75 U.S. Orthodox rabbis push Israel conversion bill

JERUSALEM — A delegation of some 75 American Orthodox representatives is lobbying Knesset members to support a controversial conversion bill that would codify into law the Orthodox establishment's control over conversions performed in the Jewish state.

At a news conference Monday, the Am Echad delegation, which is spearheaded by the ultra-religious Agudath Israel of America, said it was impractical to think a compromise on conversion could be reached. The group consisted mainly of lay leaders and rabbis active in Agudath Israel and Young Israel.

During a meeting with Knesset members the following day, delegates told members of the Likud caucus that compromises could only be reached in business matters, not in religious affairs.

Rabbi Moshe Sherer, the head of the delegation and president of Agudath Israel of America, said it was inconceivable an individual undergoing the conversion process within the Reform movement could be expected to follow halachah, or Jewish law.

"You can't expect a candidate to go to a Reform rabbi who will tell him to observe Shabbat and kashrut when the Reform rabbi himself doesn't observe kashrut," Sherer said at the news conference.

The visit comes as a committee appointed by the prime minister approaches a Jan. 31 deadline to submit its recommendations on the conversion issue.

Members of the committee, headed by Finance Minister Ya'acov Ne'eman, are attempting to craft a solution that is acceptable to the Orthodox, Reform and Conservative movements.

They have encountered serious difficulties along the way.

Reform members have said the representative from the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate failed to cooperate with the efforts, and warned no compromise could be reached without a genuine effort by all sides.

The delegation also met with members of the Yisrael Ba'Aliyah Party, whose Russian immigrant constituency could be seriously affected by the decision on the conversion issue.

Asked about the large number of immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not Jewish, Sherer said that his group had not come as experts in halachah, but he compared entry to the Jewish people to obtaining U.S. citizenship.

There were rules for both, he said, and we should have as much respect for halachah as for American citizenship criteria.

Knesset member Roman Bronfman of Yisrael Ba'Aliyah said that if the Ne'eman Committee fails to come up with a compromise, his faction will work to "ensure that it gets another extension."

Yisrael Ba'Aliyah's support on the conversion issue is so crucial some commentators have suggested that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plans to appoint the party's leader, Industry and Trade Minister Natan Sharansky, to take over the Foreign Ministry portfolio after the recent resignation of David Levy.

Meanwhile, opposition leader Ehud Barak said his caucus would vote against the conversion bill if it is brought before the Knesset.

Netanyahu created the Ne'eman Committee after the Knesset took a first step in April toward passing the conversion legislation.

In a related development, Sephardi Chief Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron verbally approved the recommendations of another committee dealing with the conversion in Israel of children adopted abroad.

The head of the committee, Rabbi Haim Druckman, a former National Religious Party Knesset member, said the committee had recommended that after the children undergo conversion, the families not be required to adopt a religiously observant lifestyle.

This requirement had prompted parents of some of the adopted infants to arrange for their conversions at the Conservative movement's Kibbutz Hannaton. After the Interior Ministry refused to recognize the babies as Jewish, several families took their dilemma to Israel's High Court of Justice in 1995. A court decision is still pending.