Revisiting Conversion Controversy

Last May, a controversy erupted in Israel over the revocation of a conversion. Specifically, a woman’s status as a Jew was removed because she had not been observant enough in the eyes of the High Rabbinical Court in Israel. What was most shocking was the fact that the conversion had happened 15 years ago – and with their ruling, the court had put into doubt thousands of conversions performed by prominent Israeli Rabbi Chaim Druckman. Six months later, the magazine Jewish Living (the article is only available online since the magazine went out of business) looked at how that ruling has affected Jews-by-choice here in America, and what the North American Jewish Community is doing in response. They write:

Perhaps most notably, the ruling has emboldened conversion activists, a loose league of lay leaders, rabbis, and academics lobbying to change what they consider an outdated, insular, and counterproductive process.

Many of the rabbis interviewed for the article (including JOI’s Rabbi Kerry Olitzky) feel that the rules surrounding conversion are outdated and in dire need of an overhaul. Rabbi Olitzky recently published an article in the journal Sh’ma arguing that expanding online conversion could give “students access to the greatest Jewish teachers and thinkers from across the globe, regardless of denomination.” Plus, connecting rabbis to students nationwide would eliminate the necessity of meeting in one place to complete the conversion process and allow far more accessibility for those interested in becoming Jewish.

But expansion and accessibility are not the only issues that need to be addressed. Some rabbis are trying to form standardized conversion requirements so if someone converts under the Reform movement, they will be accepted by conservative rabbis. According to Jewish Living:

Attempting to standardize conversion requirements, Reform and Conservative leaders in Los Angeles teamed up to form an alternative “community” beit din that crosses party lines. “The compromise for Reform members was conversions done more traditionally. And for Conservatives, the compromise means being more accepting of how people choose to live a Jewish life,” says Rabbi Neal Weinberg, director of the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles.

This idea seems to be picking up steam. In a recent article in the JTA, it was reported that the Jewish Agency, a global organization committed to a strong Jewish future, “adopted resolutions calling on the Israeli government to establish an independent authority on Jewish conversions and special courts of Jewish law to ‘allow the conversion process to move forward.’”

Of course there are detractors to these ideas, but eventually there has to be a consensus. The High Rabbinical Court’s ruling put too many people in religious limbo. What people have started to realize is that no one Jewish movement can decide who is and isn’t Jewish across the board. Those who have chosen Judaism “enhance us,” said Rabbi Weinberg at the end of the Jewish Living piece. “We should be welcoming to people who want to become Jewish.”

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