Benjamin Ish-Shalom is president and founder of Beit Morasha in Jerusalem. In 2000, the university founded the Institute for Jewish Studies-The Joint Conversion Institute; Ish-Shalom is its chairman.
Since then, Beit Morasha has prepared almost 15,000 students for conversion by the rabbinic courts of the Chief Rabbinate. But many others have been rejected by the courts in what has been an ongoing controversy over the rightward tilt of the Chief Rabbinate.
The Jewish Week caught up with Ish-Shalom recently in New York at a dinner honoring the late Mayor Ed Koch. The event was hosted by Beit Morasha’s Center for Public Policy and Jewish Ethics, which is named after the former mayor. This is an edited transcript.
Q: Why were 15,000 of your graduates converted while another 40,000 from your school were denied conversion by the same courts?
A: The problem is with the halachic [Jewish law] policy the courts adopted. They have very tough demands that are not required by halacha itself — including the requirement of keeping an Orthodox way of life after conversion. Most of the people do want to become Jewish, belong to the Jewish people and observe Jewish traditions — but according to their ability and the progress they make along the road.
They would adopt more Jewish practices as they become comfortable with them?
Right, absolutely. But many of the rabbinical courts demand people leave their professional careers because they believe their careers will not allow them to observe all the strictures of halacha. For example, converts who have career in sports, in the police, in medicine, and so on and so forth. Their fundamental policy is one that expects converts to right away become fully observant in the Orthodox sense — a demand that doesn’t meet reality and is not what mainstream halachic tradition has expected of converts throughout history. … Most of the converts are really practicing Jewish traditions and want it and love it. By embracing them we can encourage many more people to join.
How many potential converts are there in Israel today?
There are over 300,000 new immigrants who are not halachically Jewish. The number of those interested in conversion changes based on conditions, the atmosphere and the welcoming approach. They are the children and husbands and wives of Jews, and if you alienate them you alienate their entire family. A person will not accept that his son who was born and educated in Israel and who served in the army will not be recognized as Jewish.
What’s the answer?
An alternative complementary halachic system that we started a year ago. It offers educational programs for conversion that have the support of the largest components of Israeli society — Modern Orthodox, traditional and secular Israelis who want to see these people become an integral part of our nation. We are now organizing Israeli organizations and movements — rabbinic and civil — and public people in Israeli society who will stand together to demand a change in the halachic policy of the rabbinic courts or demand to establish an alternative if this does not happen. Something has to change because almost all of the students deserve to be converted based on their knowledge, motivation, sincerity and commitment.
Can the Knesset help?
There is now an attempt to legislate a new conversion bill that would allow those interested in conversion to choose a rabbinic court and to delegate the authority of conversions to local rabbis — as it was in Jewish history. …We want to create a whole network of conversion courts all over the country and not to let the Chief Rabbinate be the exclusive monitor of conversions.
How many non-Jews are children?
There are almost 100,000 — a second generation of new immigrants.
What are the implications if there is no change?
We have to try to help them because the price we will pay for it will be a great number of assimilated Jews and intermarriages in Israel.