Haaretz: Olmert Wants to Convert More Jews!

For Zionism this is a given: Israel needs more Jews. The loony idea that we need to uphold "standards" and block converts makes utterly no sense. It means that you must believe that 300,000 Russian Gentiles living in Israel is better for the Jewish State than having 300,000 converts to Judaism. That does not compute.
PM Olmert plans to streamline conversion of immigrants
By Barak Ravid and Anshel Pfeffer

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert plans to adopt the Halfon Committee's recommendations on streamlining the conversion system, with the goal of increasing the number of non-Jewish immigrants converting to Judaism, sources close to him said Monday.

But some officials who favor streamlining the process charged that this is merely a cover for further delay, as Olmert is concerned about angering his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners. Olmert has appointed Cabinet Secretary Oved Yehezkel to handle this issue, and in a letter sent Monday to 14 senior officials involved in the conversion process - including Absorption Ministry Director General Erez Halfon, who headed the interministerial committee that wrote the report; Rabbi Haim Druckman, who heads the government's conversion administration; and Major General Elazar Stern, head of the Israel Defense Forces' Personnel Directorate - Yehezkel wrote that the premier "attaches supreme importance to this issue and wants to improve, streamline and expand Israel's conversion system."

The letter added that Yehezkel will soon convene representatives of all the bodies involved in conversion, including government ministries, the Israel Defense Forces and the Jewish Agency, to formulate a plan of action that will then be presented to Olmert.

Officials close to Olmert added that the prime minister accepts the Halfon report's program in principle and intends to adopt it, and that the Ministerial Committee on Immigration will meet in the coming days to do so.

But some officials who favor streamlining the conversion process were unenthusiastic about Yehezkel's letter. "Why do we need additional discussions about the issue?" demanded one. "The [Halfon] committee met for five months until it drafted this report; one could simply adopt its conclusions and be done. It's clear that Olmert is trying to buy time because he is afraid of pressure from the ultra-Orthodox."

The official also noted that the Halfon Committee's report was submitted to Olmert more than four months ago - yet since then, nothing has happened.

An estimated 300,000 non-Jews have immigrated to Israel under the Law of Return since 1990, mainly from the former Soviet Union. However, only a handful have converted - and of these, more have converted through an IDF program for non-Jewish soldiers doing their military service than through a special government program set up four years ago.

One of Halfon's main proposals for speeding up the conversion process is to increase the number of dayanim (religious court judges) hearing conversion cases by recruiting some 40 volunteer dayanim. The regular dayanim, who have dealt with conversions until now, have worked "too slowly," explained one official close to Olmert.

In addition, the report recommends that these volunteer dayanim be people who will "come toward" would-be converts on the issue that has proven one of the biggest bottlenecks of the process - the rabbinical courts' insistence that converts adopt a religious lifestyle.

But Shas, the religious Sephardi party that is part of Olmert's coalition, favors upholding the current strict standard, and therefore opposes increasing the number of dayanim.

Nevertheless, the Prime Minister's Office hopes that a solution to this problem can be found - particularly since Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar "is interested in and supports" the idea, one official said.

The report also recommends making Amar, who has generally been more lenient on conversion than his Ashkenazi counterpart, responsible for solving any problems of halakha (Jewish law) that arise during the process. However, Amar prefers not to take this responsibility, which would entail a head-on clash with rabbis favoring a more stringent approach.

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