Will new conversion court rend or repair the fabric of Israeli society?
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Will new conversion court rend or repair the fabric of Israeli society?

With a recalcitrant state conversion program and a growing class of ‘religionless’ FSU immigrants, a group of respected national Zionist rabbis are promoting conversion ‘as it should be’

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

Convert 'Katya' and her daughter sit before the independent Giyur K'halacha conversion court, led by Rabbi Nahum Rabinovitch (center) on August 10, 2015. (courtesy)
Convert 'Katya' and her daughter sit before the independent Giyur K'halacha conversion court, led by Rabbi Nahum Rabinovitch (center) on August 10, 2015. (courtesy)

Katya was 18 before she learned she wasn’t considered Jewish in Israel. Born in Minsk in 1985, she was raised in the Jewish community and remembers when her house was a secret base for learning Hebrew, something strictly forbidden during Belarus’s Soviet period.

Katya recalls being derided as a schoolgirl for her distinctly Jewish last name. She was called a “Zhid,” which has derogatory connotations in street Russian, and asked her father as a 13-year-old why people thought being Jewish was a bad thing.

“In Belarus, I had no doubt that I’m Jewish,” Katya told The Times of Israel on Tuesday. There, nationality is determined by the father’s heritage and even during her first trip to Israel at age 17 with Taglit-Birthright, she was secure in her Jewish identity.

Only when she began studying at university and became involved in the Jewish Studies department did she realize that since her mother is not Jewish, Katya too was not considered a Jew according to Jewish law, or halacha, which determines religious status in Israel.

Katya became more involved with her Jewish community and Israel advocacy work, began to observe ritual kashrut dietary laws, and eventually, after becoming engaged to a Jewish young man at 21, sought an Orthodox conversion.

‘In Belarus, I had no doubt that I’m Jewish’

She had two choices of rabbinical courts — Kiev or Moscow, both about an hour’s flight away. She chose to open her file in Kiev, and was told by the presiding rabbi that she must leave Minsk and attend a religious all-girls’ school for at least two years.

“I already had a Master’s degree; I’d already begun receiving job offers in Minsk. I wasn’t in a position to leave everything and join a seminary,” Katya said. At the same time, as she tells it, the Kiev rabbi advised her boyfriend not to marry her and told him to find a “more suitable” bride.

On a trip back from Israel with a carton of kosher food for the community in her arms, instead of being met by her boyfriend, she was met by his best friend who said the man she thought she was marrying was off celebrating his engagement — to someone else.

Embittered by this experience, but still active in the Jewish community and working with Israel engagement, Katya abandoned her attempt at an Orthodox conversion and eventually immigrated to Israel in December 2009 under the Law of Return. (The Law of Return, based on the Nazi Nuremberg Laws, grants citizenship to those who have at least one Jewish grandparent.)

‘To live here, get married here, have kids here. All my dreams came true, but there’s this little thing’

She said she realized by age 25, after years of working closely on Israel-related projects, that she wanted to have and raise a family in Israel. “To live here, get married here, have kids here. All my dreams came true, but there’s this little thing,” said Katya, referring to her status-less status.

But that “little thing” was halachically resolved on Sunday when Katya underwent a conversion with a new — and very controversial — independent Orthodox conversion court.

Conversion ‘as it should be’

Founded by well-respected national Zionist rabbis and led by a leading halachic arbiter of his generation, the dean of the Ma’aleh Adumim Hesder Yeshiva Rabbi Nahum Rabinovitch, the new conversion court operates outside the authority of the Israeli chief rabbinate. It calls itself “Giyur Ka’halacha” — literally “conversion as halacha,” which is also a play on words connoting “conversion as it should be.”

Aside from Rabinovich, other members of the court include head of Tzohar rabbinical association Rabbi David Stav, Efrat’s Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, co-dean of the Har Etzion Yeshiva in Alon Shvut Rabbi Yaakov Medan, and Rabbi Re’em Hacohen, the chief municipal rabbi of Otniel and dean of the Otniel Yeshiva.

This court of heavy rabbinic hitters have to date participated in some 50 secret independent conversions

This court of heavy rabbinic hitters, who have to date participated in some 50 secret independent conversions, caused a media storm on Monday through announcing the conversion of six minors under its auspices — including Katya’s daughter. With rabbis and politicians chiming in both for and against, Israeli media was flooded by speculation of whether this “open rebellion” will lead to an eventual religious authority reform, or its downfall.

