If Israel toughens its conversion laws, a nail in the coffin of ties with Diaspora Jews?
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If Israel toughens its conversion laws, a nail in the coffin of ties with Diaspora Jews?

With an ultra-Orthodox faction set to run the religious agenda in the new government, the gates for entry to Judaism will again be guarded by the most stringent interpreters of religious law

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

A woman in a conversion court. (photo credit: File/Flash90)
A woman in a conversion court. (photo credit: File/Flash90)

Oleg and Olga met two years ago and within three months were talking marriage. Born in former Soviet Union countries, they both immigrated to Israel as toddlers in the early 1990s. They understood each others’ cultural references, spoke the same languages, and had common upbringings.

Except Oleg was born to a home recognized by halacha — Jewish law — as Jewish, whereas Olga, who has Jewish ancestors on her father’s side, was not.

As the couple grew more serious, Oleg and Olga enrolled in a state-run conversion course. Oleg had been raised in a religious household and attended a religious school in his teens. Though he said he’s no longer religious, he still regularly lays tefillin (phylacteries Jewish males wear during morning prayer). In an effort to support Olga, he too paid the NIS 750 (about $200) registration fee and joined her in attending the twice weekly classes.

Four months into the program, the couple was summoned to a rabbinic judge tasked with assessing their Jewish knowledge and suitability for the course’s next steps. Since starting the studies, the couple had slowly become more observant — lighting Shabbat candles, making kiddush to welcome Shabbat — but they were far from the Orthodox judge’s definition of religious.

Oleg told The Times of Israel this week that talking with this rabbi, “the public face of Judaism,” caused the couple to leave the program.

“He was very condescending and asked at one point if we’d gone to church that morning. He said, ‘Won’t Jesus be upset to know you’re here?’ I felt like he was spitting in our faces,” said Oleg.

Illustrative photo of a woman converting to Judiasm at a Jerusalem rabbinic court in 2003. (Flash 90)
Illustrative photo of a woman converting to Judaism at a Jerusalem rabbinic court in 2003. (Flash 90)

It was important for Oleg and his family, however, that Olga go through a halachic conversion so the couple could be married according to Jewish law. And Olga too wanted to religiously affirm the personal Jewish identity she felt she already had. After a thorough Internet search, the couple found an organization to help her.

Olga underwent a halachic Orthodox conversion, complete with a beit din (religious court) of respected Israeli rabbis, and immersion in a mikveh (ritual bath). An Orthodox rabbi was then found to marry the couple in a halachic — but illegal — ceremony, and the couple flew to Cyprus for a civil marriage. (The State of Israel recognizes foreign civil marriages, but not halachic Jewish marriages conducted domestically by officiants other than its chief rabbinate.)

Oleg said he and his family view Olga’s conversion and their wedding as halachically binding and that several of their friends are in the process of following suit. But he admitted he worries about the official halachic status of their future children.

There are approximately 400,000 immigrants and children of immigrants who are not halachically Jewish residing in Israel today. They made aliyah under the law of return, which, following the Nazis’ definition of Jewishness, allows the immigration of anyone who has at least one Jewish grandparent. Today, some 80,000-90,000 such citizens, mostly children of immigrants, are under 18 and grew up in Israel.

“This second generation is indistinguishable from the average Israeli Jew. They are fully Jewish sociologically, culturally, nationally, and even in terms of religious beliefs and traditional religious practices,” said Rabbi Chuck Davidson, a scholar and social activist volunteering with several nonprofit organizations that work on conversion reform in Israel.

Young Jewish immigrants from Russia celebrate the Passover  seder in Tzur Hadassa, April 8, 2009. Anna Kaplan/ Flash90)
Young Jewish immigrants from Russia celebrate the Passover seder in Tzur Hadassa, April 8, 2009. Anna Kaplan/ Flash90)

Lawyer Assaf Benmelech, a board member of the National Zionist political activism organization Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah (Upholders of Torah and Service), said there are major halachic opinions which support the acceptance of what he calls “half-Jews” as Jews, “through a conversion which shall not place upon them such strict, tough and sometimes humiliating demands.”

‘Eighty years ago, such people were slaughtered in the Holocaust, because the world considered them Jews’

“The fact that there are hundreds of thousands of people who are half-Jews — not recognized by the state and the chief rabbinate — is a tragedy,” said Benmelech. “Eighty years ago, such people were slaughtered in the Holocaust, because the world considered them Jews.”

