The difficult process faced by would-be converts was addressed in meetings held on Sunday and Monday by President Moshe Katsav with NRP MK Rabbi Haim Druckman, appointed by the prime minister to supervise conversions, and a delegation of lay and religious leaders from the Jewish Agency.
Seven years after then-prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu set up a committee of Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform rabbis, headed by former finance minister Yaakov Neeman, to find a mutually acceptable solution to the problem of conversion, the number of people interested in the process has increased but most of them are held up by red tape.
Neeman called the contemporary rabbinical court situation "a catastrophe."
Jewish Agency chairman Sallai Meridor agreed, adding, "The committee is not given any authority and has not been permitted to operate... There are thousands of new immigrants who come to Israel according to the Law of Return who are not halachic Jews, who study Judaism in order to convert, and then their conversion is prevented.
If there will not be an immediate solution to the problem, it will create a crisis of confidence with those new immigrants that will affect many generations to come."
In Israel alone, there are some 60,000 people interested in conversion who have not for any number of reasons come before the relevant authorities - and most of them are unlikely to, according to Alex Grass, past chairman of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency.
Grass also warned that delays in dealing with people who have undergone an appropriate course of study could affect future immigration. There are many people in Russia who want to immigrate once the country becomes peaceful, he said, but many will become discouraged because the conversion issue remains unresolved.
Katsav said that while he does not want to circumvent Halacha or introduce quickie conversions, he can find no justification for so many delays. Thousands of people who would like to convert are serving in the IDF, he said, pledging to consult both the prime minister and the justice minister on how to eliminate the bureaucracy.
Though Orthodox himself, Katsav said that any attempt to distance Conservative and Reform Jews from mainstream Judaism is unacceptable. "I do not accept that the Reform and Conservative movements are beyond the pale of Judaism," he said. "We must find a way to unite them in finding solutions for this common challenge."
Katsav was particularly angry that so many candidates for conversion have actually passed their tests with flying colors, and technically could have converted a long time ago.
Jenny Hazan contributed to this report.