MK Elazar Stern’s threat to set up an alternative Rabbinate, or a “shadow” one, is both empty and useless. The problem of over-regulated conversions (and marriages and divorces and other issues of personal status) is not solved by an alternative bureaucratic nightmare.

There shouldn’t be a limit to conversion courts. The reason I don’t take Stern’s threat seriously is because proposing a finite number as low as 30 indicates he has already compromised on what he wants before the bill even goes to debate. 30 conversion courts to cover 300,000 CIS Israelis who aren’t halachically Jewish but have Jewish connections – that’s ridiculous. It’s too few. Why should someone have to travel to a conversion court at all? There are qualified Rabbis everywhere.

Hatnua MK Elazar Stern (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

I’m not saying MK Stern is in it just to make the Ultra-Orthodox look bad. His bill is a vast improvement to the current situation. But it doesn’t really make headway.

Let’s assume for a moment that it makes sense to be a little strict on who should be allowed to sit on a conversion court. Okay, we know that any layman who is acceptable as a witness in a Jewish court can serve as a judge for a conversion; but we want someone with more knowledge, so we restrict it to Rabbis to deter an industrial role out of conversions that haven’t had proper oversight and instruction for students. Fine. BUT, we can’t assume that certified Rabbis are unqualified for such a job. On the contrary, restricting the amount of Rabbis who can oversee conversions de-personalizes the process, so we have a similar problem in reverse: judges are unqualified because they don’t know the candidates well enough and they by necessity have to treat conversions industrially; they have no intimate knowledge of the candidates.

A judge doesn’t have to be the teacher of this presumed convert candidate, but the fewer and fewer Rabbis overseeing such programs means the more exhausted and inefficient they will be. Potential converts’ needs cannot be met under such circumstances, much like when an elementary school teacher is forced to cope with classrooms of over 30 kids. You need to delegate.

30 courts is too few. Stern isn’t serious, otherwise he would have just said any local Rabbis would be granted the authority to establish an ad hoc court whenever the need arises to perform a conversion.

Conversion is important to the Jewish people in much the same way immigration is to a country. The option has to exist for people to enter Judaism through the front door, otherwise they will sneak through the fence without proper absorption. I say this to the Orthodox establishment in Israel and organizations in the Diaspora. There is a demand for conversion and there is an arbitrary restriction of supply. Enable Rabbis of basic qualifications to enter this process, otherwise Orthodox Judaism and the State of Israel will earn a restrictive, obstructionist reputation that is unnecessary and unfortunate.