The Israeli chief rabbinate, the guardian of the gate for entrance into the Jewish people, is increasingly criticized for putting obstacles before potential converts — many of whom who have lived in Israel their entire lives — and for spreading its jurisdiction abroad by refusing to recognize the authority of local Orthodox rabbis. (Reform and Conservative conversions, while recognized by the Interior Ministry for citizenship purposes, are not considered kosher in Israel for religious life cycle rites.)

But as the chief rabbinate’s approach becomes more halachically stringent, should it be the only body to determine who is a Jew for a majority non-Orthodox population? This emotionally charged question inflames worldwide Jewry — and just may be the cause of a lasting wedge between Diaspora and Israeli Jews.

While the government’s coalition talks with ultra-Orthodox parties draw to a close and a cabinet decision promoting local conversion courts from the previous “secular” government looks to be overturned, separation of church and state activists worry for contemporary Jewry. In Israel and abroad, many leaders are calling for religious civil disobedience.

Time for independent conversion courts?

In an oped article on Orthodox website Kipa this week, Rabbi Haim Amsalem called for the formation of halachic conversion courts operating independently of the chief rabbinate.

“Perhaps at last, courageous and influential rabbis who until now sat on the sidelines will find in themselves the strength of character and fortitude to decide upon the foundation of an independent conversion court system that will be run according to halacha, not politics,” wrote the exiled former Shas politician-turned-social-reformer.

‘This conversion would be binding and there is no force in the world that could revoke it’

Amsalem claimed that even without the chief rabbinate’s approval, “the people of Israel would recognize” these Jews-by-choice, and that the independent conversion would eventually be considered kosher for purposes of marriage among the majority of the national religious population.

Amsalem wrote that a kosher halachic conversion is simply one done under the auspices of three learned rabbis, with circumcision for men, immersion in the mikveh, and an honest acceptance of the mitzvot. “This conversion would be binding and there is no force in the world that could revoke it.”

MK Haim Amsalem in the Knesset, December 2011 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Former Shas MK Haim Amsalem in the Knesset, December 2011 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

According to Rabbi Seth Farber, the head of the Itim organization which helps Israelis navigate the rabbinate’s bureaucracy, there are already four Orthodox rabbinical courts doing halachic conversions that are not recognized by the state.

‘It’s the first time in history that an Orthodox minority rules over a non-Orthodox majority and coerces them and forces them to do what they want’

“These people want to be Jewish, and want to be married outside of the rabbinate. You can’t question these people’s incentive in converting because they don’t derive any benefits from it,” said Farber.

The rabbinical court system, said Farber, is a system operating without checks and balances or meaningful oversight.

“It’s the first time in history that an Orthodox minority rules over a non-Orthodox majority and coerces them and forces them to do what they want. How sustainable is a Jewish democratic society when the Jewish dimensions of society are being sold wholesale to an extreme population group that makes the decisions,” asked Farber.

Deputy Minister of Religious Affairs MK Eli Ben Dahan’s spokesperson declined to comment for this article, as did Jewish Home party head, Diaspora Minister Naftali Bennett.

Director of the Ministry of Religious Services’ Conversion Authority Yaron Catane told The Times of Israel that the conversion courts are guided by the Israeli chief rabbinate, and act only according to the rules of conversion set by the halacha.

“There is much importance of maintaining uniformity among the Jewish people, especially in the issue of accepting a person as a Jew. Without this uniformity the Jewish people will be divided, as one group will reject the other and people won’t be able to marry with one another,” said Catane. “This uniformity could be achieved only by the chief rabbinate, the centralized government-affiliated body that assesses the halachic status of Jews in Israel.”

“Establishing private conversion courts will create different groups and levels of conversion which would not be recognized, thus disintegrating the Jewish people in Israel and undermining the basic principle of the establishment of the Jewish State,” said head of the Conversion Authority Catane.

When an Orthodox minority rules over a non-Orthodox majority

There have been a slew of recent headline-grabbing cases in the last year which illustrate Farber’s frustration. In one, a rabbinic court revoked a convert’s conversion in a case that made it all the way to the Supreme Court, which upheld the revocation. These are not isolated cases.

