigate the worthiness of the conversion performed and to reject a so-called conversion that does not meet accepted halachic criteria. This opinion will soon be forwarded to the Chief Rabbis with a demand they instruct marriage registrars to operate according to instructions by maranan verabonon, as the law allows.


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