Despite criticism from the right and the left, a special Israeli cabinet subcommittee adopted the recommendations of the Neeman Commission this week and authorized the first of several planned conversion institutes, to open in Beersheva this spring.
Professor Binyamin Ish-Shalom, a respected educator and scholar, was named to head the institute. The board of directors will have seven members — five Orthodox, one Conservative and one Reform.
The Conservative member will be Rabbi Reuven Hammer, an educator and leader of the Masorti movement in Israel. The Reform representative will be Rabbi Mickey Boyden of the Reform rabbinic organization in Israel.
A final decision on the Orthodox members is expected this week, though it is known that none will be active rabbis or representatives of religious institutions.
Ish-Shalom, who heads the Beit Morasha of Jerusalem, a center for advanced Jewish studies, told The Jewish Week that he is well aware of the political tensions surrounding the institute, but said he is “an academic, a scholar and an educator, not a politician. I will leave the political debate to the politicians.”
The conversion institute, to be comprised of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform instructors, has been criticized by the chief rabbinate for its non-Orthodox participation. Some Reform and Conservative leaders insist that the institute will be a sham because it does not have the support of the chief rabbinate.
One subcommittee member, Deputy Housing Minister Meir Porush, who is Orthodox, objected to going ahead with the joint institute on the grounds that Reform and Conservative Jews should not be involved in the conversion process. “They want to be like the gentiles,” he said, according to a report in the Jerusalem Post.
Rabbi Uri Regev, the Reform movement representative to the Neeman Commission, said that creating the joint institute is an effort to fool the public into thinking the Neeman proposals were agreed upon.
Ish-Shalom said the institute will be “an educational, not a halachic, institution,” and added: “I am concerned about the unity of the Jewish people, and I will concentrate on training people so that their conversion will be accepted by the chief rabbinate.”
A graduate of the Gush Etzion yeshiva of Rabbis Yehuda Amital and Aaron Lichtenstein, Ish-Shalom received his doctorate in Jewish philosophy from Hebrew University, where he taught for 16 years. He also has been a visiting professor at Yeshiva University’s Bernard Revel graduate school and the Stern College for Women in Manhattan.
Bobby Brown, an adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on diaspora affairs and member of a three-man implementation committee regarding the conversion institute, said that Beersheva was chosen as the first site because the southern city has a large immigrant population. A prime target for the conversion courses are immigrants from the former Soviet Union, an estimated 200,000 of whom are non-Jews living in Israel.
The institute courses will be housed in a building owned by the Jewish Agency, and funding will be provided by the government, Brown said.
The Neeman Commission also held its first meeting last week to attempt to resolve the issue of women’s prayer groups at the Western Wall. Simcha Meron, an ultra-Orthodox member of the commission, did not attend in protest of the Reform movement’s continuing its conversion court cases. Two women representatives of Women of the Wall, a group seeking to conduct formal prayer services at the sacred spot, participated in the meeting.
One compromise proposal is expected to ask the women to hold services at Robinson’s Arch, just around the corner from the main plaza of the Kotel. The advantage is that its stones are those of the Wall, while it is out of sight of those most likely to protest.
But Phyllis Chesler, a local representative of the group, dismissed the suggestion. “If it’s just as good as the Kotel, let the men pray there,” she said, advocating instead a time-share arrangement at the main sight of the Wall.
The lawsuit, she explained, specified that the prayers in question be conducted in the women’s section at the Wall.
Meetings on the subject are expected to resume after the Passover holiday.