Reform rabbi criticizes IDF conversion program
June 7, 2011 | Jewish Tribune
JERUSALEM – A Reform rabbinical leader has criticized the low level of mitzvah observance of Israel soldiers who convert through the IDF’s Nativ Program, an intensive program about Judaism and Zionism that offers an optional conversion track.
At a recent Knesset plenum dedicated to conversions in Israel, Rabbi Uri Regev, founder of the Hiddush religious pluralism group, said that the majority of IDF converts don’t remain religious after their conversions.
“According to Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, if a convert doesn’t intend to keep the commandments, his conversion is invalid,” he said. He castigated the Israeli rabbinate for “putting its head in the sand” by endorsing IDF conversions. “If these would be cars, we’d make a recall,” he told the Knesset Committee.
Ironically, Regev’s viewpoints are in accord with most Hareidi rabbis who claim that the converts in the IDF program have no intention of practising Judaism but wish to ease the process of marriage in the state of Israel, where the laws of marriage and divorce are regulated by Israel’s Orthodox rabbinate.
Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef – himself a Hareidi rabbinic leader and former chief rabbi of Israel – recently affirmed that the Israeli Rabbinate and IDF conversions are valid, as the converts accepted the religious precepts at the time of their conversions. They said that after people convert to Judaism, their Jewish status remains, regardless of their religious observance in the future.
But Rabbi Nachum Eisenstein, a rabbinical judge in Jerusalem who heads the International Rabbinical Committee on Conversion, says that the majority of IDF converts never intended to keep the commandments. “It’s not five minutes down the road; it’s five seconds down the road that they stop keeping mitzvot,” he told the Jewish Tribune.
Nevertheless, the Hiddush leader doesn’t see eye-to-eye with Rabbi Eisenstein. While Regev is against the Supreme Court’s demanding that Israeli religious judges accept all conversions, he is a proponent of civil marriage, something that most Israeli Orthodox rabbis are against.
Under Israeli law, all Jewish marriages and divorces must be conducted under the auspices of the state’s Rabbinate, which is Orthodox. Regev recalls being told by Rabbi David Tropper of the Gesher Institute that this arrangement allows “my grandchildren to marry your grandchildren.” But Regev, a proponent of liberalizing these laws, feels the price is too heavy to pay.
Meanwhile, Colonel Marcelle Assouline, head of the education section of the IDF Manpower Branch, told the committee that the number of applicants to its Nativ program has been severely reduced by about 100 from the former 800 annual applications for conversion. She blames the bad publicity for the drop. In the 10 years of the program’s existence, 19,000 soldiers participated and 5,100 have converted.
Rabbi Seth Farber of Itim, the Jewish Life Information Centre, mentioned that the interior ministry refuses to give citizenship for North American Orthodox Jewish converts who didn’t perform their conversions at one of the ten regional courts of the Rabbinical Council of America. Itim recently filed suit in the Supreme Court regarding the government’s refusal to recognize Orthodox conversions performed abroad.
He mentioned that 18 North American Orthodox converts are still waiting to make aliyah.
“Precisely those who chose Orthodox conversions are being penalized for not converting in a recognized non-Orthodox framework,” Rabbi Farber told the committee.
Committee Chair Danny Danon stressed that the Israeli government must not allow bureaucratic processes to stand in the way of those who, in all good faith, wish to join the Jewish people. Danon also mentioned the Exceptions Committee of the Conversion Department at the Prime Minister's Office, calling for a streamlining and simplification of procedures.
Muli Yesselson, head of the Rabbinate’s Conversion Department reported that there are some 7,000 applications each year and that 4,645 people converted during 2010, of whom 2,159 were from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) or the former Soviet Union, 1,813 from Ethiopia and 673 from other countries. While there has been a fall of 51 per cent in the number of applications by Ethiopian immigrants due to the drop in immigration, the number of applications from the CIS has risen by 17 per cent, a rise that has continued for three years now. However, since 2007, there has been a sharp drop in the number of converts, from 8008 in 2007, to 6221 in 2008, 6231 in 2009 and only 4,645 last year.
According to Yesselson, there are no delays in the conversion process today, and the department has added 10 rabbinical court judges and opened a national conversion hotline.