Expert: State has failed ex-Soviet would-be converts
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Expert: State has failed ex-Soviet would-be converts

Amid decline in conversions, Israel Democracy Institute’s Netanel Fisher says more must be done to remove obstacles

Illustrative: An Israeli rabbinical court reviews a conversion case. (Flash90)
Illustrative: An Israeli rabbinical court reviews a conversion case. (Flash90)

The number of Jewish conversions through state religious institutions is declining, according to an unpublished report by Dr. Netanel Fisher of the Israeli Democracy Institute.

The report details that since 1995 there have been over 80,000 conversions in Israel, but the average number of converts per year has declined slightly to just 1,800 since the year 2000, meaning since the turn of the century there has been a drastic reduction in successful conversions.

About 45,000 of the 80,000 conversions have been Ethiopian Jews, who are required to undergo a conversion process amid debate about their Jewish status. The next largest group is 24,000 Israelis from the former Soviet Union. According to Dr. Fisher, these numbers represent success for the Ethiopian program, but a failure regarding Israelis from the former Soviet states.

“Promoting the conversion of the immigrants from the former Soviet Union has failed thus far, because the public discourse focused largely on the politicization of the issue — while the road to success in this work lies in a bottom-up approach,” Fisher said in a statement. “Civil society must be mobilized to support the converts, educational bodies need to be encouraged to open classes and recruit students, and community leaders ought to be making the issue a priority.”

The issue is complicated by concerns that Jewish Israelis will marry immigrants and their children who qualified for citizenship under the Law of Return but were not Jewish by maternal descent as defined in Orthodox interpretations of Jewish law. According to Fisher’s research, 7-8% of all Israeli marriages meet this definition.

Some religious Zionist and Modern Orthodox streams of Judaism have tried to remedy this by making standards for conversion in Israel less stringent, yet still in compliance with the basic standards set down in Jewish law. Advocates for stricter policies, mainly in Haredi circles, have warned that leniency would compromise the integrity of the process.

Early this year, Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef was recorded vowing not to recognize conversions by municipal rabbinical courts should he be asked to validate any.

When Fisher was asked if he felt the integrity of the process could be preserved by being more lenient, he told The Times of Israel that there was more to the process than the qualifications that the judges expected at the end of the conversion process.

“The system should be more flexible to accommodate the needs of the people,” he said, referring to logistical issues such as distance from classes or schedules. Fisher said that one of the major findings of the unpublished report was that many Israelis dropped out of the process not because of religious views, but because of a lack of support along the way — either from family inside the country, or organizational help with learning, experiences and integration.

Fisher sees a role for more Israeli organizations to enter the process and enable conversions to be successful, aside from debates about the standards set by respective rabbinic courts.

“There are only one or two organizations that do all the jobs. If more organizations were to jump in, there would be competition for students, between different styles of learning.”

Last November, the Israeli government adopted a cabinet resolution that expanded the number of civilian conversion courts to several dozen, enabling more municipal rabbis to establish ad hoc courts. The policy is set to be repealed as part of the recent coalition agreement between the Likud and United Torah Judaism.

“Every rabbi, in every city, will be able to set up his own tribunal according to Jewish law,” said Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home party at the time. “It also offers a choice. People will be able to choose the tribunal they want to go to. Which means that warm, friendly tribunals will be more popular than others.”

Last year, the IDI, in conjunction with Rabbi Seth Farber of the ITIM organization — which helps conversion candidates navigate the bureaucracy of the Chief Rabbinate — drafted a new bill which, the institute says, would resolve outstanding issues left open by the now-frozen legislation. The aim of this bill is to make the system more efficient, to broaden the acceptance of state conversions and to define Jewish conversion as a national agenda item.

Of the average 1,800 Israelis who convert every year, 1,000 go through the civilian system. The rest work with the special process in place for enlistees in the Israel Defense Forces.

According to Fisher’s report, Israelis from the former Soviet Union lose interest in conversion as they become more integrated into Israeli society. Others drop out due to the complexity of the process. Fisher claims, however, that although successful integration might be a positive development, this represents a challenge for Jewish society.

“Conversion is a challenge of historic proportions, and the way forward is fraught with obstacles. A combination of renewed vision, leadership, resource allocation, and a renewed role for civil society can bring change in conversion, which would ensure the unity of Jewish society in Israel and the continuation of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state,” added Fisher in a statement.

Fisher went further and told The Times of Israel that Prime Minister “Netanyahu and other politicians, when they negotiate with the Palestinians, demand the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state…. We need to make sure that it is a Jewish state; if the rate of intermarriage grows, that will change the meaning of Judaism in Israel.”

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