Fighting the Monopoly on Jewish Conversion

9 December 2021

The NIF community views the new Conversion Law promoted by Israel’s Minister of Religious Affairs Matan Kahana as a very small step in the right direction, but recognizes that it leaves out many important elements, including the right of all citizens to a civil marriage.

Israel Hofsheet (Be Free Israel) welcomes Kahana’s challenge to the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly on Jewish conversion and the improvement of Jewish religious services but says that ultimately this is a reform that will not solve the very real issues faced by some 400,000 Israelis who are not recognized as Jewish by the rabbinate.

Under the new law, municipal rabbis can set up their own committees and conduct conversions as part of a national conversion network. But while the current centralized and laborious national conversion system will be defunct, the Chief Rabbis will still have the power to cancel appointments of municipal “dayanim” (rabbinic judges) and conversion will remain closely monitored by senior rabbis from the national religious movement. Although conversion will be actively promoted for the first time, conversion will still only be conducted in accordance with Orthodox interpretations of Jewish law, leaving no room for Conservative or Reform conversions.

Israel Hofsheet said, “Today, Israel’s national conversion authority (the national body that does only Orthodox conversions) performs 2,000 conversions each year. Even if this number were to double or triple after this reform, it will still only represent a tiny percentage of the total number of citizens who are [on the one hand] recognized as Jewish under Israel’s Law of Return, but [on the other], are not recognized in terms of the rabbinate.

“In our estimation, these citizens will not flock en masse to the gates of Israel’s conversion courts, and the reason is simple: the vast majority of these people live their lives as Jews in Israel and do not need the approval of the religious establishment — nor are they interested in becoming any more religious. What they do need is the right to a civil marriage. Many are forced to fly abroad to get married or live as common law couples. This is a blatant violation of equality.”

Photo credit: Itzik Edri