Jewish Agency Plans Fast-Track Conversion for
Immigrants from CIS
The Jewish Agency is readying a quick conversion course for non-Jewish immigrants from the Commonwealth of Independent States.
According to the plan, dubbed Mt. Sinai, a special camp will be opened in an East European country, where immigrants on their way to Israel would spend four weeks in an intensive course that would climax in a conversion by Orthodox rabbis from Israeli rabbinical courts.
Special panels of rabbis will be flown to the camps from Israel. The four-week course would be much speedier than the six months or more it takes to convert in Israel. Several well-known rabbis in the Orthodox establishment have agreed in principle to take part. At this stage, the program is planned for 150-200 new immigrants, but if the plan works, agency officials believe thousands could be converted in the program.
Opening the quick conversion route is a dramatic step for the agency, and is meant to help new immigrants bypass the bottleneck in the rabbinical courts in Israel. Despite mounting public pressure, the rabbinical courts refuse to change their policies and only convert a few hundred people a year from the former Soviet Union. The special seminar for conversions, based on recommendations by a commission headed by attorney Yaakov Neeman, has not made a dramatic change in those numbers, despite its original promise to do so.
Estimates put the number of non-Jewish immigrants in Israel at some 250,000 to 300,000, and agency activists call it a "ticking social bomb."
Three key people are behind the plan. Sallai Meridor, the agency chairman, decided to "break the rules" with the rabbinical courts, accusing them of "an inhumane attitude" toward immigrants and conducting a policy "against the national interests of the state."
The plan's second key personage is Prime Minster Ariel Sharon, who declared last week to the agency's board of governors that he regards finding a solution to the conversion problem as a top priority. "Meridor would not have set the plan in motion without backing from the prime minister," said a source knowledgeable about the program.
The third person is Neeman. The board of governors has named a committee, which he will head, to examine the conversion issue and its possible solutions. There is also no doubt that the appointment of Shinui's Avraham Poraz as interior minister will greatly smooth the way for the program, compared to his predecessor, Eli Yishai of Shas.
The decision to conduct the conversions in an Eastern European country rather than in Russia or another of the CIS countries was made to avoid suspicions in those countries the agency was encouraging citizens of those states to emigrate to Israel. Although theoretically it would be possible to convert immigrants already in Israel, by way of the same program, there are no plans yet to do so, to avoid a direct clash with the rabbinical courts.
Reprinted with the permission of Haaretz Daily (English)
In the 1970s, during the first wave of Soviet immigrants, a similar plan was tried, using Israeli rabbis overseas to convert new immigrants. But that program was only partially successful, because many of the rabbis involved were not considered authoritative enough for the Orthodox establishment in Israel so they did not recognize many of the conversions. To avoid that eventuality, this time the agency decided to work with rabbis whose authority is unassailable and the agency is keeping their identities secret for now, to prevent the chief rabbinate from applying pressure on them.
Agency spokesman Ephraim Lapid said the agency regards the issue of conversion as "highly important. The board of governors, which convened last week in Jerusalem, decided to advance the subject with the government and to appoint a committee headed by Prof. Neeman to recommend ways to improve the conversion process." Neeman's office had no comment.