Behind the Headlines: Russian Community on Sidelines of Passionate Conversion Debate

Despite the roiling controversy about a pending conversion bill that is certain to affect many of their lives, immigrants from the former Soviet Union remain curiously low-key about the issue.

While American Jewish leaders speak passionately about the plight of Israel’s 150,000 to 200,000 non-Jewish Russian olim, many of whom have been turned away by the Orthodox Rabbinate when they tried to convert, the immigrant community itself has been far less vocal.

Difficult though it is to generalize about an entire community, conversations with those familiar with its members and needs reveal a startling fact: Most members of the community simply do not care about the conversion bill, which would enshrine in law exclusive Orthodox authority over conversions performed in Israel.

The conversion bill “should be a major issue for our constituents, but it’s not,” says Motti Inbari, a spokesman for Yisrael Ba’Aliyah, the immigrant- rights party headed by Industry and Trade Minister Natan Sharansky.

“There have been no opinion polls that I know of, but I would say that the conversion issue concerns the Russian people in a very minor way. Immigrants are preoccupied with the problems of feeding their families and keeping a roof over their heads.”

Larissa Remennick, a Russian-born sociology professor at Bar-Ilan University, agrees.

“I don’t think they discuss it much among themselves,” she says. “To be sure, it is present in the Russian press, but it’s not a high-priority issue.”

If anything, Remennick says, immigrants would like to see an alternative to the monopolistic sway that the Orthodox Rabbinate has over personal-status issues such as marriage, divorce and burial.

“One of Yisrael Ba’Aliyah’s slogans vowed to diminish the influence the religious establishment has on the life of society as a whole. The immigrants aren’t seeking religious alternatives as much as a separation between religion and the state.”

To understand the immigrants’ apathy toward the conversion legislation, Remennick says, one must understand their history.

“Soviet Jewry was 99 percent secular. Religious influences were virtually nil during 70 years of socialism.

“By the late 1980s and early 1990s, close to 100 percent of Soviet Jews were completely secular or only slightly connected” to their Jewish roots.

Few of the 700,000 immigrants who came from the former Soviet Union since 1989 are really affected by the conversion issue, says Remennick.

“Of these, many are older and have no desire to convert. Mainly, the ones seeking conversion are non-Jewish mothers with young children, because their children are not recognized as Jewish and are stigmatized.”

These women, says the sociologist, “are in a disadvantaged position. They must walk the tightrope of an Orthodox conversion, despite being completely secular, to get a formal [conversion] document for the sake of their children.”

Asked why more immigrants do not enroll in Reform and Conservative conversion classes, Remennick says, “Many immigrants are unaware of the very existence of Reform and Conservative Judaism.

“Those who are aware view it as an American import, something ethnically American. The non-Orthodox movements aren’t doing enough outreach.”

Even if more immigrants were aware of their options, she says, “most would not seek a conversion that isn’t recognized by the state and other Jews. Russians are very pragmatic.”

Inbari of Yisrael Ba’Aliyah agrees that only a small percentage of immigrants wish to convert, and that those who do prefer the Orthodox Rabbinate.

Inbari says that his party will not try to persuade other coalition partners to accept the legitimacy of non-Orthodox conversions in Israel, despite the problems facing many immigrants.

Instead, he says, it will attempt to liberalize the strict conversion criteria within the Rabbinate.

“Our goal is to make things work smoother in the Rabbinate. Those who want to convert must do it in a manner that is acceptable in Israel.

“The Reform and Conservative movements can’t change this. We must work within the system.”

Rabbi Michael Boyden, chairman of the Israel Council of Progressive (Reform) Rabbis, rejects this claim and asserts that, given the proper recognition, thousands of immigrants from both the former Soviet Union and elsewhere would seek non-Orthodox conversions.

“Were we recognized,” says Boyden, “I have no doubt that we would be flooded with applicants. Those who say the numbers would be very small want to leave things as they are.

“If people really believe this is the case, let’s test it in the open market and end the Orthodox monopoly.”

Although many Diaspora Jews champion the cause of non-Jewish immigrants, a substantial number of Russian Jews do not.

“I know this is a ticking time bomb for this country, but what can we do?” says Svetlana Arolov, a 36-year-old teacher who describes her religious beliefs as “traditional.”

“How can you convert someone who isn’t willing to keep the mitzvot [commandments]? They can’t be Jewish otherwise.”

Her comments reflect the feeling among many here that non-Jewish emigres from the former Soviet Union came to Israel solely out of economic motives and have no attachment to Judaism.

If it were up to Arolov, “Non-Jewish immigrants wouldn’t have been allowed to come in the first place. I moved here to escape anti-Semitism, but many of those who came never experienced anti-Semitism because they’re not Jewish.

“In the future, any non-Jew who wants to come should undergo a conversion in the former Soviet Union and only then be allowed to immigrate.”

But Bob Eliaz, an immigrant from the United States with Russian roots, warns against generalizing about Russian olim.

“Sure there are opportunists, but that’s not the rule,” he says.

“I have a second cousin from Russia who married a non-Jewish woman. They have three children, two grown and one in high school. When my cousin’s wife married, she accepted the fact that her children would be Jewish.”

When the time came to make aliyah, Eliaz says, “She was the biggest Zionist of them all. She came on aliyah because she didn’t want her children to be called `zhids,’ the Russian equivalent of kike.”

Now that they’re here, Eliaz says, “her children aren’t Jewish and no one sees them as Jewish.”

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