How Israel’s army skirts minefields to pave a smoother road to conversion
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Nativ, the army’s gateway to conversion, manages to avoid most of the 'Who is a Jew?' controversies

How Israel’s army skirts minefields to pave a smoother road to conversion

At Shavuot, a festival closely associated with conversion, The Times of Israel looks at the IDF’s remarkable Nativ program, and follows three of the 850 Israelis to convert in uniform this year

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

  • Soldiers considering conversion during a November 7, 2013 visit to a Kindergarten in Efrat on Hannukah (Gershon Elinson/ Flash 90)
    Soldiers considering conversion during a November 7, 2013 visit to a Kindergarten in Efrat on Hannukah (Gershon Elinson/ Flash 90)
  • Then-First Sergeant Alex Asyanov, a paratrooper, right; Cpl. Katya, an NCO in military intelligence, who was not cleared to use her full name or show her face; and Sgt. Igor Havkin, a company sergeant in the Ordnance Corps' Basic Training (Netta  Asner/ IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
    Then-First Sergeant Alex Asyanov, a paratrooper, right; Cpl. Katya, an NCO in military intelligence, who was not cleared to use her full name or show her face; and Sgt. Igor Havkin, a company sergeant in the Ordnance Corps' Basic Training (Netta Asner/ IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
  • Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and then-IDF Chief Education Officer Brig. Gen. Eli Schermeister, second left, along with an education corps officer, back to camera, and potential converts on December 15, 2010 (Amos Ben-Gershom/ GPO/ courtesy)
    Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and then-IDF Chief Education Officer Brig. Gen. Eli Schermeister, second left, along with an education corps officer, back to camera, and potential converts on December 15, 2010 (Amos Ben-Gershom/ GPO/ courtesy)

Alex Asyanov, an Israeli paratrooper of Russian parentage, marched into Gaza this past summer with the rest of his platoon. He took comfort in the ponds of white light illuminating the kibbutzim strung along the border but still could not rid himself of the unwelcome knowledge that if he died, if there were a bullet with his name on it, he would be buried as a gentile, in a separate part of the cemetery.

This understanding was new to him. As a combat soldier, he had thought of death before, but had only learned several months earlier – via army mail – that the State of Israel, for purposes of marriage and death, did not consider him a Jew. Only when he opened up an invitation to the Jewish Zionist Identity Program for Immigrant Soldiers, or Nativ, as it is known in Hebrew, did he realize that, despite having been born in Israel, practically raised on his grandfather’s gefilte fish on Friday nights, there was a problem with his Judaism.

‘They are always talking about a Jewish state, and how we have no other state, and how we are fighting for the state. But you say to yourself — ok, well, I am not Jewish’

He went home to Yavne and spoke to his parents. His father was born a Jew. His mother was not. She had converted, though, and anyway, the family was Jewish, they told him. Disturbed, he took the idea to the religious hesder soldiers in his platoon and was stunned by the simplicity of their questioning. Is your mother Jewish? they asked. He said yes; she had undergone a Reform conversion. They told him that halachically – according to Orthodox interpretation of Jewish law – he was not a Jew. End of story.

As the truth seeped in, he slipped the Star of David off the gold chain he wore around his neck.

In Gaza, the knowledge that he did not officially belong to the Jewish People clung to him throughout the 50-day war.

“I will tell you the truth,” he said. “I’ll be as straight as possible. It was not at all fun. Not at all. They are always talking about a Jewish state, and how we have no other state, and how we are fighting for the state. But you say to yourself — ok, well, I am not Jewish. According to the rabbinate, according to the entire country, I am some sort of retarded atheist, and if I get nailed with a bullet between the eyes I will be buried outside the cemetery. It’s sad, it’s not fun to hear about, it’s annoying, and I tried all of the time to push back against those thoughts. They are so annoying. But I told myself, just hold on, get through these 50 days, and get to Nativ.”

Then-First Sergeant Alex Asyanov, a paratrooper, right; Cpl. Katya, an NCO in military intelligence, who was not cleared to use her full name or show her face; and Sgt. Igor Havkin, a company sergeant in the Ordnance Corps' Basic Training (Netta  Asner/ IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
Then-First Sergeant Alex Asyanov, a paratrooper, right; Cpl. Katya, an NCO in military intelligence, who was not cleared to use her full name or show her face; and Sgt. Igor Havkin, a company sergeant in the Ordnance Corps’ Basic Training (Netta Asner/ IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

Nativ, a partnership between the IDF, The Jewish Agency, and the Government of Israel, is the army’s gateway to conversion. It’s Judaism and Zionism 101, taught by civilian and army instructors on a grassy campus, providing participants with reasonable food in a coed setting on the army’s dime. The seven-week course, even if one does not continue toward the conversion seminars that follow, counts toward time served. In short, most soldiers know that if they are entitled to the course, they might as well go.

