March 25, 1999
Has Anything Changed?
As Israel's joint conversion institute debuts, the gulf between liberal and Orthodox Jewish leaders looms as large as ever
Representatives of Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Judaism in Israel have launched the country's first interdenominational conversion institute in the northern Galilee town of Carmiel.
But this latest development in the ongoing battle over religious pluralism in the Jewish state debuted under a cloud of charges and uncertainty, raising questions about how successful the institute will be in resolving the debate that has divided many Jews.
Leaders of the liberal streams said that the institute -- originally devised as a compromise to end a two-year controversy over whether conversions they perform in Israel should be recognized by the state -- did not solve any problems, because the Orthodox chief rabbinate has not officially agreed to recognize the institute's graduates.
The Institute for Judaic Studies, founded by the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Israeli government, started its first program on Monday with 37 students, all emigrants from the former Soviet Union.
Many of the immigrants are non-Jews married to Jews who had been eligible to immigrate under the Law of Return, which grants automatic citizenship to all Jews when they move to Israel.
They will study Judaism for 440 hours -- three times a week during a one-year period -- supervised by a staff of about 25 teachers, who are drawn from the three main streams of Judaism.
"Teachers will deliver courses based on their expertise," said Tsila Kraskin, executive coordinator of the institute for the Jewish Agency. "Panel discussions will include members of all streams."
According to Kraskin, Israel's chief rabbis, while they have not explicitly endorsed the institute, hinted at a recent meeting that Orthodox rabbinical courts would consider graduates of the new institute eligible for conversions.
"The chief rabbis told us that they don't convert institutes; they convert people," said Kraskin. "They said if the institute's graduates will meet their criteria, they will have no problem."
A spokesman for the chief rabbinate, Tzvi Rosen, confirmed that this is the chief rabbis' position.
"They will be tested according to the halacha," he said of the candidates for conversion. "It doesn't matter whether they come from this or that institute."
But Rabbi Uri Regev, director of the Reform movement's Religious Action Center in Israel, called the statement a bluff. He said that several Reform and Conservative conversion candidates were recently sent to a moderate Orthodox rabbi to complete their conversion courses.
But even this rabbi agreed only to carry out the conversion if the candidates agreed to observe Shabbat, keep kosher and give their children an Orthodox education, he said.
"They were left with two options," said Regev. "Either to lie -- and some did -- to get an Orthodox conversion, or, for those who were not willing to lie, to accept that they cannot convert."
This, said Regev, is probably the meaning of the rabbinate's willingness to consider the institute's graduates.
"Their statement only proves that the institute is totally irrelevant to them," said Regev.
In addition, he said, the institute's launch does not change the fact that the Neeman Committee has failed. The committee, headed by former Finance Minister Yaakov Neeman, was created two years ago by the government to seek a compromise to the conversion issue.
"Neeman sold us peace in the Jewish people, and this means there was supposed to be give and take," Regev said. "In reality, there is no dialogue, no cooperation, no recognition."
It was the Neeman Committee that proposed the interdenominational institute as a compromise solution to the conversion issue.
The three major streams of Judaism would be involved in preparing candidates for conversion, while only Orthodox rabbis would be allowed to perform the conversions.
The compromise was suggested to head off a crisis sparked when Orthodox parties in the Knesset tried to pass a conversion bill that would have codified into law the Orthodox chief rabbinate's authority over all conversions conducted in Israel.
Orthodox parties blamed the liberal movements for the crisis, saying that they were trying to break the decades-old status quo by seeking court rulings favorable to their cause.
Many American Jews, most of whom identify with Reform and Conservative Judaism, were angered by the Orthodox legislative drive, which they believed delegitimized their Jewishness.
Israeli liberal Jewish movements have fought the proposed legislation in Israeli courts, which recently ruled that their conversions must be recognized by the state.
Responding to the concerns, Professor Binyamin Ish-Shalom, the institute's Orthodox chairman, urged all sides to give the institute a chance.
"I think we need to give it time, and, ultimately, the test will be in the field, when our graduates will stand before the rabbinical courts," he said.