Open Letter to the Prime Minister from Rabbi Julie Schonfeld
Dear Mr. Prime Minister,
I have good news and I have bad news.
The bad news is that rabbis all over the world are thanking you for giving them a Rosh Hashanah sermon.
The good news is that you get to write every one of them. The sermon we all want to give, is one in which you, as a visionary leader make an unambiguous statement in opposition to this bill which divides Israel from the Diaspora. We hope that we can invoke your name, Mr. Prime Minister, with the same spirit of reverence we reserve for the great leaders of the Jewish people.
Regrettably, David Rotem has already brought us a tragically cynical Rosh Hodesh Av homily, when he unexpectedly reintroduced his bill, undermining discussions you set in motion with Natan Sharansky. Our Tradition teaches that the exile of our people was brought about by senseless fighting among ourselves. Please, Mr. Prime Minister, bring us a message for Tishrei that is redemptive.
Our opponents claim that this bill which alienates the Diaspora, will unify Israel. We have a few questions as to how the Conversion Bill will help Israelis from the FSU whom MK Rotem assures me will all be converted within a year after its passage.
First, since the local courts created by the proposed law still find ultimate authority with the same rabbis, what will change? Second, Members of Knesset tell me this bill is too little too late. In Israel's free and open society where extremists have given Jewish religion a bad image, many young Israelis don't care whether a potential spouse is halakhically Jewish. The coercive ultra religious system is a total failure that spends tens of millions of NIS to yield only 1500 converts per year. Of those, 200 are Masorti, who receive no funding. The way to really "solve this problem," is to have options for multiple streams and for the indigenous Israeli expressions that will only flower in a non-coercive system.
Third, the newly revised bill includes a new provision that further strangles the Law of Return by explicitly defining the observance of mitzvot according to extremist rabbis who will now have sole legislative authority.
For the Knesset to vote on this is not only a mockery of democracy, it is an even deeper betrayal of 3,000 years of Jewish tradition.
Judaism's injunction to turn the prospective convert away three times is based not on suspicion, but on the historical Jewish reality of discrimination, ostracism and even death. That deepest desire of our people to find safe harbor from the mortal danger of Jewish identity found its fullest expression in the law of return.
What a bitter irony that this new provision which "turns away" the righteous convert, whether from the FSU or elsewhere, does not do so in order to seek that person's safety, but based on whether they are "religious enough."
On Rosh Hashanah it is written, but on Yom kippur it is sealed. The love of God for Israel is a love that both demands and encourages. We cannot allow this law to divide us, for we want nothing more, all of us, than to support you, the nation of Israel and Am Yisrael. Please Mr. Prime Minister, let us inscribe you in the book of the great leaders of the Jewish people.
Rabbi Julie Schonfeld Executive Vice President The Rabbinical Assembly
Conversion Bill - English Translation
Version for Discussion - Preparation for First Reading - July 12, 2010
The Chief Rabbinate of Israel (Amendment - Jurisdiction with respect to Conversions) Bill, 5770-2010
Amendment of Section 2
1. In section 2 of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel Law 5740-1980 (hereinafter: the "Principal Law"), the following shall be inserted after paragraph (6):
"(6A) Responsibility for Conversion Issues in Israel. The provisions of this paragraph shall not derogate from the powers to conduct conversions in Israel granted to the special conversion courts by government decision, nor from the existing powers of the Rabbinical Courts under any law;" Addition of Sections 24A - 24D
2.The following shall be inserted after section 24 of the Principal Law:
"Qualifications of Members of Special Rabbinical Court 24A.
(a) A municipal rabbi or the rabbi of a local council, or a person who acted as a municipal rabbi or as a rabbi of a local council under the Jewish Religious Services Law [Consolidated Version], 5731-1971, and whose office was not terminated under the provisions of section 12A of such law (in this section and in sections 24B and 24C, a municipal rabbi) may conduct conversion together with two other municipal rabbis or with two members of a special conversion court set up by virtue of government decision, as set out in section 2(6A) (all three jointly - a Special Rabbinical Court), provided that the conversion is performed by the special court lawfully, following acceptance of the burden of the Torah and commandments as required by Jewish law. (b) Should the Chief Rabbis of Israel find that a member of a Special Rabbinical Court has acted in a way unbecoming of his status or that a member of a Special Rabbinical Court is not conducting conversions in accordance with the provisions of sub-section (a), they shall be entitled to determine that such Special Rabbinical Court shall not be entitled to conduct conversions under this Law. (c) Procedures for hearings and matters before the Chief Rabbis in proceedings under sub-section (b) shall be set out in regulations, with the consent of the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee of the Knesset.
