This week, representatives from several prominent Orthodox and Zionist organizations—including Rabbi Binyamin Blau, the president of the Rabbinical Assembly of America—met with Israel’s minister of religious affairs, Matan Kahana, to discuss his proposed reforms to Israel’s conversion process. Ultimately, as they explain in an open letter, they were unable to support Kahana’s legislation in its current form.
Like Minister Kahana, we recognize a real and serious problem facing Israeli society. Hundreds of thousands of non-Jews have come to Israel from the former Soviet Union and become citizens, serve in the IDF, attend schools, and integrate into Israeli society. Yet despite their contributions to Israel’s security and economy, they cannot benefit from certain rights available to Jews. Their children are growing up Israeli and intermarrying with Jews.
These are serious challenges, but we are concerned that Minister Kahana’s proposed reforms—including the decentralization of Israel’s conversion courts, as well as the resultant lack of transparent standards—will not solve these difficulties. They will instead create another, equally severe, set of problems. We are also concerned that his proposals sideline Israel’s chief rabbinate.
The costs are potentially very significant. The proposal to decentralize conversion authority to local rabbinical courts will result in different—and perhaps contradictory—standards of conversion being used in different locales. Those converted by more lenient standards will not be accepted as Jewish by others, creating two communities that cannot marry each other, thus dividing Israelis even more.
Israel should learn from our experience in the U.S. Less than twenty years ago, any rabbi in America who so wished would perform conversions according to his own standards. The result was a complete lack of trust and transparency regarding the halakhic quality of those conversions, necessitating individual investigation. . . . The [Israeli] rabbinate’s imposition of a minimum standard contributed greatly to the successful establishment of the Rabbinical Council of America’s “GPS network” of Orthodox conversion courts, . . . maintaining a specific standard for conversion that has significantly improved the trust and transparency of American conversions.