For Katya, however, now married (through a civil ceremony in Prague) to a halachically Jewish man, the mother of a four-year-old girl, and nine months pregnant with a boy, this week’s conversions were “very powerful and emotional,” she said.

“It was really, really hard, to tell you the truth,” she said Tuesday. “The rabbis asked many questions regarding our future life, regarding what we needed to do to educate our children.”

Illustrative photo of a woman converting to Judaism 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)

The focus of the new conversion court will be on the minor children (under 13 for boys, under 12 for girls) of the 364,000 immigrants from the Former Soviet Union who arrived in Israel via the Law of Return, many of whom, like Katya, have always considered themselves Jewish, but are classified as “without religion” in terms of personal status.

There are many organizations that have attempted to tackle the problem, but what makes the Giyur Ka’halacha platform unique is the synthesis of like-minded groups partnered with “prominent elder statesmen in the religious Zionist community,” said head of Itim Rabbi Seth Farber, who has been one of the driving forces behind the initiative.

“It’s the first time all these rabbis have gotten together to solve a national problem. It’s a ray of light,” he said.

“We don’t see this as an attack on the rabbinate,” said Farber, who added there’s no law that prevents the establishment of independent courts. As head of Itim, an NGO that aids immigrants in navigating the rabbinate’s bureaucracy, Farber is well versed in the inner workings of the state religious system.

‘We don’t see this as an attack on the rabbinate’

“We’ve tried exclusively working within the monopoly [to solve the conversion crisis] and that hasn’t had success. The rabbis believe there are authentic halachic alternatives,” said Farber.

And the initiative’s emphasis on the second generation of FSU immigrants is a result of a practical application of halacha, said Tzohar head Stav in an interview with The Times of Israel on Tuesday.

“We have to deal with a group that is already almost 100,000 kids, up to age 18. Every year 4,500 of these kids are born in Israel and less than 2,000 are converted,” said Stav.

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

The new court would insist that even if the parents are not observant Jews, the children must get a traditional Jewish education. “When I say traditional, I am saying observing Shabbat, observing kashrut,” he clarified.

Without the chance to convert as children, the road to recognized Orthodox conversion through the chief rabbinate is a long and arduous one that many are more than willing to forgo.

However, although they live with full citizenship rights in Israeli society, pay taxes and are obligated to serve in the military, living in this “no-religion status” is extremely problematic when it comes to life cycle events such as marriage. Israel, which does not have a mechanism for domestic civil marriage, also has no allowance for interfaith marriage.

As in Katya’s case, these “non-Jewish Jews” are forced to marry abroad in civil ceremonies, or in illegal religious ceremonies here, while at least theoretically putting the rabbi performing the ceremony in danger of a two-year jail sentence.

Katya’s conversion was overseen by Efrat’s popular chief rabbi, American immigrant Shlomo Riskin. She said he was the first rabbi with whom she saw eye-to-eye on her conversion.

“His view is the same as mine. From his point of view, I was already Jewish,” said Katya.

‘Jewish through the male side only’

In a brief telephone interview between radio and television appearances Tuesday, Rabbi Riskin told The Times of Israel that he was involved with the independent conversion court initiative “from the beginning.”

His activism for FSU Jews spans across five decades and during the 1960s and 1970s, Riskin, the founding rabbi of New York’s Lincoln Square Synagogue, made several trips to the Soviet Union to visit and rally Prisoners of Zion. Then he was also the chairman of the first national American movement to free Russian Jews, Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, rabbi of the Jewish settlement of Efrat, conducts the Pidyon HaBen ceremony for a 30-day-old first born son in Efrat, West Bank, on May 25, 2015. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, rabbi of the Jewish settlement of Efrat, conducts the Pidyon HaBen ceremony for a 30-day-old first born son in Efrat, West Bank, on May 25, 2015. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

“We worked very hard to get the Jews out of the former Soviet Union and I was thrilled when more than one million Jews came to Israel,” said Riskin, who immigrated to Israel in 1983. Among the wave of early 1990s immigration, some 350,000 were “Jewish through the male side only,” he said, and entered under the Law of Return.

‘It is critical that they be Jews, not just Israelis. It is critical our society not be divided’

“It is critical that they be Jews, not just Israelis,” said Riskin. “It is critical our society not be divided.”

