Local federation leaders are joining officials from the Jewish Federations of North America, the Jewish Agency for Israel, and the non-Orthodox U.S. Jewish religious movements in slamming a controversial Knesset bill that would change Israel’s process for conversion to Judaism.
For months, Israeli lawmakers have been discussing a bill that would put more power over conversion into the hands of Israel’s Orthodox-dominated rabbinate by giving local rabbis the ability to perform conversions and giving the Chief Rabbinate oversight and control over the whole process.
The bill, proposed by Knesset member David Rotem of the Yisrael Beiteinu Party, has been derided by opponents in the United States, who fear that it would drive a wedge between Israel and the Diaspora by discounting non-Orthodox conversions in Israel.
They fear that giving power over conversion to the Chief Rabbinate could have an effect on Israel’s Law of Return, which grants immediate Israeli citizenship to anyone who has at least one Jewish grandparent, or to any convert to Judaism.
On July 12, in a surprise move, the Knesset’s Law Committee approved the bill.
Max Kleinman, executive vice president of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest, was in Israel when the news came down. He and UJC MetroWest Israel representative Amir Shacham joined other officials in lobbying Knesset members and others to revise the proposal.
Kleinman met Tuesday with Knesset member Nachman Shai of Kadima, and testified at a three-member Knesset sub-committee on the matter. “I indicated to them how the conversion bill would sow tremendous divisiveness within the Diaspora community,” said Kleinman in a phone call from Jerusalem. “We plan to discuss this issue with President [Shimon] Peres and ask him to use his good office to ensure that this issue is addressed beyond coalition politics, because it deals with the Jewish people.”
The bill’s detractors believed they had gotten Rotem to hold off on the bill pending more discussion; on July 11, when they learned the bill would be taken up, they released a flood of angry statements.
Leaders of the U.S. Jewish religious streams also sent off a flurry of strongly worded protests.
Natan Sharansky, chair of the Jewish Agency for Israel, is leading efforts to quash the measure.
“[W]e are deeply shocked and disappointed to hear that the bill will suddenly be presented tomorrow in its current, highly problematic format without any input from Sharansky or Diaspora communities,” the JFNA’s president and CEO, Jerry Silverman, wrote in a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “All of the discussions, understandings, and efforts seem to have disappeared overnight, and we are left feeling upset and even betrayed by MK Rotem and those behind the bill.”
Leaders of 15 other Jewish organizations, including heads of the Conservative and Reform movements, also sent a letter saying they were “dismayed” that Rotem had put forward the conversion law.
After the bill passed through the Law Committee by a 5-4 vote, Sharansky urged Netanyahu to take action, saying the bill could prove disastrous. “We cannot divide the Jewish people with legislation which many in the Jewish world view as defining them as second-class Jews,” Sharansky said. “We are at the beginning of the month of Av, when the Temple was destroyed because the Jewish people were busy with internal fighting instead of dealing with real dangers posed by their enemies. Jews abroad are the most loyal supporters of Israel and stand at the forefront of the fight for Israel’s image around the world.”
Rotem insisted this week that he never promised to hold off on pushing the measure through — and that whether it passes is of no concern to American Jews.
“I came to the U.S.” in May, he said. “I spoke to leaders, and I explained this is nothing that touched the American community. It has nothing to [do] with Jews in the Diaspora. It is only an Israeli matter. I think it is a big mistake. It is being used for political reasons because this law has got nothing to do with American Judaism or anyone in the Diaspora.”
Rotem, a former official with Israel’s National Religious Party, said the law would help thousands of Israelis who are not Jewish according to Halacha, or rabbinic law, become Jewish, as it would make conversions more accessible.
Kleinman acknowledged the need to address the status of the thousands of Russian-speaking immigrants who, having arrived under the less stringent Law of Return, are not Jewish according to Halacha. “Certainly we need to have much more extensive conversions of Russian immigrants,” he said. “But the Chief Rabbinate hasn’t done a good job. If you are going to impose a standard on Halacha that most of the immigrants are not prepared to meet, you’re not going to get too many customers.”
UJC MetroWest has long made issues of pluralism a priority in its Israel advocacy, he said. “We’re trying to interpret to Israeli legislators how this bill is bad and how it will sow tremendous divisions at a time when Israel and the Jewish world cannot afford it…,” he said.
NJJN staff contributed to this article.