Miriam Shaviv
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The conversion battle is global
Date: Friday, March 13th, 2008
Publication: The Jewish Chronicle

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The High Court action against JFS, in which judgment is currently reserved, has once again thrown the spotlight on to the Office of the Chief Rabbi’s conversion policies. The action against the school is being brought on behalf of a boy who was refused a place because his mother is a Progressive convert — a cause no one can expect the Beth Din to endorse. But his lawyers have raised, in their support, the cases of the Lightman and Sagal families, whose children were refused places at the school because the London Beth Din deemed their mothers’ Israeli Orthodox conversions invalid. And the Lightman parents are listed as “interested parties” in the current action.

Until now, the community has always understood the Lightman and Sagal cases in local terms — as the function, for good or for bad, of a Charedi-dominated Beth Din which considers itself the “gold standard” in conversions and which wishes to uphold stricter standards than the Israeli courts. Recent developments, however, show that the Beth Din’s behaviour fits into an international trend.

In the US, the Rabbinical Council of America, the main association of Orthodox rabbis in the States, has just announced a new system of conversion, known as GPS (Gerus Policies and Standards). Its impetus was the announcement by the Israeli Sephardi Chief Rabbi, Shlomo Amar, in 2006 that the Jewish state will no longer automatically recognise conversions carried out by members of the RCA.

Under the old system, rabbis who were members of the RCA could perform their own conversions, which were then recognised by the RCA. Not the way we do things here -— but in the US, there is no centralised rabbinic authority, no Chief rabbinate, and no national Beth Din. Everything is local.

Under the new system, the RCA and the Israeli Rabbinate jointly created a list of 15 regional courts and around 40 rabbis who are the only Orthodox representatives whose conversions will be accepted, both in America and in Israel. Any rabbi who wishes to join the list needs the approval of two leading American rabbis and one representative of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate.

There is little transparency; it is unclear what criteria were used to determine which rabbis are on the list. Further, some of the standards required of converts are very rigid; parents trying to convert an adopted child, for example, have to commit to 12 years of yeshivah education, which in the US is always private.

The executive VP of the RCA, Rabbi Basil Herring, has said there has been little internal opposition to the moves. In practice, it threatens to split the movement. Senior rabbis such as Mark Angel, former president of the RCA, and Haskel Lookstein, one of the rabbis on the list, have voiced serious concern that GPS abdicates responsibility for conversions in the US to the Israeli authorities, and seems to push Modern Orthodox rabbis out of the conversion process, as most of the names on the list are on the right of Orthodoxy.

The Israeli rabbinate, they say — reflecting a criticism common in Israel — is now Charedi-dominated, and reflects Charedi halachic and social norms. By holding potential converts to higher standards than required by Jewish law — some courts, for example, refuse to convert women who wear trousers, or anyone living on a secular kibbutz — they are partially to blame for the low rates of conversion among Israel’s 300,000 non-Jewish Russian residents. In 2006, fewer than 1,000 converted.

“The RCA is making it more difficult for people to convert just as the Chief Rabbinate has made it more difficult for people to convert in Israel,” Rabbi Lookstein told the NY Jewish Week. “We are replicating their mistakes.”

As if to confirm these fears, just this week 10 new judges were appointed to the Israeli conversion courts. Eight were Charedim.

Put in this larger context, the London Beth Din’s rulings regarding the Lightmans and the Sagals seem somewhat different. Not just the actions of one over-zealous court, but part of a global battle over the nature of conversion — and who is in charge of it. Here, in the US and in Israel, conversion courts are increasingly under the control of stricter and stricter rabbis, who will only accept converts into their own, very restricted circles.

They do not necessarily understand, and are not necessarily sympathetic to, the communities they supposedly serve. The Israeli authorities who now hold effective power of veto over Orthodox conversions in the US are not familiar with the realities of diaspora life, nor are they intuitively sympathetic to the mass of Israeli society.

There is no question that the London Beth Din works hard and that our dayanim are sincere people. But against this background, and against the background of the Sagal and Lightman cases, the question has to be asked whether the London Beth Din, with its majority of Charedi dayanim, is the appropriate representative religious authority for the mainstream United Synagogue.

Wouldn’t we be better served with a more modern Orthodox Beth Din, more sympathetic to the way of life of the traditional community of the UK — and more willing to consider bringing a more accepting, more congenial face to Orthodoxy? Including to those whose sincere wish is to enter the Covenant of Abraham?

Miriam Shaviv is the Comment and Letters editor of the JC

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