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JewishJournal.com

April 13, 2000

Conversion Controversy

High court cuts short hearing on non-Orthodox conversions

http://www.jewishjournal.com/old_stories/article/conversion_controversy_20000414

Reform and Conservative leaders in Israel had hoped Israel's Supreme Court would resolve a years-long struggle for recognition in Israel.

Instead, the court on Tuesday heard only two hours of arguments in the bitterly disputed question of whether the state should recognize non-Orthodox conversions to Judaism, then adjourned.

Court President Aharon Barak said the court had other issues to address and gave no date for the hearings to resume before an expanded panel of 11 justices.

"There is no doubt I am disappointed," Rabbi Ehud Bandel, president of the Masorti, or Conservative, movement in Israel told Israel Radio. "I expected a full day of deliberations. I did not expect a decision today, but I hoped at least for the deliberations to be concluded and we are now awaiting a final decision.

"After five years of this case being dragged around, I see it is a hot potato each side is trying to pass off to the other. The court is handing off to the Knesset; the Knesset returns it here. It is unfortunate there is a lack of courage to try to resolve the matter."

Bandel did say, though, that there is a "ray of hope" in the delay because it would help them return to the negotiating table with the chief rabbinate to "find a solution to the sensitive matter outside the court room and not in Knesset legislation."

Tuesday's court session was to consider petitions filed by the Reform and Conservative movements seeking recognition of conversions performed abroad and in Israel, as well as a state appeal of a lower court decision to register non-Orthodox converts as Jews in the Interior Ministry's population registry.

Orthodox leaders have long rejected the validity of non-Orthodox conversions, calling them "quickie" conversions that are done for convenience.

Legislator Avraham Ravitz, of the fervently Orthodox United Torah Judaism bloc, said the question for potential converts is simple: "Are you ready to join the Jewish religion?"

Deputy Minister Shaul Yahalom of the National Religious Party has repeatedly urged the Knesset to set clear criteria for non-Orthodox conversions performed in Israel.

If legislators "continue to ignore the matter and put it off, it is clear the court will one day have to decide the matter and rule that these people should be registered as Jews," Yahalom said.

The refusal of Israel's Orthodox establishment to recognize the validity of non-Orthodox conversions has long divided Israel and the Diaspora, where most Jews are affiliated with the liberal streams.

The Orthodox have sole authority over religious matters such as conversion, marriage and divorce.

In the state's appeal of a Jerusalem district court ruling that recognized non-Orthodox conversions, state attorney Yochi Gennisn warned that easing conversion regulations would cause "divisions, confusion and chaos."

Rabbi Uri Regev, director of the Reform movement's Israel Religious Action Center, said efforts to reach a compromise outside the courts have been exhausted.

"What is left now is for the matter to be determined based on the law and a ruling, and I hope the court will do this."

In the courtroom Tuesday were people whose non-Orthodox conversions had not been recognized, as well as parents of children adopted abroad. One Israeli couple had adopted two children in Lithuania, whose Conservative conversions were not recognized.

"My wife and I have two adopted children, whom we want to be part of our people. We first went and tried an Orthodox conversion, which was refused because it would only be granted if the children go to religious school, and we refused to have that imposed on us," the father, Uri, told Israel Radio.

"So we instead went to the Conservative movement, which in my view are no less good Jews than any other."

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