It is – housed under the roof of the IDF, an organization that is by definition kosher and Sabbath observant – the only path in Israeli society that manages to skirt most of the minefields surrounding the question of who is a Jew.

And as the country celebrates Shavuot — a holiday closely associated with conversion, when Jews read the story of the convert Ruth — The Times of Israel reports on the results of several months of visits with three soldiers who started the Nativ course in 2014, sitting in on classes and discussing the joys and tribulations of becoming officially Jewish while in uniform.

Meanwhile, the government gears up to roll back a 2014 cabinet decision to establish alternate, non-Chief Rabbinate-sponsored though still Orthodox conversion courts around the state – an initiative advanced by the Yesh Atid party but not cemented into law.

The Nativ path

Nativ was founded in 2001, the brainchild of reserves general Elazar Stern, who, as chief education officer and head of IDF manpower, from 1999 to 2008, left an indelible mark on the military – pioneering the army’s organized trips to the Nazi death camps, introducing a blood marrow donor station at the IDF’s induction center, and, among many other initiatives, launching a rewrite of the army’s code of ethics.

The notion of advancing an army-run conversion course, he wrote in his 2012 memoir, came to him when a colonel under his command mentioned offhandedly that the IDF distributed 600 New Testaments a year to soldiers who opted to be sworn in with the Christian rather than Jewish Bible.

“I didn’t have then – and I don’t have now – any problem with supplying the New Testament to soldiers,” he wrote. However, most of them, he reckoned, “must be asking for a New Testament as an act of defiance against us for treating them like gentiles and foreigners,” even though they thought of themselves oftentimes as Jewish.

The military rabbinate, he noted, “was not too enthusiastic” about establishing an in-house conversion course. Nor was the IDF General Staff. But Stern pushed ahead. He met with a group of rigidly Orthodox, yet leniency-inclined rabbis, including Haim Drukman, Tsfania Drori and Shlomo Amar. There was an acute need to offer conversion courses to soldiers in the army, he argued. The Orthodox conversion process, in the civilian world, was run by the ultra-Orthodox. It held sacrosanct the notion that converts must be dissuaded at first from converting, their devotion tested closely over time.

Elazar Stern (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)
After retiring from the army, Elazar Stern, as an MK, pushed for reform in the civilian conversion process (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

This attitude endures and is at least partially responsible for the fact that of the 349,000 Israelis of Jewish heritage who are not considered Jewish, according to statistics provided by Rabbi Seth Farber of Itim, in 2013 only 4,843 chose to travel the road toward civilian conversion.

Stern described this as a national problem: if the conversion process remained as stringent as it was and if potential converts were going to be denied if a candidate’s mother, say, turned on the lights in the house on Shabbat, then “in fifty years we will no longer have a Jewish state,” he told the rabbis.

His solution was to set up a government-approved conversion process in the army. The first course was launched in the spring of 2001.

The process is not perfect. From the ultra-Orthodox perspective it is far too lenient. It does not even span an entire calendar year – in fact it could be completed in the period between the end of the Sukkot and the start of Passover – and the devotion of each and every convert to full compliance with the commandments has been questioned.

Secular Israelis have been outraged as well. In 2014, Noam Cohen, a newly discharged soldier, told Channel 10 that she was disqualified from the conversion track in the army because she lives on a kibbutz. It did not matter that her hometown of Kibbutz Yifat has a synagogue, or that there is a religious family living on the kibbutz, or that her father was a veteran of Sayeret Matkal, or that there is a plaque drilled into the synagogue wall with the names of 22 fallen Israeli soldiers from the kibbutz: the fact of her living on a secular kibbutz was grounds for disqualification, she said.

Roughly 3,000 soldiers opt to start the Nativ courses every year. The first seven weeks are a bit like college. The classes are taught by religious, secular, Reform and Conservative teachers. The dorms and classrooms are sprinkled with students from all over the world – participants referred to it as “the Mondial” or World Cup of soccer – but the clear majority are from Russian-speaking homes. In a history class I sat in on, addressing the Roman rule over Judea, there were 20 students from former Soviet Union states and two from the US, both of whom were Jewish but eligible for the course as new immigrants. One, a college graduate from New Rochelle, New York, was the most active participant in class. The other doodled impressively. The army allowed access to three of the Russian-speaking students.