Powers of Special Rabbinical Court 24B.
(a) A Special Rabbinical Court shall be authorized to discuss the conversion of an Israeli National or a holder of a permanent residence permit in Israel under the Entry in Israel Law, 5712-1952 (hereinafter: a "holder of a permanent residence permit"), wherever the place of residence of the applicant may be, and to give certificates of such. (b) Notwithstanding the provisions of sub-section (a), a Special Rabbinical Court shall be authorized to discuss the conversion of a person who is not an Israeli National or a holder of a permanent residence permit if such person is given a certificate in accordance with the rules prescribed by the Chief Judge of the Supreme Rabbinical Court. (c) The verdict of a Special Rabbinical Court allowing a conversion shall serve as evidence of the Jewishness of the bearer of the certificate; however, such conversion, if effected in contravention of the rules set out under sub-section (b) shall have no force regarding the granting of visas, including an immigrant's visa, nor regarding the grant of Israeli citizenship. (d) (1) Cancellation of a conversion conducted by a Special Rabbinical Court shall have no force unless the Court that conducted the conversion rules that it was conducted on the basis of misleading information or intentional concealment of information by the party seeking conversion prior to the conversion. (2) Should the question of the validity of a conversion arise for any other reason, before a Rabbinical Court or before any other Court in Israel, or before the Registrar of Marriages, the ruling on the question of conversion shall be brought before the Court in which the conversion took place or before a special panel of a Regional Rabbinical Court to be appointed by the Chief Judge of the Supreme Rabbinical Court. (e) Should the Special Rabbinical Court that conducted the conversion have dispersed or should at least two of its members have ceased to serve as members of the Court, the ruling under sub-section (d) shall be submitted to a special panel to be appointed by the Chief Judge of the Supreme Rabbinical Court. (f) A decision to cancel a conversion shall require the consent of the Chief Judge of the Supreme Rabbinical Court, and shall be of no force in the absence of such consent.
24C. An appeal against a ruling to cancel a conversion under section 24B(d) may be submitted to the Supreme Rabbinical Court in a panel headed by the Chief Judge of the Supreme Rabbinical Court, the judges on which panel shall be appointed by the Chief Judge of the Supreme Rabbinical Court.
Registration of Marriage
24D. (a) A member of a Special Rabbinical Court serving as a Rabbinical Registrar of Marriages shall be authorized to handle registration of the marriage of a couple at least one of which has converted in a Special Rabbinical Court, wherever the couple's place of residence may be. (b) Should no member of the Special Rabbinical Court serve as a Rabbinical Registrar of Marriages, the Council shall, at the proposal of the Chief Judge of the Supreme Rabbinical Court, appoint one or more members of a Special Rabbinical Court for conversion who are qualified to act as a Rabbinical Registrar of Marriages to handle registration of the marriage of the couple as set out in sub-section (a).
Regulations under Sections 24A - 24C
24E. Notwithstanding the provisions of section 31, regulations and rules under sections 24A to 24D shall be made by the Minister of Justice with the consent of the Chief Judge of the Supreme Rabbinical Court and with the approval of the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee of the Knesset only." Amendment of Nationality Law
3. The following shall be inserted in section 2(c) of the Nationality Law, 5712-1952, after paragraph (6): "(7) to a person who, prior to entry into Israel, was not entitled to receive an 'oleh visa or an 'oleh's certificate". Ratification
4. The provisions of the Hearing of Conversion Applications Rules, 5766-2006 shall be deemed to have been made lawfully under the provisions of this Law.
 Sefer Hachukim, 5760, p. 90.
