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Rising Streams: Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel

The Reform Movement conducts approximately 250 conversions in Israel each year. The Conservative Movement conducted 160 in 2016.112 As a point of comparison, the Conservative Movement estimates that it conducts around 2500-3000 conversions worldwide annually, and JPPI estimates that between 1500 and 3000 Reform conversions are performed in the United States each year. 113 In all, roughly 14 percent of the American Jewish community is composed of converts.114

Since 1989, Reform and Conservative conversions conducted abroad by recognized Jewish communities are accepted by the Israeli Interior Ministry for purposes of immigration under the “Law of Return” (following a Supreme Court decision).115 The Interior Ministry considers such converts to be Jewish. However, the Rabbinate does not, which means that although they hold Israeli citizenship, they cannot marry in Israel.

Since 2002 (after another High Court victory), Israeli citizens who convert through the Reform or Conservative Movements inside Israel are recognized as Jewish by the Interior Ministry following a legal procedure, and their status is changed. However, this also does not hold sway with the Rabbinate and so these Jews cannot marry inside of Israel.

The matter of conversion and who gets to decide “who is a Jew” rose to the top of the national agenda in the late 1990s. The government ordered a committee to propose a compromise solution, headed by the late Yaakov Ne’eman. The Ne’eman Committee proposed a compromise whereby a national Joint Conversion Center would be established, in which representatives of the three streams (Orthodox, Conservative and Reform) as well as secular Jews would teach as well as help establish a pluralistic conversion curriculum. Program graduates would then stand in front of a specially appointed Rabbinate beit din (religious jury) for the conversion itself, so that there would be a unified Orthodox conversion acceptable to all streams. While the report and recommendations themselves were not officially adopted by the government, the spirit of the compromise was and the Reform and Conservative Movements, as well as the Rabbinate, eventually agreed to cooperate. The Conversion Center was established in 1999, headed, until today, by Professor Benjamin Ish Shalom. It changed its name to NATIV, The National Center for Jewish Studies, Identity and Conversion, in 2015.116

Ish Shalom explained117 that the curriculum was developed together with Reform, Conservative, and secular representatives, and quietly coordinated with the Rabbinate itself, something that has contributed to its continued success. He described between 4000 to 6000 candidates studying at any given time, with around 2000 converting through the program each year, the majority of official converts in Israel. Roughly, two-thirds of participants are civilians and one-third are soldiers, who participate in a special program run in conjunction with the IDF.

Overall, 87,234 individuals converted officially through the Orthodox Rabbinate between 1996 and 2016. 2,795 individuals underwent official conversion in 2016.118

There has been no shortage of criticism for the conversion program meant to serve as a compromise arrangement to resolve the conversion issue. Some of the criticism is of the program overall, such as described by a 2013 state comptroller report and others, claiming the program hadn’t produced the anticipated number of converts given the massive government funds invested. Only about 8 percent of the country’s potential converts have actually converted.119

According to ITIM head Rabbi Seth Farber,120 the special conversion courts were not fully accepted by the rabbinical system initially. He recalled significant court cases from 2007 and 2010, in which the Supreme Court and then Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar were forced to intervene to overturn local religious council decisions refusing to recognize the conversions of institute graduates and the rulings of the special conversion courts. Since then, Farber described two developments that led to the high failure rate we see today. The first was that the court cases and chief rabbi’s decision led the Rabbinate to fully back and support the special conversion courts, which they had not initially done. The reverse side of this was that the judges sitting on the conversion courts raised the bar for accepting converts. Farber suggests that is because many of the judges do not take the NATIV program as seriously as other conversion programs.

Ish Shalom, referring to these challenges, added that from his perspective, NATIV has had, at times, to directly challenge the conversion courts when they were being overly scrupulous. As to the Reform and Conservative Movements specifically, he pointed to the continued presence and participation of the Movements in the program as to its overall success, despite occasional challenges. He further noted that many (around 15 percent) of those who enroll do not necessarily intend to convert, but rather are Jewish spouses of conversion candidates, seeking Jewish education, which helps explain the low graduation rates.121

Farber added that those conversion candidates who studied under Reform or Conservative teachers at the Institute, and especially those who might be accompanied to the court by those teachers, can expect discrimination and an especially difficult experience before the courts. The few Reform and Conservative rabbis teaching within the program thus likely have to minimize their denominational affiliation in front of the courts so as not to handicap the outcome of the conversion court’s decision. Moreover, he pointed to the relatively small number of Reform and Conservative representatives in the NATIV conversion program as a sign that the Ne’eman plan did not solve the issue as intended. He further speculated that perhaps, the Reform and Conservative Movements had hoped to eventually gain recognition through the compromise plan, which did not happen. This, together with their increased strength and influence today compared to two decades ago, explains why they are now seeking recognition for their own conversions in supersession of the compromise plan.