From a Russian military academy to Beersheba

Sgt. Igor Havkin, a native of Moscow, came to Israel seven years ago. He has a square jaw and a thin neck, around which he wore a chain with a meaty silver cross. He is not considered a Jew by the standards of the Law of Return, which requires one Jewish grandparent. Instead, sitting on the grass of Nativ’s Jerusalem campus, he said that his paternal great-grandfather was the only Jew in the family. Israel allowed him to immigrate, though, in order to be reunited with his parents, who had come to Israel under the Law of Return in 2001.

“I came here and was greeted with the shock of my life,” he said. Not only was the language foreign and the heat otherworldly, but the public school he was sent to in Beersheba, Mekif Heh, was quite a departure from the military academy he had attended in Moscow. “Yelling at the teacher,” he said, “I was not used to that.”

He described the chemistry and biology classes as “for the Russians,” but said that socially he was at sea, ridiculed for the cross he wore and the accent he couldn’t shake. After transferring to a police academy, where he felt he was treated as an equal, he volunteered for a full term of three years of service in the army. His father, grandfather, and great grandfather had all been officers in Russia, he said. “I could not be the embarrassment of the home.”

He opted to be sworn in to service with a New Testament and did not lend his voice to the national anthem – which speaks only of “a Jewish soul” – when it was sung at ceremonies. Once the invitation to Nativ arrived, though, he decided to take a break from his job as a squad leader on a noncombat Basic Training base in order to try and “feel more connected to the state.”

In our initial conversation, conducted shortly after he had spent a weekend with an Orthodox family, he described Shabbat as “interesting” and “different” but said he had been raised in the Russian Orthodox Church and did not give conversion more than a 50 percent chance. He likened it to a train “that comes every hour.” He was in no rush to hop on.

Maj. Lior Tamir, the commander of the Nativ course, who is familiar with the conversion options outside the army, described it in an interview earlier that day as more akin to a train that comes once in a lifetime. The process “is not an outward difference, putting on a kippa, praying three times a day,” he said. “It’s an internal change that you are expected to make. And you are judged on it. But when you come later, with a family, with a long-term girlfriend, then they become part of the whole process along with you.”

In other words, if you don’t convert in the army, then your spouse, too, if you have one, must commit to taking on an Orthodox lifestyle. If you have children, you will have to send them to not just a Jewish school in Israel, but to an Orthodox one. The religious infrastructure, of a Sabbath-observing army with its kosher mess halls, will not be there as a starting point, greasing the process along.

Katya

A soldier in Military Intelligence, Katya was allowed to provide only her first name. Her father, whose last name is Eisenstein, is “a Jew by any which way,” she said. Her mother kept her maiden name and gave it to her daughter. The young couple, having fled Krasnodow, Russia, for financial reasons after the fall of the Soviet Union, lived in Uzbekistan, where her mother did not want her child readily identified as a Jew. They arrived in Israel, at her father’s behest, when she was in first grade. It was February and she can still remember stripping off her jackets and scarves and marveling at the cleanliness of her new home, in Dimona. The palm trees, she said, “were stunning.”

Her last name made it clear that she was not Jewish, she said. But she gravitated toward “the local kids” and was quickly accepted. As a tutor in high school, though, she saw one of her students, of Moroccan descent, as “carefree” and surrounded by friends. The other student, of Russian parentage, was often asked what he did during holidays and was ridiculed for his response. “And that element really scared me,” she said. “It clarified the situation to me. Because that could happen to me when I have children.”

As soon as she was accepted to her job in Military Intelligence, she told her commanding officer that she intended to go to Nativ. Converting before army service is hardly possible for a young woman who wants to serve in the IDF: the civilian rabbinate will approve a high school-aged girl’s conversion only on condition that she sign a document stating that she will not serve in the army, Stern wrote in his memoir. An Orthodox Jew, he called the practice “an outrage.”

Katya described her spiritual background as “a sort of emptiness.” She said her parents tried “to give the feeling that we are Jewish.” They had a menorah and candlesticks in the house. But the menorah was never lit and the candles were never blessed. Her goal, she said, was to fill the void, “to take in Judaism.”

An illustrative photo of the IDF Chief Rabbi Brig. Gen. Rafi Peretz, left, with Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef on October 31, 2013 (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash 90)
An illustrative photo of the IDF Chief Rabbi Brig. Gen. Rafi Peretz, left, with Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef on October 31, 2013 (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash 90)

And yet more than the other potential converts she grasped the enormity of the change required, saying that she hoped the two three-week conversion seminars that follow Nativ would not be too difficult or alienating or else she feared she might “take a step back.”

