Benjamin Ish-Shalom, head of Israel’s Joint Conversion Institute, recently gave an interview to The Jewish Week that should makes one’s blood boil.
Ish-Shalom’s institute is the product of a collaboration between different streams of Judaism that has worked to help facilitate the conversion of the large numbers of immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not considered to be Jews under halacha because their mothers aren’t Jewish.
Unfortunately, even though the Joint Conversion Institute has backing from Orthodox rabbis, its students have had a hard time passing muster with the official Orthodox rabbinic courts. The courts’ obstructionism has been so great that Ish-Shalom (who is himself Orthodox) is threatening to set up independent conversion courts. Ish-Shalom says that the existing courts often make demands on converts that have no basis in Jewish law.
Here’s a particularly maddening bit from Ish-Shalom about the behavior of the rabbinic courts:
Many of these obstacles are unrelated to underlying halachic demands. It’s a question of approach, of rabbinic policy. They are not willing to convert a woman who wears trousers. They want her to dress like a religious Orthodox woman. I know of a policewoman, who has to wear a uniform. They recommended that she switch jobs. There was another woman who represented the State of Israel at the Olympics. They demanded that she leave the sport and switch to another occupation. She did it because she wanted to be converted. But this is not a halachic demand.
Read the rest of the interview, in which Ish-Shalom also says that the rabbinic courts will refuse to convert candidates who live on secular kibbutzim.