A group of Israeli rabbis has created an independent Jewish conversion court, defying the country's Orthodox establishment's monopoly on religious affairs.
While the conversions will not be officially recognized, the move signals growing impatience in some sectors with the Orthodox rabbinate's tight grip on aspects of daily life and a political leadership that has not liberalized access to conversion and other religious services.
The court, established by a dozen liberal rabbis, began offering conversions on Monday, with six children starting the process.
Itim, an Israeli group that assists people dealing with the rabbinate, said it helped establish the court after efforts to address the issue through dialogue failed. Spokeswoman Einat Levin said the rabbis hope that if large numbers of people go through with the conversions the state will have no choice but to recognize them.
"We had patience but it ran out,'' said Levin. "People want to be Jewish. The only thing that is preventing them is the state of Israel,'' she said.
The Orthodox establishment controls many aspects of life in Israel, including conversions, marriage and burials. The new conversion courts are meant to ease the path to conversion for tens of thousands of people, mainly immigrants from the former Soviet Union who have Jewish ancestry but face difficulty marrying in Israel or receiving Jewish burials.
Soviet Jews have been granted Israeli citizenship because of their ancestry, but many are not considered Jewish under Jewish law and cannot marry in Israel. Many are resistant to Orthodox conversion because the process is lengthy and requires the adoption of a strict Orthodox lifestyle.
A law passed last year by the previous government would have addressed the issue. But the current government, propped up by two ultra-Orthodox parties, scrapped the legislation earlier this year.
The Reform and Conservative Judaism movements, which are more liberal streams of Judaism, have also expressed impatience with what they see as a lack of Jewish religious pluralism in Israel.