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Who is a Jew’ heats up again in Israel

JERUSALEM, Oct. 17 (JTA) — When an American immigrant recently asked the Chief Rabbinate for permission to marry her Israeli boyfriend, the Jewish state’s Orthodox establishment turned her down.

In order to marry under Jewish law in Israel, the woman, who didn’t want her name mentioned, would have to re-convert to Judaism, rabbis told her. Her mother, who had converted to Judaism before she was born, hadn’t had an Orthodox conversion.

Instead of taking the easy way out — a civil marriage outside Israel — the woman is undergoing another conversion.

“People don’t want just a civil marriage,” said Rabbi Uri Regev, director of the Israel Religious Action Center, a legal advocacy arm of the Reform movement in Israel. “They’re brainwashed to think that would make their kids mamzerim — bastards — in the eyes of the state. They want the option of civil and also Reform and Conservative marriages.”

That option still isn’t available in Israel. And a recent incident in the Knesset has reopened the emotional, controversial debate over “Who is a Jew” — with a vengeance.

In late September, the Knesset Finance Committee turned down a government request for funding of the Joint Conversion Institute. The institute was set up in 1999 in accordance with a government commission to prepare candidates for conversion, with a panel including five Orthodox rabbis, one Conservative rabbi and one Reform rabbi.

The Finance Ministry had earmarked nearly $1.6 million in funding for the institute.

But two fervently Orthodox Knesset members, committee chairman Yakov Litzman and Moshe Gafni of the United Torah Judaism Party, quickly convened the session and rejected the budget request before other committee members made it to the meeting.

“I don’t think it’s fair that the institute should get 7 million shekels

and the rabbinate only gets half a million, when only 15 percent of the converts go through the institute,” Litzman told JTA. “Second of all, we want all converts to go through the rabbinate,” since conversion “shouldn’t just be given out on the street.”

The figures could not be confirmed.

Institute supporters were disappointed by the parliamentary trick, saying the lack of funding could severely curtail the institute’s activities.

“What happened in the Knesset Finance Committee was purely political, because I know that most of the MKs support the work of this institute,” said Benjamin Ish-Shalom, who heads the institute. “An action like this completely disrupts our activity and it causes damage in peoples’ lives.”

Deputy Prime Minister Natan Sharansky, who chairs the Interministerial Committee for Diaspora Affairs, called it an “outrageous move” that could “suddenly undermine the entire structure of the institute.”

Around 2,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union converted to Judaism in the last year. Another 300,000 Russian immigrants are not halachically Jewish and require conversion to be considered Jewish for matters of personal status — such as marriage — in Israel.

According to Ish-Shalom, the institute currently has 2,500 conversion students in 140 classes throughout the country. But some activities will have to be curtailed until funds are available, he indicated.

This could happen as soon as the next Finance Committee meeting. Even it the institute gets its money, however, that won’t solve the problem, liberal rabbis say.

“I don’t believe the institute is the answer to the conversion crisis,” Regev said. “It won’t deliver mass conversions because the chief Rabbinate won’t facilitate the” large-scale “conversions of people that everybody knows aren’t going to be observant Jews.”

That, according to Orthodox writer Jonathan Rosenblum, is precisely the problem with the institute.

“Conversion isn’t a Jewish knowledge test,” Rosenblum said. Many Orthodox officials believe converts must pledge to follow a strictly observant lifestyle.

Despite the setback, Regev and Rabbi Ehud Bandel, president of the Conservative movement in Israel, believe the latest blow to the institute might ultimately lead the courts to legalize the local Reform and Conservative movements.

That battle currently is taking place in Israel’s Supreme Court. If the justices decide to officially recognize Israel’s Reform and Conservative movements, it would allow rabbis of all streams to offer their full services and to practice as rabbis “like their colleagues in North America,” Bandel said.

For Bandel, the institute is an important part of Israel’s ongoing dialogue about religious pluralism, because it invokes Jewish unity. Yet he also thinks the only real solution will be a legal one.

Yet even if the Supreme Court ruling — which is long overdue — legalizes the Conservative and Reform movements, Bandel said he would still encourage Russian immigrants to use the government Orthodox institutions. Only those who come to the Conservative and Reform movements out of ideological empathy would be welcome, he said.

At the same time, Bandel and Regev believe many Israelis want to be part of the pluralistic movements, and support a more progressive view of religion and state.

A recent poll by the Dahaf Research Institute, commissioned by Regev’s Israel Religious Action Center, showed that some 63 percent of 503 respondents said the Reform and Conservative movements should have the same status as Orthodoxy.

In addition, 65 percent of those polled favor freedom of choice in marriage, including recognition of Reform, Conservative and civil wedding ceremonies. Likewise, 56 percent favor recognition of Reform and Conservative conversions, while 62 percent want the Supreme Court to be the arbiter of issues of religion and state.

Rosenblum dismissed the poll results as misleading.

“I’m not sure how much Israeli Jews know about Reform and Conservative Judaism,” he said. “If they knew what Reform is in America, if they put up an advertising campaign showing mixed marriages under a chupah with a priest, a ketubah with a crucifix, marrying assistant rabbis to their gay partners, than I think you would find less interest in the movement.”

He also noted that despite the publicity the non-Orthodox movements received in recent years in their fight for religious pluralism, they remained small.

“Both are active here and they haven’t attracted many adherents,” Rosenblum said. “I don’t think Israelis are terribly interested in Conservative or Reform Judaism for themselves.”

Regev, however, drew very different conclusions from the poll results.

“We can conclude that a 2-1 ratio of Israeli Jews are saying, ‘Enough is enough, we want a pluralistic Israel, we want equality and rights for all streams,’ ” he said. “It’s clear to me we’re only dealing with a question of time — not if, but when — and that’s what people are supporting.”

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