Israeli conversion institute will open in three cities

NEW YORK — A long-awaited conversion institute integrating Orthodox, Conservative and Reform perspectives to Judaism is slated to open its doors in three Israeli cities in February.

According to the board chairman of the new Institute for Jewish Studies, the first locations will have space for a combined total of about 240 students.

The idea for a joint conversion course was recommended earlier this year by a government committee, chaired by Finance Minister Ya'akov Ne'eman. The Ne'eman Committee was established to find a solution to the divisive debate over conversions performed in Israel.

The institute's prime market will be the 200,000 to 300,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not Jewish either by Jewish law or self-definition, but who were extended citizenship under the country's Law of Return because they have an immediate relative who is Jewish.

A large percentage of the institute's $700,000 government-funded budget for next year will be devoted to reaching out to that population, institute chairman Benjamin Ish-Shalom said.

Determining matters of personal status in Israel — conversion, marriage, divorce and burial — is the sole province of the Orthodox rabbinate.

The Reform and Conservative movements had sought to gain legal recognition for their conversions through the Israeli courts, while the Orthodox political and religious leadership pressed for Knesset adoption of a bill that would codify their control over conversions.

Like the Ne'eman Committee, the board of directors of the new institute is composed of representatives of each denomination — five Orthodox, and one each from the Conservative and Reform movements.

Subjects that will be taught to each student over the yearlong, 440-hour course will include Jewish history, Jewish law and concepts related to Jewish peoplehood.

"We want to transmit the message that to join the Jewish people means to accept a whole system of ideas, values and practices," Ish-Shalom said. "The knowledge the students will get will satisfy the halachic requirements" for conversion.

One of the central concepts that will be taught is the concept of mitzvah, interpreted by traditional Jews as a commandment or obligation and by many liberal Jews as a good deed.

"We didn't define what mitzvah is but formulated the principle that Judaism is not just a world view or theoretical system, but a whole way of life with practical norms," said Ish-Shalom.

Teachers for the course are now being hired and a curriculum developed, he said. Criteria include professionalism and a commitment to the institute's approach, rather than religious affiliation.

The ideological and theological differences between each of Judaism's major movements will also be addressed, Ish-Shalom said.

After completing the course, candidates will undergo an Orthodox conversion. They will go before a beit din, or religious court, which will assess their knowledge and commitment to a Jewish life. The beit din will also determine whether they will be permitted to complete the process with immersion in a mikvah and, for men, a ritual circumcision.

Immediately after it announced plans last year, the institute came under fire from representatives of the Orthodox rabbinate. But so far, such opposition has not undermined the institute's ability to move forward.