 Sefer Hachukim, 5731, p. 130.
 Sefer Hachukim, 5712, p. 353.
 Sefer Hachukim, 5712, p. 14; 5768, p. 810.
 Yalkut Pirsumim, 5765, p. 2062.
Conversion Bill Media Update
Conversion bill dismays US senators. ReadThe Jerusalem Post article featuring our colleague Stuart Weinblatt.
PM, FM clash over conversion bill. ReadThe Jerusalem Post article.
Message from Jerry Silverman
July 15, 2010
Dear Colleagues, The Jewish Federations movement, Jewish Agency and religious streams continued to make our voices heard on the fifth day of our advocacy response to the controversial conversion bill in Israel. I'll start with a few media notes: The Jerusalem Post had two front page stories on the conversion issue this morning. The first was an article on the efforts made by our movement and the religious streams to encourage U.S. political leaders to write to members of the Israeli government urging them not to enact this legislation. Click here to read. For the second article, which referenced JFNA efforts in the Knesset yesterday, click here. Interesting articles also appeared in two leading newspapers that form part of the Russian-language media in Israel. Two separate columns by noted Russian-Israeli commentators came out with editorials opposing the conversion bill. On a further media note, we have reached out to a number of influential personalities here in Israel to write op-eds that will hopefully appear in the Israeli press next week. We also met today with a high-profile Israeli political and issues strategist in order to gain expert advice on how best to proceed in the coming days. The meeting was enlightening and I believe the guidance will be extremely helpful. We have continued to consult with a number of others and today spoke with Rabbi Dr. Seth Farber, an Orthodox figure who runs the Jewish Life Information Center (Itim), (http://eng.itim.org.il/) whose stated aim is to make Jewish life accessible to all. Farber, who has previously provided JFNA with guidance on this issue, has put forward an alternative recommendation that he feels will be acceptable to all. We are currently studying this proposal. Similarly, today we checked in again with Minister of Diaspora Affairs and Public Policy Yuli Edelstein, who is helping us shape our strategy. We are greatly encouraged and thankful for his insights, expertise and passion. Earlier this evening I also provided an update to the Canadian Jewish community on a conference call, along with Minister Edelstein. We obtained a copy of the actual proposed legislation and have now translated this bill to English. I have copied the full text after the newspaper articles at the end of this email. Since the legislative side of this issue is somewhat complex, we have written a short explanation on how the bill proceeds: As per Knesset procedure, the conversion bill, officially known as the "The Chief Rabbinate of Israel (Amendment - Jurisdiction Regarding Conversions) Bill, 5770-2010," was introduced as a Private Members Bill by MK David Rotem from the Yisrael Beteinu Party. As such, it was presented in the Knesset plenum for a preliminary reading. The plenum then decided to refer the bill to the Law Committee, for preparation/ amending for a first reading. The Law Committee was entitled to propose amendments, as it may see fit, as long as these amendments do not diverge from the subject of the bill. As a result, a new version of the bill was voted on and approved by the Committee this week. Now that the Committee has completed its work, the bill is returned to the plenum for a first, second and third reading. MK David Rotem is pushing hard to have these readings completed before the Knesset breaks for its summer recess this coming Wednesday night (July 21). Once the recess begins, the bill cannot be presented until the winter session, which begins after Succot in October. The initial debate would be opened by the chairman of the Committee that dealt with the bill, in this case Rotem himself. The voting on the second reading is performed article-by-article. At this stage the bill may still be returned again to the Committee, if it is necessary to draft the reservations that were initially adopted. Alternatively, the bill can be put immediately to the vote in a final reading. Until the bill is adopted in the third reading, the Government is entitled to withdraw it. Once the vote passes a third reading, where a simple majority of those MKs present is required, it becomes law. In other news, this evening, we will once again take part in the international conference call that will include the top leadership of the religious streams, JFNA, JAFI and other relevant parties, in order to strategize and share information. I am again compelled to mention the excellent working relationship and dedication of Natan Sharansky at JAFI and our friends at the Reform and Conservative movements, as well as all those who have joined us. It is now the end of the Israeli work week, Thursday evening here, and the weekend of Friday through Shabbat begins. So we anticipate a quieter period in the coming days. Absent any exceptional developments, our next update will be on Sunday. Allow me to once again look forward to sharing good news soon and wish you all a Shabbat Shalom from Jerusalem. Sincerely, Jerry Silverman
Guide to Conversion Bill Players by Jerry Silverman
In order to give greater clarity, we have also written a quick guide to some of the important figures involved in this issue:
MK David Rotem: Israel Beitenu party, Chair of the Knesset's Constitution, Law and Justice Committee. Proposed a conversion bill whose stated intent was to expand conversion powers beyond the specialized conversion courts to municipal rabbis, thus opening the way for easier processes, but articles that appeared in the legislation during the drafting process limit the rights of converts to make aliyah and make unprecedented demands on converts' religious observance.