Rabbi Avi Weiss, the founder of New York’s Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, was also a central Diaspora player in the push for freeing the Soviet Prisoners of Zion. Also a leader of the 1960s Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, his work in the movement is depicted in his 2015 book “Open Up the Iron Door: Memoirs of a Soviet Jewry Activist.”

Weiss is passionate about finding a halachic solution for the 350,000 FSU immigrants who are considered not Jewish by the Israeli chief rabbinate. He feels their conversions should be completed with much more accommodation and leniency.

After the announced foundation of Giyur Ka’halacha, Weiss told The Times of Israel on Tuesday that he “very much supports the efforts of rabbis Riskin, Rabinowitz, Medan and Stav.”

“Those who bind their fate with the Jewish people are taking a big step,” said Weiss in an earlier recent interview with The Times of Israel. They should be welcomed and accommodated within the bounds of halacha.

Rabbi Avi Weiss with Avital Sharansky during a Weiss week-long hunger strike in protest of the imprisonment of Natan Sharansky. (Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry archives)
Rabbi Avi Weiss with Avital Sharansky during a Weiss week-long hunger strike in protest of the imprisonment of Natan Sharansky. (Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry archives)

Although there is a popularly disseminated tradition of turning away the convert three times, the halacha dictates merely that the approached rabbi must inform the potential convert of the serious obligation of the halachic commandments and the historical hatred for the Jewish people.

‘My arms are open: becoming Jewish is the most wonderful thing in the world’

“My arms are open — becoming Jewish is the most wonderful thing in the world. We must facilitate conversion, while at the same time make sure it is real,” said Weiss.

Weiss has broadly campaigned against a centralized conversion authority, both in Israel and in the Diaspora, saying that community rabbis have a relationship with their congregants and are better able to discern the potential convert’s intentions.

“Rabbis are trained to talk and to teach, they should be trained to listen. Every situation and condition speaks for itself, it has its own resonance, its own melody,” he said.

Creating, or repairing, a rift in Israeli society?

On Tuesday, Israeli radio was buzzing with support and condemnations of the new independent court. Among the most virulently negative voices was the former head of the state religious conversion authority, Rabbi Haim Druckman, who said, “Good will is not enough; they will be responsible for the destruction of Torah life in Israel.”

Rabbi Haim Meir Druckman, recipient of the Life Achievement award for 2012. (photo credit: Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90)
Rabbi Haim Meir Druckman. (photo credit: Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90)

Another outspoken critic is Rabbi Moshe Klein, the former deputy director of the conversion authority, who said the court “tears at the fabric of Israeli society because it creates first and second classes of converts.”

He compared the creation of the court to someone who doesn’t respect traffic law and forms a new traffic court.

“There is no alternative to the rabbinate,” said Klein, who claimed that the chief rabbinate has represented the middle ground of society for generations.

‘In the past the national Zionists strengthened the rabbinate, now they are nibbling at its authority’

“In the past, the national Zionists strengthened the rabbinate; now they are nibbling at its authority,” he said, although he stated they are the majority of the rabbinical judges. Klein said that although there are challenges to overcome, “there is no other body that reflects all portions of the nation.”

Although a member of the national Zionist Jewish Home party, the former minister of religious affairs Eli Ben-Dahan also rejected this new independent court. While admitting that the current system is flawed, Ben Dahan said, “We returned to the Land of Israel to create one state… one army… and one chief rabbinate.”

“We all understand that in the State of Israel there are state authorities even if we don’t agree with them,” he said, calling the independent court “an unrealistic approach that leads to anarchy.”

Ben-Dahan urged the rabbinate to increase its halachic conversions as much as possible.

Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben-Dahan, a former deputy minister of religious affairs, February 3, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben-Dahan, a former deputy minister of religious affairs, February 3, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

And although not currently giving response to press, director of the Ministry of Religious Services’ Conversion Authority Yaron Catane told The Times of Israel in April that 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 one another,” said Catane.

‘Establishing private conversion courts will create different groups and levels of conversion which would not be recognized’

“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,” he said.

In a statement on Tuesday, however, the new conversion court’s head, Canadian-born Rabinovich, said the court’s founding “is a historic move that is meant to heal the tear that has opened up in the Israeli society as a result of the problematic negligence in the personal status of immigrants from the former Soviet Union.”

“It is important to emphasize that not grappling with this problem will not make it disappear but rather will perpetuate the destruction of the unity and sanctity of the people, and that the new courts are working 100% according to halacha,” said Rabinovich.

