Local leaders decry Knesset conversion bill
July 14, 2010
Local federation leaders are joining officials from the Jewish Federations of North America, the Jewish Agency for Israel, and the non-Orthodox U.S. Jewish religious movements in slamming a controversial Knesset bill that would change Israel’s process for conversion to Judaism.
For months, Israeli lawmakers have been discussing a bill that would put more power over conversion into the hands of Israel’s Orthodox-dominated rabbinate by giving local rabbis the ability to perform conversions and giving the Chief Rabbinate oversight and control over the whole process.
The bill, proposed by Knesset member David Rotem of the Yisrael Beiteinu Party, has been derided by opponents in the United States, who fear that it would drive a wedge between Israel and the Diaspora by discounting non-Orthodox conversions in Israel.
They fear that giving power over conversion to the Chief Rabbinate could have an effect on Israel’s Law of Return, which grants immediate Israeli citizenship to anyone who has at least one Jewish grandparent, or to any convert to Judaism.
On July 12, in a surprise move, the Knesset’s Law Committee approved the bill.
Max Kleinman, executive vice president of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest, was in Israel when the news came down. He and UJC MetroWest Israel representative Amir Shacham joined other officials in lobbying Knesset members and others to revise the proposal.
Kleinman met Tuesday with Knesset member Nachman Shai of Kadima, and testified at a three-member Knesset sub-committee on the matter. “I indicated to them how the conversion bill would sow tremendous divisiveness within the Diaspora community,” said Kleinman in a phone call from Jerusalem. “We plan to discuss this issue with President [Shimon] Peres and ask him to use his good office to ensure that this issue is addressed beyond coalition politics, because it deals with the Jewish people.”
The bill’s detractors believed they had gotten Rotem to hold off on the bill pending more discussion; on July 11, when they learned the bill would be taken up, they released a flood of angry statements.
Leaders of the U.S. Jewish religious streams also sent off a flurry of strongly worded protests.
Natan Sharansky, chair of the Jewish Agency for Israel, is leading efforts to quash the measure.
“[W]e are deeply shocked and disappointed to hear that the bill will suddenly be presented tomorrow in its current, highly problematic format without any input from Sharansky or Diaspora communities,” the JFNA’s president and CEO, Jerry Silverman, wrote in a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “All of the discussions, understandings, and efforts seem to have disappeared overnight, and we are left feeling upset and even betrayed by MK Rotem and those behind the bill.”
Leaders of 15 other Jewish organizations, including heads of the Conservative and Reform movements, also sent a letter saying they were “dismayed” that Rotem had put forward the conversion law.
After the bill passed through the Law Committee by a 5-4 vote, Sharansky urged Netanyahu to take action, saying the bill could prove disastrous. “We cannot divide the Jewish people with legislation which many in the Jewish world view as defining them as second-class Jews,” Sharansky said. “We are at the beginning of the month of Av, when the Temple was destroyed because the Jewish people were busy with internal fighting instead of dealing with real dangers posed by their enemies. Jews abroad are the most loyal supporters of Israel and stand at the forefront of the fight for Israel’s image around the world.”
Rotem insisted this week that he never promised to hold off on pushing the measure through — and that whether it passes is of no concern to American Jews.
“I came to the U.S.” in May, he said. “I spoke to leaders, and I explained this is nothing that touched the American community. It has nothing to [do] with Jews in the Diaspora. It is only an Israeli matter. I think it is a big mistake. It is being used for political reasons because this law has got nothing to do with American Judaism or anyone in the Diaspora.”
Rotem, a former official with Israel’s National Religious Party, said the law would help thousands of Israelis who are not Jewish according to Halacha, or rabbinic law, become Jewish, as it would make conversions more accessible.
Kleinman acknowledged the need to address the status of the thousands of Russian-speaking immigrants who, having arrived under the less stringent Law of Return, are not Jewish according to Halacha. “Certainly we need to have much more extensive conversions of Russian immigrants,” he said. “But the Chief Rabbinate hasn’t done a good job. If you are going to impose a standard on Halacha that most of the immigrants are not prepared to meet, you’re not going to get too many customers.”
