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Focus on Issues: for Non-orthodox in Israel, Conversion Issue is ‘time Bomb’

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s assurances to Diaspora Jews that a new Knesset bill would not invalidate non-Orthodox conversions performed outside Israel have done little to calm the fears of many non-Orthodox Israelis.

For the more than 100,000 non-Jewish immigrants who have been granted Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return, as well as for the dozens of non-Jewish children adopted by Israelis, the expected Knesset bill would close the official door to all but Orthodox conversions.

Last year, that door opened a crack when the Supreme Court said there was no legal reason why non-Orthodox conversions should not be recognized in Israel.

However, the court did not explicitly recognize such conversions, saying that it would be up to the Knesset to pass the appropriate legislation.

Orthodox parties in the governing coalition, which joined the Netanyahu government on the condition that the Knesset take up legislation invalidating non-Orthodox conversions. are now pushing for the measure.

Netanyahu told American Jewish leaders gathered in Seattle last week, “We have Orthodox conversions in Israel. That won’t change.”

For those most directly affected here, the conversion issue is a ticking time bomb, according to leaders in the Reform and Conservative movements.

“As many as a quarter of Russian immigrants aren’t Jewish, not to mention hundreds of immigrants from other countries, as well as adopted babies,” said Anat Galili, a Reform movement spokeswoman. “What happens when they or their children want to get married? Sure, they can go abroad to Cyprus or elsewhere and have a civil marriage, but that just pushes the problem off another generation.”

Israeli Jews must be legally recognized as Jews according to Orthodox tradition in order for their marriages to be officially authorized by the Chief Rabbinate. The rabbinate, which is Orthodox, has sole control over marriages in Israel.

While the Chief Rabbinate acknowledges the problem, it provides no easy solutions.

Of the some 10,000 people who apply for Orthodox conversions each year, only about 400 complete the process, according to the Chief Rabbinate in Jerusalem.

“Some want to marry a Jew, some want to be able to stay in Israel, and the only way they can do that is by becoming Jewish,” said a spokesperson at the Haifa Rabbinate.

“The future of the Jewish people is at stake, so we cannot convert people who are not 100 percent sincere.”

Rabbi Gil Nativ of the Masorti/Conservative movement acknowledges the need to weed out insincere converts, but maintains that the rabbinate’s criteria are simply too stringent.

“In the past decade,” Nativ said, “the rabbinate has hardened its stance.”

“For them, either you become a convert to Orthodoxy, or you don’t convert at all,” Nativ said. “The rabbinate won’t convert someone unless he promises to move to an Orthodox neighborhood or send his child to an Orthodox or ultra- Orthodox school.

“If the convert works in a place that is open on Shabbat, he is expected to find another job. Parents of adopted children must promise to keep the mitzvot and send their children to Orthodox schools.”

“Whereas some converts are eager to assume an Orthodox lifestyle and therefore accept the rabbinate’s criteria, the vast majority object to these standards,” he said.

Said one young adoptive mother who, like most of those interviewed, spoke on condition of anonymity: “I never even considered going to the rabbinate to convert my baby.

“I’m secular, though not anti-religious, so I couldn’t see being shomer Shabbat or sending my daughter to a religious school one day.”

This mother said she was one of “the lucky ones” because after her daughter underwent a Masorti conversion in Israel, the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly in America intervened and the Interior Ministry registered her as Jewish.

Hers was one of two recent cases where the Interior Ministry recognized the Jewishness of adopted children after the Rabbinical Assembly had affirmed the validity of those conversions in a statement to the ministry.

The two babies had been converted at Kibbutz Hanaton, the Masorti movement’s kibbutz.

Now, this mother said, “my only fear is that if the conversion law is passed, they might invalidate her conversion.”

Another non-Orthodox adoptive mother, who also requested anonymity, said she finally gave up and went by the rules.

Although her daughter initially underwent a Masorti conversion in Israel, she said, “my husband and I finally gave in to the rabbinate. We agreed to keep the Sabbath and kashrut laws, but we’re really not religious. I wear pants, and frankly, no one has come around to check on what we do or don’t observe.”

And while many potential converts refuse to adhere to the rabbinate’s standards, even those who do are sometimes turned away.

When Rafael Gomez, now 33, approached the rabbinate as a potential convert four years ago, he was turned down flat.

After making aliyah from Uruguay 11 years ago with his Jewish wife, Gomez, a Christian, served in the army and started a career in law and financial management.

Gradually, as he integrated into Israeli society, and especially after his son was born, “I began to feel in my heart that I was Jewish,” Gomez said.

Recalling his experience with the rabbinate, he said, “I sat before three judges, all haredi (fervently Orthodox) and told them that I am an Israeli citizen, that I have a Jewish wife and son, that I served in the army. I told them, `I’m ready to learn whatever it takes to be 100 percent Jewish.'”

The judges reply, Gomez said, was almost instantaneous. “They told me it would be impossible to convert but provided no explanation. They made me feel like a piece of garbage, like a second-class citizen. When I got home I cried.”

When asked why Gomez’ request was denied, a rabbinate spokeswoman in Haifa consulted Gomez’s file. “It appears that the rabbis asked him a question about Judaism and he did not answer well,” she said, adding, “I’m afraid I don’t have any other details.”

Ultimately, Gomez, who lives in Tel Aviv, applied to the Masorti movement and undertook a 1 1/2 year period of study before going to Argentina for his conversion ceremony.

“It’s so unfair that a non-Orthodox conversion performed abroad is recognized by Israel, but the very same conversion is considered trefe if it’s performed here,” he said, using the Hebrew word for non-kosher.

Although the Interior Ministry has not yet registered him as Jewish, Gomez said he feels “100 percent Jewish in my heart. I go to synagogue every Shabbat and I take my son. It’s a beautiful feeling.”

Although confident that his Israeli identity card will soon bear the word “Jewish” because he was converted abroad, Gomez urged Diaspora Jews to fight for an Israeli’s right to undergo a non-Orthodox conversion in Israel.

“If the law is passed, at first it might affect only Israelis,” he said. “But what’s to stop the law from being amended in the future?” In the not-too- distant future, he said, “non-Orthodox conversions performed abroad could be delegitimized, too.”

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