An existential threat

In a late Monday night phone call, his voice so over-tasked that it had become raw, initiator of the Giyur Ka’halacha conversion court Farber explained that “the status quo is not credible any more.”

“The window of opportunity that began in the 1980s with the aliyah from FSU countries — that window is closing quickly. People are becoming ambivalent about the role of Jewish life and just don’t care,” said Farber. And this apathy leads to even less of a drive to become halachically Jewish, which further perpetuates the problem of ambiguous personal status.

Efraim Halevy, former head of the Mossad (Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)
Efraim Halevy, former head of the Mossad (Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)

But for former Mossad head Efraim Halevy, the scope of the problem is well beyond personal angst and is a full-fledged security issue. Although not directly involved with the new conversion court, Halevy is currently serving as the head of the Harry O. Triguboff Israel Institute, which, among other projects, aids FSU immigrants in finding necessary documentation proving their Jewishness, and raises awareness of the hundreds of thousands of status-less citizens.

Born in England to a Zionist Modern Orthodox family, Halevy said he grew up in an atmosphere of modern inclusive efforts on the parts of Orthodox rabbis.

“For me, the role model is Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog, who was the chief rabbi during and after the Holocaust,” said Halevy. Herzog was required to make numerous halachic rulings based on a changed world, and he chose to be inclusive and lenient when possible in setting up the new Jewish State. He was especially dedicated to the cases of Jewish children who had been hidden and raised by Christians during World War II and worked tirelessly towards their recovery.

‘There has to be fortitude and courage at the top to deal with this as a national issue and not just an issue to be dealt with by one stream in the country’

Halevy calls the current conversion crisis “a security threat to Israel because it threatens the Jewish majority in Israel… The ultimate result is the Jewish character of the country will change and the halachic Jews will be the minority,” he said. This, he said, would be a “tragedy.”

Resolving the threat must involve serious discussion and consideration on the political levels.

“It is not just a religious issue, it is a national issue,” Halevy said. “There has to be fortitude and courage at the top to deal with this as a national issue and not just an issue to be dealt with by one stream in the country.”

There are already politicians who are extremely concerned, although for different reasons.

Ksenia Svetlova of the Zionist Union party (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Ksenia Svetlova of the Zionist Union party (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

“I’m not worried about Jewish demographics in Israel — the data shows that it’s on the rise actually — but I’m deeply concerned by the gap between Israel and Jewish communities abroad,” said fledgling Zionist Union MK Ksenia Svetlova.

Svetlova was born in Moscow in 1977 and made aliyah in 1991. She is one of several MKs who are introducing bills on issues such as civil marriage. She is well aware of the divisiveness in the Diaspora of the chief rabbinate’s monopoly and the lack of recognition of other Jewish denominations.

“We are secluding ourselves,” said Svetlova. “This is very dangerous for the fate of the Jewish people, and the fate of Israel as well.”

“Our religion has many dimensions and they should all have an equal opportunity in the only Jewish state in the world,” said Svetlova.

An Israeli is an Israeli?

A student of Rabinovich, Rabbi Yoni Rosensweig, published an explanatory blog post about the new independent conversion court, saying it is “not just about tackling assimilation, and keeping our state a Jewish state.”

“It’s about the realization that those who come to Israel and want to be part of our nation, deserve the chance to be just that in an all-encompassing way… These courts are essential to us: to preserve our unity, to save the spirituality of many, and to create a state which for all those who truly wish to share in the fate of the Jewish people.”

‘It’s about the realization that those who come to Israel and want to be part of our nation, deserve the chance to be just that in an all-encompassing way’

Recent convert Katya, for example, is an ardent Zionist whose Jewish family, indelibly bound to the fate of the Jewish people, was all but wiped out during the Holocaust. Her grandfather, the sole survivor of 12 siblings, always cautioned her that the Nazis killed his fellow inmates regardless of whether they were 10% Jewish or 100%.

After almost six years in Israel, she felt she was finding a similar situation.

“I came here [because of] my Zionist beliefs and because I love this country,” she said.

“My children will serve in the Israeli army and if one day they are protecting our borders and Hamas or Hezbollah attacks, these terrorists are out to kill Israeli soldiers. They don’t care if he only has 10% Jewish blood,” said Katya, clearly angry.

“I don’t understand: Why should I feel bad that my mom is not Jewish if I’m living in the same country, paying the same taxes. Why should I feel like a minority?” she wondered.

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