New Jersey rabbis respond to controversial Israeli conversion bill

New Jersey rabbis respond to controversial Israeli conversion bill

Though the author of Israel’s controversial pending legislation on conversion maintains that “this law has nothing to do with American Jewry,” many American Jews – including constituencies in North Jersey – fear it would strengthen the hand of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, which is Orthodox.

The Rotem bill, introduced by David Rotem of the heavily Russian émigré Yisrael Beiteinu party, addresses the fact that an estimated 300,000 Israelis – mainly of Russian descent – are Jewish according to Israel’s Law of Return but not according to traditional Jewish law, halacha. In order to more efficiently process the large number of those people wishing to convert, the law would expand municipal rabbinical courts’ authority to conduct conversions and prevent revocation of conversions by third parties. It would also formalize the de facto control of the Chief Rabbinate over the system, a provision Rotem is said to have added in a bid for the backing of powerful political leaders from religious parties.

Opponents of the Rotem bill believe it would end non-Orthodox conversions in Israel, give too much power to the Chief Rabbinate, and result in the official rejection of many conversions performed abroad – which primarily would affect non-Orthodox converts wishing to immigrate to Israel.

On July 22, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office announced that the Reform and Masorti (Conservative) movements in Israel had agreed to halt their High Court of Justice petition demanding state recognition of non-Orthodox conversions conducted in Israel in return for a similar halt in the progression of the Rotem bill through the Knesset.

Until that period ends Jan. 1, Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky is to create an authority to find a mutually agreeable version of the conversion legislation in concert with members of Israeli non-Orthodox movements and the government.

In deference to this development, the North Jersey Board of Rabbis – whose members are Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist – shelved a planned letter to Netanyahu expressing the board’s misgivings about the bill, according to NJBR’s president, Rabbi Randall Mark of Wayne.

Mark noted that this is the first time leaders of Judaism’s liberal streams have been invited to be involved in such a process as representatives of their movements rather than as individuals. American groups such as the (Conservative) Rabbinical Assembly, he added, are urging members to stay vigilant to further discussions on the bill that may take place when the Knesset reconvenes in October.

“I’m always aware as an American Jewish leader that we’re looking in from the outside,” Mark said, “but what I’m hearing from liberal Jews in Israel, as well as leaders here, is that whether Rotem was doing it intentionally or not, his internal fix to cede control to the increasingly haredi [fervently Orthodox] Chief Rabbinate jeopardizes the standing of conversions outside of Israel and would impact the whole ‘who is a Jew’ question in a way that liberal Judaism would find negative. We have a right to express our concern about the ramifications of the Knesset’s actions.”

Rabbi Shammai Engelmayer, a Jewish Standard columnist and rabbi of (Conservative) Temple Israel Community Center/Congregation Heichal Yisrael in Cliffside Park, circulated an appeal on July 15 that predicted the legislation, if approved, “is very likely to cause great damage to the relationship between Jews in the diaspora and the State of Israel. The bill could lead to a lessening of support for Israel among diaspora Jews precisely at the time when the enemies of the Jewish state are making headway in trying to demonize it…. We urge you to e-mail Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to register your opposition to this bill.”

A July 19 statement from the (Orthodox) Rabbinical Council of America sought to allay such fears and discourage American interference in an Israeli issue.

The statement acknowledged that “[d]ecisions made in the Knesset relating to Jewish status in the State impact on the entire Jewish world,” and reiterated that “the RCA has expended major efforts in recent years to work with Israeli authorities to facilitate acceptance of RCA conversions in Israel. This effort has borne fruit with a significantly expanded number of conversion courts and judges whose converts are fully recognized in the State of Israel.”
Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, a lawyer and leader of Cong. Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck, is a member of the RCA’s Geirus [Conversion] Policies and Standards Committee. He chairs the regional Orthodox rabbinical conversion committee – a body made up of volunteers from the 25-member Rabbinical Council of Bergen County – that operates under the RCA’s so-called GPS guidelines.

Pruzansky, who was not available for comment, wrote an article about conversion standards in Israel and the United States when GPS was instituted four years ago. According to that article, which appeared in several publications, including Tradition magazine, “the [Israeli Chief Rabbinate] never once suggested an approach to conversion in America, a change in any of our standards or the adoption of any of their standards. The [Rabbinate] has no standing (or interest) to review the geirus that occurs outside Israel until and unless there is some Israel nexus, such as when the convert makes aliyah. But this has always been the case…. Any [r]abbi – RCA or otherwise – can continue to perform conversions on his own and apply to the [Rabbinate] for acceptance. The considerations the [Rabbinate] will use are theirs alone, and completely within their purview.”

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Englewood, first vice president of the RCA, said the GPS guidelines were meant to standardize conversion in a way that would be acceptable on both sides of the ocean. “In the modern Orthodox community, it was like the Wild West, with some rabbis taking liberties, and their conversions were not necessarily as they should be,” said Goldin. “Because of that, acceptance here and in Israel was questioned.”

Under the RCA’s GPS guidelines, regional rabbinical courts were set up to ensure standardization. “The conversions going through them are accepted here and in Israel,” said Goldin.

In response to a charge by Tablet magazine editor Alana Newhouse in a New York Times op-ed that under the Rotem bill, “even if you are Orthodox – and especially if you are modern Orthodox – your rabbi probably doesn’t make the cut,” Goldin said that this refers to conversions done through individual rabbis acting in disregard of the GPS standards.

According to protocol, RCBC rabbis bring potential converts to meet with Pruzansky’s committee early in the process, said Goldin. The sponsoring rabbi – if he is a member of the committee – absents himself from the finalization of that conversion to ensure an objective outcome. Goldin said he is approached by “a handful” of potential converts annually and did not know how many the other RCBC rabbis typically deal with. Rabbi Larry Rothwachs, RCBC president, could not be reached for comment.

The July 19 RCA statement also noted that just as there is no consensus in Israel about the Rotem bill, which is supported by the secular Kadima and Labor parties, “there is certainly no unanimity, or even consensus, among American Jews on the matter of the current Knesset legislation.”

Goldin said he understands the reservations of Reform and Conservative American rabbis, but noted that the number of their converts desiring Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return is small, especially compared with the number of current Israeli citizens seeking to become halachically Jewish. “On balance, Israel has a right to try to address its issues,” he said. “At the same time, I welcome the fact that the bill has been put on hold so we can all retrench and see if we can find ways to make it more palatable to everyone.”

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