‘Hello rabbi? It’s Ruth the Moabite. I’m calling to let you know that because my conversion is in doubt, my grandson, King David, is being called a gentile and they’re burning his book, the Psalms.”
At the December 27 Knesset meeting of the Lobby of Religion and State, Rabbi Yosef Avior’s imagined scenario introduced a brief moment of levity into an otherwise intense meeting of past and serving MKs, rabbis and leaders from all streams of world Judaism.
In the meeting’s opening remarks, co-chairperson MK Elazar Stern stated its topics were to be two hot-button issues in Israel today: recognition of conversions from abroad, and the planned — and highly contested — pluralistic prayer pavilion at the Western Wall.
Had this been a “Seinfeld” episode, the Knesset session could have been in honor of Festivus and its Airing of the Grievances: After a turbulent year following the stagnation of the much-heralded Western Wall compromise, many of the slotted speakers had prepared passionate statements reflecting their despair and distrust in the current government.
Stern, frustrated that no members of the coalition were present for the session, obliquely said that had Israel’s relationship with Diaspora Jewry been stronger, the recent anti-settlements UN Security Council Resolution 2334 would not have passed. MK Aliza Lavie, the other co-chair, decried Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “betrayal” of Diaspora Jewry and Liberal Judaism.
However, Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky clarified that “with all the legitimate anger, I must remind everyone that the one who initiated the discussion [of the new Western Wall prayer pavilion] was the prime minister. If there is any politician in the State of Israel who recognizes the importance of Diaspora Jewry, it is Netanyahu.”
Like others at the session, Sharansky blamed a pervasive ignorance among Israelis about Liberal Judaism for the stymieing of the plan — specifically, the denigration of Reform Jewry on the part of Israeli politicians.
At Sunday’s cabinet meeting, said Sharansky, he had found himself in the position of explaining Reform and Conservative Jewry to government ministers. This was not the first time Sharansky had been in the position of educating “those who should know better,” he told The Times of Israel after the session.
‘There is an ignorance that you don’t expect’
“There is an ignorance that you don’t expect,” said Sharansky. Many, including secular MKs and ministers, he said, think that “Reform Jewry is a small sect” and are completely unaware of the 3 million worldwide who self-identify as Liberal Jews.
There is a prevalent feeling that Reform and Conservative Judaism lead to assimilation. “But in France there is huge assimilation, but no Reform Judaism,” said Sharansky. “Reform and Conservative are exactly the opposite; they are the step before assimilation.”
Sharansky reiterated what he told the cabinet meeting Sunday, that it is important for the State of Israel to embrace Liberal Jewry. “Every time a minister denigrates Liberal Jews, calls them a ‘Holocaust,’ it reaches millions,” said Sharansky.
At Tuesday’s Knesset session, many of the speakers echoed Sharnasky and expressed shock at the ignorance of Israelis about their Diaspora brethren. Orthodox Israeli leaders called for increased educational efforts on pluralism by the absent Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who is also the minister of Diaspora Affairs.
A lifelong Zionist, Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, head of New York’s Conservative Park Avenue Synagogue, expressed a passionate plea for recognition and respect.
‘Far too often for far too many American Jews, we’re left to wonder whether Israel loves us as much as we love Israel’
“Far too often for far too many American Jews, we’re left to wonder whether Israel loves us as much as we love Israel,” said Cosgove, who added that American Jews feel increasingly alienated from the Jewish state.
American Jews, said Cosgove, are all too aware of the “bitter irony that Israel is the one country in the world that a Jew doesn’t have the right to express his Judaism.”
Israeli Conservative Rabbi Chaya Roan Baker, who leads a congregation in Jerusalem’s French Hill neighborhood, echoed Cosgrove.
“When people in America talk with me about making aliyah, they say, ‘I will not immigrate to Israel where I can’t live a full Jewish life.'”
Orthodox Rabbi Benjamin Samuels from Shaarei Tefillah in Newton, Massachusetts, said that a convert of his who had made aliyah to Israel recently phoned him up hysterical. She asked whether her four children would be able to marry through the Israeli Chief Rabbinate when they are of age. “I calmed her down, but I couldn’t say that I promise they would,” he said.
Demographer Sergio DellaPergola sharpened the conversion crisis, saying that in Israel, there is a paradoxical situation in which many immigrants eligible for citizenship under Israel’s Law of Return are not Jewish according to halachah [Jewish law], though they lived as Jews abroad. According to DellaPergola, the number of such people has grown to about 400,000 in Israel.
Whereas in Israel the Chief Rabbinate converts about 5,000 Israelis a year, the 400,000 not-halachically Jewish Jews give birth to another 4,000-5,000 native born Israeli non-Jews a year — a zero-sum game.
By 2030, DellaPergola predicts, the majority of Jews in the world will live in Israel (currently it’s about 45%). “We must take responsibility; we must do the right thing,” he said.
That responsibility is a recognition of traditional Jewish law regarding conversion, not creating new obstacles. According to former MK Rabbi Haim Amsalem, “Those who are stringent in conversion are easing the way to assimilation.”
Rabbi Seth Farber, head of Itim, a group that offers help in navigating Jewish life cycle events in Israel, agreed and told the Knesset committee that in creating increasingly stringent conversion criteria, the Chief Rabbinate is “building walls instead of a bridge.”
“We believe in a conversation in which conversion is not a problem, it is part of the solution. But I think we are waiting for a Hanukkah miracle,” said Farber.