Susan Weiss was the lawyer for Yonit Erez, a European immigrant whose conversion was revoked after a decade-long court battle sparked by testimony from her ex-husband that Erez was no longer religiously observant. Weiss is the founder and executive director of the Center for Women’s Justice, which takes on such cases, as well as those of agunot (women whose husbands will not grant them a religious divorce) and other situations of potential difficulty in the overlap between church and state.

Lawyer Susan Weiss is the founder and executive director of the Center for Women’s Justice which takes on cases when women are caught between the intersection of civil and religious law. (courtesy)
Lawyer Susan Weiss is the founder and executive director of the Center for Women’s Justice, which takes on cases of women caught between civil and religious law. (courtesy)

In a conversion with Weiss in her modest Jerusalem office following the Supreme Court decision, she described a situation that is, “literally, an Inquisition. Persons can inform state courts that they suspect that a convert is not obeying the commandments, and the state rabbinic court will act as investigator, police, prosecutor and judge, all rolled into one, often based on hearsay information.”

If Erez is indeed no longer religiously observant, she is hardly the only convert in this situation.

‘We are currently teaching converts that the way into Judaism is via dishonesty. I can’t think of a greater desecration of God’s name’

“The vast majority of converts converted through the rabbinate do not come out ‘religious.’ As a result, the rabbinate has created a game of wink-wink,” said conversion activist Davidson, a Baltimore transplant. “We are currently teaching converts that the way into Judaism is via dishonesty. I can’t think of a greater desecration of God’s name.”

Also worrisome is the potential persecution of converts by those who may have vested interests — such as Erez’s ex-husband — and who can activate government bodies through a mere rumor.

“Supreme Court judges, instead of protecting the individual and harmonizing the Jewish nature of the state with its democratic nature, the court is compromising on its democratic values, making Israel seem more and more like a theocracy,” said Weiss, clearly passionate about perceived injustice in the recent court decision.

“Converts are being hunted,” said Weiss, in what she said was tantamount to both a culture war and a turf war. The rabbinic courts want to protect the purity of the religious polity and their authority over religious matters in Israel as well as the Diaspora.

The building of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate in Jerualem (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
The building of the Chief Rabbinate in Jerualem (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

However, Weiss is not pushing for a reformation of the rabbinate.

‘I don’t want the state legal system to quote the Shulchan Aruch for anything’

“I don’t want to make it a friendlier rabbinate. We’ve got to take halacha out of the political realm, not force it on anybody… I don’t want the state legal system to quote the Shulhan Aruch [the widely accepted 16th century code of Jewish law] for anything,” she said.

“Religion and state need to be separated. The state should not be in the religion business. The state should be, at most, in the accommodation-of-religion business. Religious practice must not be imposed on the individual by the state. Doing mitzvot, or not doing mitzvot, is a matter of personal conscience,” she said.

Who decides about the Judaism of American Jews?

According to Bar-Ilan University Prof. Adam Ferziger, who specializes in Jewish religious life and law in modern and contemporary times, “Conversion is a very strong example of the transformative nature of having a sovereign state versus a Diaspora existence.”

“Modern advances in publication, communication, and travel certainly led to greater halachic conformity than in previous times when local Jewish communities were able to operate more independently. Indeed, the Internet has, so to speak, put this process on ‘steroids.’

“In parallel, the degree to which the advent of the State of Israel has brought with it efforts towards centralization and homogeneity of halachic practice and standards is unprecedented. It seeks to set the standard for Judaism, everywhere,” said Ferziger.

And the standard is increasingly ultra-Orthodox flavored, he intimated.

Rabbi Asher Lopatin, head of New York's liberal Orthodox rabbinical school Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, in Jerusalem's King David Hotel, February 24, 2015. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/The Times of Israel)
Rabbi Asher Lopatin, head of New York’s liberal Orthodox rabbinical school Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, in Jerusalem’s King David Hotel, February 24, 2015. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/The Times of Israel)

An anecdote to illustrate Ferziger’s hypothesis: On a brief visit to Jerusalem, head of New York’s liberal Orthodox rabbinical school Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbi Asher Lopatin, sat with The Times of Israel in the King David Hotel lobby and said his own conversions are not always recognized by the rabbinate.

“I was on a beit din [rabbinic court] in America for an Orthodox convert, who is observant — and who was not accepted as a Jew by the State of Israel. It’s a big loss to the State of Israel,” he said, adding this individual would have made aliya.