One concern of hers was the woman’s role in Orthodox Judaism. As a woman, she said, she finds that “Judaism is hugely chauvinistic.” The female role, as explained to her, is very domestic. It is to educate the kids and to love them and to make a Shabbat dinner. Is it modernity? She wondered aloud. “No. But it is respectful.”

After spending Shabbat at an Orthodox family’s house, and enjoying the ritual singing of “Woman of Valor” at the Shabbat table, she said that she felt that when she is older, and “when I have a home of my own, a home that runs as a Jewish home,” she would be able to merge modernity and Judaism, suggesting that “I will cook and my husband will do the dishes.”

She said that traditional Judaism may have chauvinistic elements but so does “the rest of the world.”

The laws of family purity, requiring that a married couple avoid sex and affectionate contact for roughly 12 days every month, were new to her. She said the instructors mentioned the longing and the way it links couples together over the long term but that the process of “distancing a woman” during and after menstruation was one she would have to grapple with. “The logic is consoling,” she said. “But still.”

Alex

First Sgt. Alex Asyanov (since discharged) was born in Israel several years after his parents arrived from Russia in 1991, and though he lived in Yavneh, south of Tel Aviv, he would take the bus to Metula, along the Lebanon border in the north, three times a week to play ice hockey. In high school he played on the Israeli national team and was offered a partial army exemption as a star athlete. The form had arrived in the mail, he said, offering him a post that allowed him to sleep at home and show up only for a few hours a day at a nearby base, “but I realized that it was waste of time. And I felt it was egotistical of me.”

Asyanov said that as soon as the religious soldiers in his unit explained why the state did not consider him Jewish, ‘I felt this stone on my heart. All of a sudden, you don’t belong’

As an only child, though, he needed his parents’ consent to serve in a combat unit. By the time he was able to convince his mother, he said, he had missed the tryout for the Naval Commandos but he made the grade for the Paratrooper Brigade, where he learnt that he was not considered Jewish.

As noted earlier, the notice came in the mail. Rabbi Amichai Eitam, the Jewish Agency’s Joint Institute for Jewish Studies civilian director of Nativ, said that of the 4,500 draft-age teens eligible to take the course in 2014 – meaning that they were either new immigrants or were not considered Jewish by the rabbinate – there are always “mess-ups” among the 3,000 or so soldiers who opt to start. Recently, he said, a female soldier complained that she was summoned by accident. He told her that she was free to leave but that her file, as forwarded to the army, stated she was not Jewish. She went home and confronted her mother, who revealed that she was adopted and had not been converted as a child. An Ethiopian soldier in the paratrooper brigade, he added, had lived an Orthodox lifestyle his entire life, was educated in institutes of religious learning, and discovered, once he was called to the course, that his parents had been asked to convert upon arrival in Israel; they had not done so and had not told him.

Asyanov said that as soon as the religious soldiers in his unit explained why the state did not consider him Jewish, “I felt this stone on my heart. All of a sudden, you don’t belong.”

Soldiers considering conversion during a November 7, 2013 visit to a Kindergarten in Efrat on Hannukah (Gershon Elinson/ Flash 90)
Soldiers considering conversion during a November 7, 2013 visit to a kindergarten in Efrat before Hanukkah (Gershon Elinson/ Flash 90)

After receiving a summons to Nativ, the initial orientation day is mandatory. Asyanov was “not impressed” with the presentation, but he said that “even if they had said they serve dragon for lunch here, I would have come.”

He described his first observant Shabbat as “nice” – as a break from technology, an imposed rest, and a way to get to know your kids, who are generally screened off behind “some tablet device.”

His grandmother, he said, was “over the moon” with his decision to start the course. His father, whom he described “as a reluctant Jew,” was largely apathetic, and his mother, whom he called “Communist” in her approach to religion, had no opinion, having long since despaired of influencing his life choices, he said. “But they understand my approach, because I live here and am connected to here.”

The end of the road

When I checked back in with Sgt. Igor Havkin in December, he was serving as company sergeant in the Ordnance Corps’ Basic Training in Tsrifin, south of Tel Aviv. He had finished the seven-week course, he said, with more of an affinity for Zionism and for Israel, but not for Judaism.