MK Avigdor Lieberman: Minister of Foreign Affairs, Founder of Israel Beiteinu, which enjoys strong support from Israel's large population of immigrants from the former Soviet Union - around a quarter of a million of whom are classified as non-Jews - who need assistance in the conversion process. He supports Rotem's bill and has met with leaders of the religious streams to discuss the issue. Although Netanyahu and Knesset leaders have said they will postpone a vote until after summer recess, Lieberman said he expected the vote to be held "as soon as possible."
Shas and United Torah Judaism parties: Both of these haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties support Rotem's bill in its expanded version. According to Kadima, a deal they struck with Rotem resulted in late additions to the bill calling for converts to be required to lead an Orthodox lifestyle and creating difficulties for those who converted outside of Israel before immigrating.
Opposition Leader Tzipi Livni: Livni and her Kadima party have been vocal in their opposition to the bill from the start. Livni has made some key statements about the way the bill could harm Israel's Jewish identity as well as its connection with the Diaspora.
Kadima: While Kadima supports the easing of the conversion process and the broader authority granted to local rabbis, they reject various changes and increased strictness that they believe were added to the law as a result of a political deal between Israel Beitenu and two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism. Particularly vocal have been Kadima MKs Shlomo Molla and Nachman Shai.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: Requested that Diaspora leaders have an active part in the dialogue about the law and has communicated that to the religious streams, asked Natan Sharansky to lead the effort, has reportedly said that the bill won't be voted on before summer recess but there has been no official statement from the PM on this.
Likud Party: Likud Members of the Knesset's Law Committee were absent when the bill came up for a vote for a first reading. However, a number of senior MKs have made clear their opposition to the law.
Labor Party: Labor members of the Knesset's Law Committee voted against the bill when it came up for a vote for a first reading
Israel Rabbinical Hierarchy
Chief Rabbinate: The religious governing body that has control over all state religious matters; Dominated by ultra-Orthodox rabbis, there is an ongoing trend in Israel towards more stringent standards in all areas of religious jurisdiction. For example, some marriage registrars refuse to register converts if they think they are not observant enough, and rabbinical court judges have revoked the conversions of converts who sought a divorce.The law proposed by MK Rotem would increase the Rabbinate's power over matters of conversion
Municipal Rabbis: The Rotem bill proposes that municipal rabbis, who are part of the Chief Rabbinate, be allowed to set up conversion courts and carry out conversions even for those who do not live in their cities. This might help the many Russian immigrants awaiting conversion to undergo the process more smoothly but will likely also work to reinforce the Chief Rabbinate's power.
Haim Drukman: Head of a National Religious yeshiva, Former Director of the state sponsored National Conversion Authority of the Prime Minister's Office which was created in 1999 to administer conversions, independent of the Chief Rabbinate. He remained in the post until May 2008, when he was fired as a result of a Rabbinate court ruling (instigated by the Rabbinate's ultra-Orthodox faction) that all the conversions performed by Drukman were invalid, leaving up to 15,000 Jews unsure about their religious status. Israel's High Court of Justice later ruled the conversions were valid.
Benny Ish-Shalom: Head of the Institute for the Study of Judaism, set up by the Jewish Agency and the government and including Reform and Conservative representatives; it provides a conversion preparation course for conversion candidates and has worked closely in the past with Drukman's Conversion Authority.