What is surprising is that Lopatin is a member of the Rabbinic Council of America (RCA), virtually the only organization whose conversions are now perfunctorily accepted by the Israeli rabbinate.

Lopatin is also, however, the head of YCT, an “Open Orthodox” institution founded by Rabbi Avi Weiss.

In another of those high-profile headline-grabbing cases, the rabbinate rejected the testimony of prominent American liberal Orthodox Rabbi Weiss in the kosher conversion of former congregants. The case drew widespread support from Diaspora Jews, including an American congressman. Even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was asked to intervene.

“When the RCA chooses its religious judges in America for conversion courts, they are now held up to the Israeli rabbinate’s standards. These judges will decide about the Jewishness of American Jews. This, then, is essentially not that different than the Israeli rabbinate’s claiming singular authority regarding the Jewishness of Ethiopian Jews,” said Ferziger, who teaches in Bar-Ilan’s department of Jewish History and Contemporary Jewry.

The widening ‘who is a Jew’ gap between Israel and the Diaspora

Most American Jews are Conservative or Reform in observance. Increasingly, in an effort to stave off intermarriage and assimilation, many rabbis promote conversion as a solution for the continuity of the Jewish people. However, converts from these streams are not at all recognized in Israel for life cycle events such as marriage or burial. Neither would many of their children, since halachic Judaism only recognizes as Jewish children born from halachically Jewish mothers.

“We can’t separate the issue of conversion from civil marriage and divorce. It’s a monopoly: the rabbinate has a stranglehold on issues of personal status,” said Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly.

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld delivers a psalm at the presidential inaugural service at the National Cathedral. (Ron Kampeas/JTA)
Rabbi Julie Schonfeld (Ron Kampeas/JTA)

“Conversion is a necessity. Jews-by-choice number among the most active and dedicated congregants. This is one of the most known issues in the larger Jewish community — everybody has family who has converted… this touches every Jewish family,” said Schonfeld during a quick stop in Jerusalem.

Steven Wernick, the Conservative movement’s United Synagogue executive vice president and CEO, was seated across from Schonfeld in Jerusalem’s David Citadel Hotel.

“Ultimately it’s a political issue. As long as the rabbinate has the political responsibility for issues of personal status, the issue is not going to be resolved. It’s not about who is a Jew, it’s about who’s a rabbi and has the authority to say who is a Jew,” said Wernick.

The pair had just come from a meeting with the Jewish Agency’s Committee of the Unity of the Jewish People where this subject was broadly discussed.

‘It’s not about who is a Jew, it’s about who’s a rabbi and has the authority to say who is a Jew’

“For the Diaspora, this is one of those issues that has the potential to drive a wedge between communities, between the Diaspora and Israel, and within internal communities,” said Wernick.

“Israel is doing the exact opposite of what it wants: it’s telling world Jewry that they’re not Jews… The more Israel disenfranchises them, the more they will be disenfranchised,” said Schonfeld.

In addition to the Jewish Agency committee, there are a few interdenominational initiatives broaching the separation of religion and state and how it affects relations between Israel and the Diaspora.

A Torah reading at Adas Israel Congregation, a Conservative synagogue in Washington. (Courtesy Adas Israel)
A Torah reading at Adas Israel Congregation, a Conservative synagogue in Washington. (Courtesy Adas Israel)

Steven Bayme, director of the Contemporary Jewish Life Department of the American Jewish Committee and of the Koppelman Institute on American Jewish-Israeli Relations, sits on one such coalition called J-REC, supported by the AJC, which met this week.

He said that the chief rabbinate’s increasingly stringent standards are delegitimizing American Jewry.

‘The chief rabbinate is saying, “Your conversions aren’t real, your rabbis aren’t real rabbis, your Jews aren’t Jewish”‘

“The chief rabbinate is saying, ‘Your conversions aren’t real, your rabbis aren’t real rabbis, your Jews aren’t Jewish,'” said Bayme in a phone conversation following one such meeting.

The 30-odd members of the coalition of US and Israeli organizations range across the denominational spectrum. It advocates for “religious freedom and equality, notably with respect to personal-status issues, as a means of strengthening Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state that enhances its ties with global Jewry.”