At the end of the course, which included weekly outings to historical sites, he said the instructors explained to the soldiers that those who opted to continue on toward the conversion seminars, held in the Etzion Bloc in the West Bank, would be embarking on a new path. The instructors would all be Orthodox and civilian; the potential converts would be expected to take on an Orthodox lifestyle.

He had acquired “a love of the land” and a new set of friends at Nativ, he said, but his goal in starting the process had been to feel more connected to Israel. Adopting an Orthodox Jewish lifestyle would be “a sort of lie” and “simply stupid.”

Katya, after completing a compulsory Military Intelligence course, was only able to start the first seminar in early May. She described it as a departure from Nativ, which she termed “Judaism lite.” During that “invigorating” course, she said, the commandments were explained but not dictated in a rigid manner. “Here, it’s all straight in your face. There’s no room for deliberation – it’s either yes or no.”

For the past 20 years, she said, she had lived with the Seven Noahide Commandments. Now she was expected to pray three times a day and to forgo her cup of coffee with milk after a meat lunch. The beach on Saturday would have to be a thing of the past. This is the price of belonging, she said.

There was a voice in his head that sometimes whispered, ‘Forget this. Who needs it? When the time comes, get married in Prague,’ not through the rabbinate

She described her parents “as a bit nervous” but supportive and said the first three-week seminar was a crash course in halacha, or Jewish law. After that, the soldiers are sent back to their bases and asked to implement the laws. If they have managed to adhere to the central commandments, such as keeping the Sabbath and the dietary laws, then they are welcomed back to the final three-week seminar, after which they are invited before a rabbinical panel that decides their fate.

Katya said that grappling with the Sabbath and the dietary laws was less of an issue than adjusting, all of a sudden, to the female role. “I’m a bit bummed by the fact that women have fewer commandments” – women in Orthodox Judaism are bound to keep nearly all of the “don’ts,” such as stricture against idolatry, but almost none of the time-structured commandments such as daily morning prayer – “and that there is such a strong emphasis on children and family,” she said, but she remained resolute to see the process through to the end.

MK Moshe Gafni on October 27, 2014 voicing the ultra-Orthodox's opposition to the 2014 cabinet decision to open up the conversion courts (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash 90)
MK Moshe Gafni on October 27, 2014 voicing the ultra-Orthodox’s opposition to the 2014 cabinet decision to open up the conversion courts (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash 90)

The last time I met with Alex was at the rabbinical court in Jerusalem. He had finished both seminars. He had his own set of kosher plates in his parents’ house and had painted the dairy blue and the meat red. His friends knew not to call on Saturday and they had moved their primary hangout session from Friday night to Thursday night. There were elements of the adjustment that were hard to swallow. He found the answers the instructors provided a bit like the sort parents give toddlers. “Why?” he heard children constantly asking at his first job out of the army, at a local Toys R Us in Rehovot. “Because.”

“It’s the same at the seminar,” he said. “Why do we do this? Because the rabbis said so.”

There was a voice in his head that sometimes whispered, “Forget this. Who needs it? When the time comes, get married in Prague,” not through the rabbinate. He’d see his friends feasting on shrimp and think how unfair it was that he, who was born here, had to do so much more in order to belong.

There were moments of enjoyment, too. He found soothing, even uplifting, the daily wrapping of tefillin around his arm. The instruction about how best to raise children rang to him as truth. But in his first exam before a three-rabbi panel, a sort of preliminary test where the final date for conversion it set, he admitted to smoking two cigarettes on Shabbat. For him, a pack-a-day smoker, it was an achievement. The rabbis set his next exam relatively far away, three months into the future.

On March 19, as the guard outside the rabbinical court was in the process of dismissing me, the glass doors opened and Asyanov, who aspires to be a police detective, bounded out.

He was breathing fast and his eyes were bright. “I passed, my brother, I passed,” he said, hugging me.

Unaccompanied by family members or friends and guiding me outside for a smoke, he said that the session before the three rabbis “was like parachuting out of a plane” – a quick shuffle to the open door followed by a plunge into the unknown.

The rabbis had told him that his striped T-shirt was not very Orthodox, without elaborating, and had asked about cigarettes on Shabbat, to which he was able to say no. They set the date for his immersion in a ritual bath for the following day.

Standing outside on the sidewalk of a neighborhood that is part ultra-Orthodox and part business and government buildings, he fished his hand into his shirt and pulled out his necklace. Pinching the Star of David between his forefinger and thumb, he said that his grandparents had gotten it for him for his bar mitzvah. He had worn it from age 13 to 18, but had removed it when the summons from Nativ had arrived. “This morning,” he said, “is the first time I have worn it since then.”

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