The Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee convened on Tuesday to discuss a bill designed to increase the number of rabbinical courts able to conduct conversions.

According to the proposed law, in addition to the 18 rabbinic conversion panels currently in existence, new three-man panels could be set up around the country comprised of a chief municipal rabbi, or someone with that qualification; a rabbi with qualification as a rabbinic judge; and any other person who has rabbinic ordination from the Chief Rabbinate, or someone who has studied at a recognized institute of religious studies for six years.

Supporters of the bill say its purpose is to create a certain degree of autonomy for regional rabbis to allow them to deal with the nuances of the specific situation and needs of conversion applicants in local communities.

But the bill, introduced by MK Eliezer Stern (Hatenua) and a group of MKs, has raised concern within the Chief Rabbinate that it would allow rabbis who are not experts in Jewish laws pertaining to conversion to nevertheless conduct conversions without sufficient supervision.

”The proposed law came out of a concern for the social-demographic situation in Israel,” Stern said during the meeting. ”The phenomenon of psulei chitun (people who are `unfit for marriage` according to Jewish law) and mixed-marriages is growing. These people live among us, serve in the army and sacrifice their lives for the Jewish nation. Regretfully, a part of the religious establishment does not recognize, or does not want to recognize, the extent of the challenge and the threat to the existence of the State of Israel.”

MK Stern said he and the Deputy Religious Services Minister Eli Ben-Dahan (HaBayit HaYehudi) have reached an agreement on the matter and that the chief rabbis have also approved the phrasing of the bill.

Some 330,000 Israeli citizens are considered to be of Jewish descent but not Jewish according to the Halacha. Most of them immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union under the terms of the Law of Return.

Attorney Shimon Yaakobi, a legal adviser to the Rabbinical Courts Network, expressed concern that the bill would lead to polarization. According to him, the proposed legislation could be interpreted in many ways. He suggested establishing a rabbinical committee that would discuss the bill.

Committee Chairman MK David Rotem (Likud-Yisrael Beitenu) rejected Yaakobi`s proposal, but MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli (HaBayit HaYehudi) said a conversion law should not be enacted without hearing what rabbinical judges who deal with conversions have to say on the matter.

MK Orit Strock, also of HaBayit HaYehudi, said the bill was not being formulated with sufficient cooperation with the rabbinic establishment, and that conversions carried out under such a system might not be recognized by the religious authorities.

”One cannot (devise) a conversion law without listening very attentively to those who deal with conversion day and night. As long as the Chief Rabbinate does not concur that the `ger` (foreigner) has in fact converted, the certificate he`ll hold (will not be worth anything). It is our duty to make certain that converts get the most effective product, not something fictitious that members of Knesset have approved,” she said.

MK Uri Maklev of the United Torah Judaism party said the proposal does not require converts to accept the Torah and the mitzvahs, ”and this is why the prime minister does not oppose it.” The MK warned against what he referred to as the creation of ”class A Jews and those who are imitations, class B Jews.”

MK Aliza Lavie responded angrily to Maklev’s comment, saying that ”because of people like you, 4,000 problematic children are born every year,” in reference to the children of mixed marriages who are not recognized as Jewish by the religious establishment.

”I am asking to display sensitivity, compassion and empathy and not check the tzitzit (examine someone in great detail),” she added.

The committee will continue to debate the issue in two weeks.