Dr. Steven Bayme (screen capture/YouTube)
Dr. Steven Bayme (screen capture/YouTube)

Its first mission to Israel is set for November and will focus on meetings with legislators from parties inside and outside the government to secure full religious equality for all religious streams and an end to the monopoly of the chief rabbinate over personal status issues.

“That task is an uphill one and will take much time, but we need to persevere and keep our long-term goals in play,” said Bayme.

“One of Zionism’s greatest victories is it’s the state of the entire Jewish people. But individual Jews from the Diaspora are being told by an institution of the Jewish state that their conversion is not acceptable,” he said.

“The attachment between American Jewry and Israel is in danger of weakening,” said Bayme.

Good old-fashioned civil disobedience

Like an increasing number of Diaspora activists, Lopatin pushed for grassroots civil disobedience around personal status issues such as marriage.

“I would hope people would ignore the rabbinate and marry in other ways. We should get 100 rabbis to do 100 weddings in Israel publicly outside the rabbinate. I would be happy to be part of that effort,” he said.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs. (photo credit: Clark Jones, Courtesy the Union for Reform Judaism)
Rabbi Rick Jacobs at his 2012 installation as head of the Reform movement. (photo credit: Clark Jones, Courtesy the Union for Reform Judaism)

Union for Reform Judaism head Rabbi Rick Jacobs told The Times of Israel in a phone call that he has already seen change on the grassroots level with respect to conversion classes in Tel Aviv’s Reform center Beit Daniel. There, as in all Reform centers worldwide, Jews by choice who want to study and learn are welcomed.

Jacobs was present at a Friday night service where six people “formally affirmed their place in the tradition” and converted through the Reform movement, even though the Israeli chief rabbinate will not accept their conversions.

“It is seen as a Diaspora issue, but it is very much an Israeli issue, an Israeli challenge,” said Jacobs.

“Many families in Israel are from former Soviet Union countries, serve in IDF. Israel is their home, and Judaism is their religion,” said Jacobs. “They’re changing a reality on the ground with a simple affirmation. This is not going to be decided only by government legislation.”

And as the coalition talks wrap up, it is becoming more clear that the government is not ready to legislate on reforming conversion.

Looming black cloud over Israeli-Diaspora relations

Israeli Rabbi David Stav sat with The Times of Israel for an interview at its Jerusalem office last week. He had come in a last-ditch media tour to lobby for the cabinet decision allowing for local conversion courts.

Rabbi David Stav, June 20, 2013. (photo credit: Flash 90)
Rabbi David Stav, June 20, 2013. (photo credit: Flash 90)

“I want to make it clear that the vast majority of Israelis don’t really care about conversion… but politicians care about it a lot. It’s a game of power, or control,” he said.

Stav is the head of the national Zionist Tzohar rabbinical organization that attempts to fill the void between the rabbinate and the non-Orthodox Israeli population. His rabbis are considered more lenient and are used by marrying couples who wish, for example, to exchange rings under the chuppa istead of the halachic practice of only the man “purchasing” his wife with a ring.

Stav is on the forefront of legislation aimed at creating a competitive market for religious rites, such as the marriage registration law called the Tzohar Bill which essentially allows a couple to choose where they do the paperwork for their marriage, and, by default, how stringent the process of proving themselves Jewish will be.

Stav recently joined Efrat-based Rabbi Shlomo Riskin in running the Ohr Torah Stone institutions, which includes high schools, colleges, graduate programs, seminaries and rabbinical schools. He is Riskin’s presumed successor.

‘Since the American Jew does not vote, we cannot expect an Israeli politician to count the votes of American Jewry’

Stav acknowledged that what concerns American Jews is the fact that Conservative and Reform conversions are not recognized — “the one issue nobody talks about here.”

“What counts are votes,” said Stav, “and since the American Jew does not vote, we cannot expect an Israeli politician to count the votes of American Jewry.” That may change to some degree: reports circulated this week that Netanyahu is backing a bill granting voting rights to Israeli expats living abroad and citizens of other countries who hold dual citizenship.

Stav cautioned, however, that even though it does not apply to Liberal Judaism’s conversions, the government’s overturning of last session’s cabinet decision “will be a very bad sign for the Jews in the Diaspora. It means nobody in the government cares about the converts and by extension, American Jewry and problems of converts in US.”

“If the decision is canceled, it means that American Jewry is in trouble,” he summarized.

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