Thus, in 2015, IRAC initiated a Supreme Court appeal to grant citizenship to non-citizen residents who convert through the non-Orthodox movements in Israel. IRAC’s claim was reinforced by a precedent set by a private Haredi conversion court, also not recognized by the Rabbinate.122 The Court ruled in 2016 that a private Haredi conversion be recognized for the sake of bestowing citizenship.123 IRAC estimates that as many as 300-400 such non-state conversions (Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox) take place each year in Israel and go unrecognized. Farber pointed to the Giyur Kahalacha (conversion by Jewish law) initiative, with which he is involved, which seeks to provide an Orthodox alternative to the Rabbinate on this issue. He estimates this private conversion program conducts roughly 300 Orthodox, non-rabbinate conversions each year.

In May 2017, a draft bill was introduced in the Knesset by the Ultra-Orthodox Shas party, intended to overturn the March 2016 High Court ruling granting state recognition, and thus citizenship, to private Orthodox conversions, and block the Court from recognizing Reform and Conservative conversions from conferring citizenship.124 The ministerial committee for legislation approved the bill on June 25, 2017, along with the Kotel agreement freeze, further drawing the ire of the Reform and Conservative Movements in Israel and abroad as well as the major American Jewish organizations.125

Were this bill to pass, it would not have directly affected foreign Reform and Conservative conversions, as “recognized Jewish communities” outside Israel have autonomy in such matters. However, Reform and Conservative leaders feared this would provide precedent for Haredi attempts to block recognition of Diaspora conversions and grant the Rabbinate a legal and official monopoly over conversion, which it currently does not have.
As noted in JPPI’s 2017 Annual Assessment:

“The bill’s supporters cite the need to maintain oversight over a process that grants citizenship, particularly to ensure that migrants and political asylum seekers, such as from Africa or the Palestinian territories, who are not considered sincere convert applicants, cannot take advantage of more lenient or even fake conversion processes to gain citizenship. Conversely, the heads of the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel note that they had already agreed to certain criteria as to the conversion applicants and that they would not conduct conversions on such asylum-seekers. They further fear that were the Rabbinate to gain greater control over the conversion process, it could eventually attempt to overturn the ability of community rabbis abroad, of any denomination, to convert for the sake of making Aliyah.” 126

The bill was frozen by the prime minister in order to reach some form of compromise between the government, the Haredi parties, the Reform and Conservative Movements, and the American Jewish community.127 In August 2017, the prime minister appointed former Justice Minister Moshe Nissim to review the conversion issue and propose a path to resolve it.128

In June 2018, Nissim presented his compromise proposal, whereby the recognition of Reform and Conservative conversions conducted abroad would cemented in law. Conversely, conversion in Israel would be moved from the purview of the Chief Rabbinate to a newly formed national conversion authority within the Prime Minister’s Office. While it would remain Orthodox, it would no longer be a part of the Rabbinate, and the Chief Rabbis’ role would be limited to serving on a committee that appoints the conversion courts and judges.129 The Reform and Conservative Movements rejected this compromise, as it would enshrine in law the government’s refusal to recognize Israeli Reform and Conservative conversions.130 Conversely, Haredi and more hardline Dati politicians and rabbis reject the compromise on the grounds that it grants recognition to the liberal movements. Some Dati leaders also oppose the proposal on the grounds that it would weaken the Chief Rabbinate.131

The issue of conversion recognition also bears on such things as receiving state funding for the brit milah (circumcision ceremony), necessary for male converts. This procedure can cost as much as NIS 4000 (USD ~1000) for an older child or adult, which can be taxing for many individuals. IRAC noted they are working through the judiciary to receive such funding for their conversions as well.