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CULTURE DIGEST: Israel may change conversion laws; online gambling shows momentum, now multi-billion industry

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–The Israeli Supreme Court decided March 30 to begin requiring certain types of non-Orthodox conversions to Judaism be recognized by the state.

The court’s 7-4 ruling could trigger a significant religious controversy, since Israel historically has recognized only conversions performed by Orthodox rabbis inside Israel. “It would split the nation in two,” Israel’s chief rabbi for Ashkenazic Jews, Yona Metzger, was quoted by The New York Times as saying.

Under the new ruling, foreign workers and tourists in Israel could receive religious training there and then go abroad for conversion. They could then become Israeli citizens under the Law of Return, which grants citizenship to anyone who is Jewish, The Times reported.

Such a development could mark the lessening of authority long held by Orthodox Jews in the nation of Israel. They contend that their control over the conversion process inside Israel ensures particular standards that cannot be monitored properly elsewhere.

A proponent of the change, meanwhile, Anat Hoffman, executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, told The Times, “There is now more than one way to become Jewish in Israel, and [the ruling] is wonderful.” Hoffman’s group filed the case on behalf of 14 foreigners living in Israel who wanted to convert.

Hoffman said about 1,000 people have been going through the conversion process in Israel each year, but an estimated 250,000 Israelis, now with an “undefined” religious status, could become candidates for conversion.

JACKSON TRIAL FULL OF CULTURAL ODDITIES — As what some have called the circus atmosphere surrounding the serious subject of the Michael Jackson child molestation trial continues, reports of odd occurrences — either in the courtroom or in Jackson’s formerly personal life — seem to emerge daily, reflecting the destitute nature of some portions of American culture.

A former housekeeper testified that Jackson created a “no rules” environment at his Neverland Ranch with no set bedtimes, no limits on food or candy and no standards for behavior, The New York Times reported, presenting a picture of Jackson as “a perpetual adolescent who made crude comments about the models in pornographic magazines and liked to make crank calls from his airplane and his bedroom.”

And while pornographic magazines and videos seized at Jackson’s ranch are being introduced as key evidence in the trial, Judge Rodney Melville has ruled that they cannot be called “pornographic” since pornography is not a description but a “legal conclusion” for the jury to decide. Instead, lawyers must refer to the evidence as “adult material.”

The judge has ordered spectators under age 18 to leave the room while the adult material is being shown on a large screen inside the court, and even “jaded journalists gasp at the raunchy headlines,” USA Today reported.

ONLINE GAMBLING GAINS MOMENTUM — In much the same way the Internet vastly expanded access to pornography, the World Wide Web has introduced an array of gambling methods that never require a person to set foot in a casino. As a result, online gambling has become a $10-billion-a-year industry.

The federal Wire Act of 1961 bans the use of telephones to place sports bets, but the law is hard to enforce because it does not specifically ban casino games — especially through the Internet, since the method was not around when the law was passed. Lawmakers have been trying to update the ban, but little progress has been made, USA Today reported.

More than $200 million is bet on online poker each day, up from $16 million two years ago, according to PokerPulse.com, which gives insight into the magnitude of the movement.

Three states — North Dakota, Illinois and Georgia — are working toward legalizing online gambling using the justification that it would prevent further tax increases by serving as a revenue source. But the U.S. Justice Department has recently reiterated the federal ban on all Internet gambling, USA Today reported.

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  • Erin Curry