UJC MetroWest has long made issues of pluralism a priority in its Israel advocacy, he said. “We’re trying to interpret to Israeli legislators how this bill is bad and how it will sow tremendous divisions at a time when Israel and the Jewish world cannot afford it...,” he said.
NJJN staff contributed to this article.
UJC MetroWest Update on Conversion Bill
United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ issued the following statement on July 6:
United Jewish Communities of MetroWest is working actively with Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Agency for Israel to convey to the Government of Israel that proposed legislation in the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) relating to conversions in Israel will be damaging to the relationship between Jews around the world and the State of Israel. Our primary concern is the protection of the unity of the Jewish People and our shared commitment to the State of Israel.
The legislation proposed by Member of Knesset (MK) David Rotem is intended to assist many immigrants to Israel who are not Jewish according to Halacha (Jewish Law) in converting to Judaism. There are over 300,000 such immigrants from the countries of the former Soviet Union, and their full integration into Israelís Jewish society is a key issue of concern for us.
But while we support MK Rotemís underlying intention, the particular provisions of his bill are very troubling. The bill places the responsibility for conversion in Israel in the hands of the Chief Rabbinate and includes language that effectively requires converts to observe Orthodox Jewish law in their personal lives. These provisions are likely to make most immigrants ineligible for conversion (precisely the opposite of the billís intent) and to place the all aspects of conversion in Israel entirely in the hands of the Orthodox rabbinate.
At this point, our understanding is that MK Rotem has withdrawn another damaging provision that could have undermined the ability of Jews by Choice to enter Israel under the Law of Return, Israelís legal framework for accepting as citizens all Jews who wish to claim their right to live in the Jewish State.
The American Jewish community is diverse, as is Israelís. Solutions to the conversion crisis in Israel need to reflect and respect the diversity of Jewish life. We are deeply concerned that a misstep by the Government of Israel will help to alienate Jews who will not feel that their approach to Jewish life finds a place in Israel. For the sake of the unity of the Jewish People, United Jewish Communities of MetroWest is closely cooperating with our national system and the Jewish Agency to prevent the passage of damaging legislation.
Please find attached a letter sent by Jerry Silverman, President and CEO of Jewish Federations of North America, to Prime Minister Netanyahu. We will continue to apprise you of major developments relating to this proposed legislation.
Voices from the debate
Federation leaders and others from around the state weighed in on the proposed conversion bill.
Stuart Abraham of Manalapan, president of the Jewish Federation of Monmouth County, told NJ Jewish News, “It is extremely unfortunate that an effort that began as a way to become more inclusive for Jews around the world has become something that will become more exclusive, in Israel and around the world.
“It is important that we give all members of the Jewish community full access to Israeli citizenship. Until they have a legitimate right to convert and to marry, we have not accomplished that.”
Monmouth federation executive director Howard Gases said he thinks that the way the bill was handled was “inappropriate. Without involving Diaspora leaders in the process was a big mistake. I am hoping that Prime Minister Netanyahu — in conjunction with Natan Sharansky — is able to work this out for the benefit of the Jewish people in the Diaspora.”
Stanley H. Stone, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey, released a statement July 13 saying that his organization “continues to follow the events and proceedings concerning any possible changes with the laws dealing with conversion.
"We fully support [Sharansky’s] efforts to represent Jews from across the world, and to find a path that is acceptable to all. We are also pleased that…Jerry Silverman has decided to remain in Israel and reinforce the importance that we feel about this issue. It’s our hope that through these discussions, those behind these changes will back off and that the prime minister will do what is necessary to stop these divisive changes that could impact the unity of our people.”
Although the New Jersey State Association of Jewish Federations is not directly involved in lobbying efforts, its executive director, Jacob Toporek, said individual federations are actively opposing the legislation.
“Some of the federations are reaching out and trying to explain the issue to their constituents. There are individual contributors who are supporters of one side or the other, but the federations that are involved are trying to lobby against the bill.
Toporek said he has not “heard anything” from supporters of the bill who may be disturbed by the federations’ opposition.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) intends to join a number of his senate colleagues in signing an unusual letter expressing concern about the legislation.
Caley Gray, Lautenberg's communications director, told the Jerusalem Post that “Senator Lautenberg hopes the Knesset does not pass this legislation, which he views as divisive.”