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Friday 11 April 2008

The challenge and crisis of conversion in Israel

The challenge and crisis of conversion in Israel (31/03/2008)

A major in the Israeli Army came to me recently and said, "Rabbi
Hartman, I need your help. Three years ago I adopted my first child. I
wanted the child to be Jewish; and I converted my child, and in order to
do so, I had to lie (about keeping an Orthodox lifestyle). In two months
I am getting my second child, and I don't want to lie anymore."

Why is it that within the borders of the State of Israel, this
individual cannot convert his child to be a Jew like he is? Why is it
that the State of Israel determines not merely the citizenship, but in
essence who is an authentic Jew?

Under Israel's law of return, which grants automatic citizenship to
anyone who Hitler would have killed as a Jew (an individual born from a
Jewish mother or father, one who converted or married a Jew, or with one
Jewish grandparent), approximately 325,000 individuals moved to Israel
from the former Soviet Union. While citizens of the State, they are not
Jewish in accordance with the standards set by the Israeli Rabbinate,
which requires that a person be born from a Jewish mother or be
converted to Judaism according to Orthodox halakha.

In much of the Jewish world, Jews of different denominations may
disagree – for example, in the U.S., patrilineal descent is accepted by
the Reform movement, while Conservatives and Orthodox hold to
matrilineal – but each denomination there has its own rabbinate, which
allows the ideological community to function independently. In Israel,
however, there is only one rabbinate for issues of marriage, conversion,
kashrut and burial, and this rabbinate is controlled by Orthodoxy, and a
non-modern one at that.

Over the last 15-20 years, only a few thousand Russians have chosen to
convert, and today, only 1,000-1,500 convert a year. However, with a
natural birthrate of 3,000, the problem is only getting more acute. The
reasons why the vast majority of non-Jewish Israelis from the former
Soviet Union are not converting are numerous. One of the most central is
the fact that conversions through the existing channels are limited to
individuals who want to be Orthodox, a denomination that most immigrants
from the former Soviet Union, and indeed most Jews around the world,
find unacceptable.

New conversion initiative not enough

The current conversion predicament has bothered numerous political and
religious officials and private organizations. The office of the Prime
Minister, now the central location for the issue of conversions, has
recently announced a new initiative to expand the number of judges on
conversion courts and to alleviate the difficulties inherent in the
conversion process. But these steps do not address the fundamental
issue. The question is not the number of judges but their affiliation
and orientation.

To date the most promising and active solution has been the Israeli
Army's Nativ program, where individuals in the context of their army
service are able to learn Judaism from different streams. But in the
end, it, too, faces the same bottleneck, because conversions are still
exclusively conducted by the Orthodox military rabbinate, a fact that
causes the vast majority of soldiers to drop out without converting.

Israel is the national home of all Jews – it is not the synagogue of
this or that particular denomination – and cannot be governed by the
rules of any single denomination. As the home of all Jews, Israel must
be a space in which the diverse Judaisms of the Jewish people all have
equal status – legal, economic and religious. As an Orthodox Rabbi, the
question is not what I believe, but whether I believe that I or any
single denomination can control the State of Israel.

The State of Israel cannot give preference to one ideological
perspective over the other and retain its status as homeland of all
Jews. There are many types of Jews – Orthodox, Conservative, Reform,
Reconstructionist, Renewal, and Secular. All types live within Israel,
as they do in the Jewish world at large. All are building meaningful and
vibrant Judaisms. It is not the place of the State of Israel to
determine which denomination lays claim to the authentic title of
Jewishness. As the state of all Jews, the State of Israel must be
neutral on this question.

It is a travesty that one cannot convert into being a Reform,
Conservative, traditional or secular Jew within the confines of the
State of Israel. As long as conversions are limited to the Rabbinate, it
will still be under the control of one denomination, and as long as the
access points to Judaism are limited to that denomination, most people
will stay outside.

The laws of Israel must represent more fully the meaning of a national
homeland for all Jews. Only when that happens will we be able to turn to
our fellow citizens of the former Soviet Union and elsewhere who serve
in the Army with us, study in our schools, pay taxes and contribute to
our society and offer them a pathway into the Jewish people commensurate
with the type of Jews they want to be.

I don't expect the Rabbinate to accept conversions not in accordance
with its understanding of Orthodox law. I do expect the State of Israel
not to give to one single rabbinate the sole authority of determining
the Jewish identity for the whole state. If we choose to have a
government-sponsored Rabbinate, we must have multiple rabbinates.

If we want to solve the problem of the integration of non-Jews from the
former Soviet Union into Israeli society, as well as the injustice
facing non-Orthodox Jews in Israel on daily basis, Israel must adopt the
model of world Jewry, where Jews of different beliefs have multiple
access points into their tradition. Religious tolerance must not be
limited to Diaspora Jewish life, but must be the foundation of our
national homeland.


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