Kahana Unveils Plan to Reform Conversion System

Minister of Religious Affairs Matan Kahana. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana on Wednesday unveiled his government-backed proposal to reform the state-sponsored process for conversion.

Submitting an official memorandum of the plan, Kahana called the proposal “a historic opportunity that we must not miss.”

Kahana said there are 450,000 people living in Israel who have Jewish ancestry but are not considered Jewish under halachah, mostly immigrants from former Soviet Union countries. The proposed legislation, he said, “is the only way to deal with this challenge.”

Referring to the pushback the plan drew before it was even presented, Kahana said: “I try to be coordinated with the Chief Rabbis. Unfortunately, this coordination does not always go smoothly.”

Currently, state-recognized conversions to Judaism are controlled by the Chief Rabbinate. There are only several dozen Rabbis and four conversion courts in the country that can legally perform conversions to Judaism.

Converts to Judaism who move to Israel but whose conversions are not recognized by the Chief Rabbinate cannot marry in Israel, as the Rabbinate controls marriages. Reform and Conservative conversions performed in Israel have not been recognized for years.

The new proposal will enable city Rabbis to carry out conversions under the auspices of a central system and steering committee that will define the rules for conversion and monitor their implementation, making the process uniform across the country but transferring sole power away from the Chief Rabbinate.

“I trust the city Rabbis,” Kahana said.

As part of plans to make deep changes in state-controlled Jewish religious services, Kahana announced last week that conversions to Judaism will be headed by Rabbi Benayahu Brunner, who is affiliated with the liberal group, Tzohar. The move prompted outrage from chareidi MKs and the Chief Rabbis.

Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau in December threatened to stop approving all conversions if the reform is passed. Rav Lau claimed that the plan would cause a “significant rift” among the Jewish people and would require future generations to deal with the difficult question of “Who is a Jew?” The Chief Rabbi has also called Kahana’s plan a “spiritual disaster and a serious injury to the Judaism of the State of Israel.”

Rabbi Lau also opposed plans to end Rabbi Moshe Weller’s role as head of the Conversion Authority, saying that listening to the Chief Rabbi is Weller’s role.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s cabinet will vote on the reform in three weeks’ time.