• A Discussion with Rav David Stav on the Recent Decision of the Government of Israel to Allow Local Rabbis to Form Conversions Courts

    Last month, the government of Israel approved a decision that will allow local rabbinates to open conversion courts recognized by the State of Israel. Throughout the long political process that led to the decision, Tzohar strongly supported the legislation arguing that it would expand access to giyyur to thousands of Israelis who currently are not halachically Jewish. Below is a discussion with Rav David Stav, Tzohar’s Chairman, about his support for the bill, and how he views the role of Tzohar in conversions in Israel moving forward.

    What is the practical outcome of the passage of the conversion law? Will you or Tzohar open a בית דין לגיור?

    First and foremost, we have to be precise. The government didn’t pass a law through the Knesset, but instead by making a governmental decision. Practically, there’s no current difference, but there could be a significant difference in the future should Chareidi parties challenge the decision, which is easier to reverse than a full law.

    The decision doesn’t speak about Tzohar, but about municipal rabbis. Tzohar will encourage local rabbis to open their own Batei Din. To date, we have five or six thus far who are ready to open conversion courts, and we hope to grow the number. Tzohar itself will not perform the conversion, but we work to help train the rabbis and create the infrastructure of cases to bring the candidates to the Batei Din for conversion.

    In truth, this isn’t a departure from the current conversion system in Israel. Many different groups are involved in preparing converts today. The recent passage of the conversion law won’t change that. Tzohar will play a role in create programs for specific groups. Tzohar will follow the same approach we have established in marriages, which is a model for the way that couples are treated when they come to the rabbinate here in Israel. We’ll work with the families, and create the programs and infrastructure that will guide them through the process. Tzohar will identify and assist the adoptive families critical for successful conversions, and maintain a relationship with the converts long after the conversion. Ultimately though, the final decision will be done by the rabbinic courts.

    What are your views about conversion standards, especially regarding ‘קבלת המצוות?  Would you accept the opinion of Rav Uziel who does not require קבלת המצוות even לכתחילה?

    We are not adopting the opinion of Rav Uziel. Rather, the local rabbanim will rule according to the current standards accepted by rabbinate of the State of Israel. But there is one basic change – the approach to the conversion of children whose parents are not willing to convert with their kids. We insist on the family creating the possibility for שמירת המצוות – that the parents send their children to religious schools, and enable the kids to live religious lives, which include a kosher kitchen and Shemirat Shabbat. Yet, we will not only allow, but will encourage the conversion of children even when the parent – usually the mother – does not herself wish to convert.

    Why will this new law make a difference?

    Many reasons: I believe that the people will realize that our approach is different, and that if they see that their children are attending religious schools, and that the general attitude towards them is different, and we are able to make their process of conversion easier, more children will want to send their children to these schools, and more kids will bring their parents along in the process.

    We’re really focusing on the children, according to the policy advised by Rav Nachum Rabinovitch, a member of Tzohar’s rabbinic council. We are focusing our energy on non-Jewish children for two reasons: Firstly, the halachic issues are less complicated. Moreover, if our concerns are intermarriage, we must do everything that we can to try and minimize this phenomenon in the State of Israel, and the best way to achieve this goal is by promoting the process of conversions from within the school system.

    This will require the cooperation of the school system, won’t it?

    I’m on my way to meeting with the Minister of Education and we hope to establish a joint program that will encourage more and more halachically non-Jewish children to begin the conversion process.

    If the Rabbinate has final approval on all conversions, what has really changed? 

    In the end, I am confident that the Chief Rabbi will sign the conversions performed by the local rabbis, especially when he realizes that the standards of the new Batei Din adhere exactly to the current halachic standards of the Chief Rabbinate.

    The forces that pushed the law through – Tnuah, Yesh Atid, and other secular parties – are not positively viewed in the religious community. People feel that this reflects negatively on Tzohar. Why were you so supportive of the law?

    The Chareidi parties were never in favor of conversion. Many think that it doesn’t politically pay for them to get involved in this issue, while others feel that halachically encouraging conversions isn’t appropriate. But we follow the policies of the chief rabbis throughout the generations – Rav Goren, Rav Ovadia Yosef and others. Whoever understands the reality of what’s going on here realizes that something must be done about the people who came from the Communist regime, and we have no other choice but to help these kids. Rav Unterman spoke about this issue before the Russian immigration from Israel, and he said that when he was a rav in England before he came to Israel, he didn’t do many conversions. But in Israel, what do we expect after 2000 years of exile? We have the obligation to take responsibility for their lives of the descendants of Jews who suffered under the heavy hand of Communist Soviet Union, whose children have now arrived here.

    Politically, the vast majority of the בית היהודי was in favor of this law. The secular parties include religious people as well. The vast majority of Zionist rabbis favor this law. The resistance of Shas was political. The opposition of the Chief Rabbinate should not surprise anyone? What do you expect from a meeting of the Chief Rabbis that was controlled by Shas?  Finally, when we speak about halachic issues that intersect with national concerns, we do not have the luxury, as the Chareidim do, of concerning ourselves with our own narrow-minded interests. We must address the needs of the entire nation, and this law helps us do that.