Conversion still a problem in Israel

Michael Shkolnick teaches Judaism to a class of non-Jewish Russians studying for conversion May 16 in Jerusalem. (Brian Hendler)

Michael Shkolnick teaches Judaism to a class of non-Jewish Russians studying for conversion May 16 in Jerusalem. (Brian Hendler)

TEL AVIV, May 18 (JTA) — As Jews around the world prepare for Shavuot and its reading of the Book of Ruth — which features the Moabite woman’s famous conversion with the words, “Your people shall be my people and your God my God” — Israel continues to grapple with the highly charged subject of conversion. Long a battleground between Israel’s Orthodox establishment and the Conservative and Reform movements, the issue took on urgency with the mass wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s. “I think Ruth and her conversion should indeed set the model for the current challenge of converting the Russians who live among us,” said Rabbi Ehud Bandel, president of the Masorti-Conservative movement in Israel. “Once they identify with Israel and the Jewish people and society and accept the Jewish faith, they must be embraced exactly as Naomi embraced Ruth, who became the grandmother of King David.” Bandel and others claim that Israel’s chief rabbinate makes conversion especially difficult for those they suspect may not lead an Orthodox lifestyle. “The real challenge is that unfortunately, the Orthodox establishment does not convert for Judaism but for Orthodoxy,” Bandel said. The rabbinate is “reluctant to open its arms to Russian converts because everyone knows they will not be Orthodox.” Rabbi Eliyahu Ben-Dahan, general director of the rabbinical court of Israel — which oversees conversions — says there can be no shortcuts when it comes to following halachah, or Jewish law, with regard to conversions. Orthodox authorities say Jewish law requires that converts undergo traditional ritual conversion and commit to adhering to all the precepts of Jewish law, or halachah. Non-Orthodox streams contend that these authorities inevitably interpret halachah as Orthodox observance. “If they think we will give up on halachah, then of course we cannot,” Ben-Dahan said. “At the end of the day, the ones who want to convert, do convert,” he said. “We are doing all we can do.” As many as 300,000 of the nearly 1 million immigrants who came to Israel in the 1990s from the former Soviet Union are not considered Jews under Jewish law. They pay taxes and serve in the army, but can’t marry Jews in Israel or be buried in Jewish cemeteries. On their Israeli identity cards, the category for religion is left blank. It’s a void that activists from the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism are trying to fill by lobbying for broader acceptance in conversion processes. “They live as Jews but are not considered Jews,” Gilad Kariv, a lawyer and ordained Reform rabbi who works for the movement’s lobbying arm, said of the Russian immigrants. Prevented from converting, the immigrants’ level of identification with the Jewish state eventually goes down, he said. “They feel less Israeli, less Jewish, and this is a problem in Israel — this lack of accessibility to Judaism,” he said. Kariv cites statistics from the Jewish Agency for Israel showing that close to half of the non-Jewish immigrants when asked before they moved to Israel said they wanted to convert. Asked after their move to Israel, only 10 percent to 20 percent said they still wanted to convert. Rabbi Chaim Druckman, who served in the Knesset as a member of the National Religious Party, has just taken up a new post as director of conversion affairs in the Prime Minister’s Office. The position was established largely to deal with immigrants who may have Jewish ancestry but are not Jewish according to Jewish law, which accepts as Jews only those with Jewish mothers. “Those who want to convert need to be helped,” Druckman told JTA. “We need to help these people and let them know we do want them.” In 1998, a government commission on conversion, headed by then-Finance Minister Ya’acov Ne’eman, issued recommendations to the government. They included the establishment of a joint institute for conversion taught by a combination of Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform rabbis. The liberal streams agreed that those wishing to convert would then go to a Beit Din, or Jewish law court, for an Orthodox ceremony that would be universally recognized. Orthodox representatives did not sign on to the final recommendation, but the conversion institute has been established since, with branches across the country. Currently, it serves 2,500 students and is funded by the Jewish Agency and the government. Catering to immigrants, most classes are run in Russian. Some are conducted in Spanish for South American immigrants. The institute’s executive director, Nehemia Citroen, said he thinks the government realizes how critical it is to facilitate the conversion process for new immigrants. “I believe the leadership here in this country in all realms understands the enormity of the problem, understands the situation by which hundreds of thousands of immigrants are brought here and told they are not Jewish,” he said. “All those in leadership positions, including religious positions, have to see the reality of the situation today and allow for answers.” In the four years since the institute was founded, 3,256 people have finished their conversion studies and 1,367 have been converted. But Bandel bemoaned the figure as “just a drop in the ocean.” He and others say there’s a backlog at the rabbinical courts for students from the institute. Critics also claim that those who study in Orthodox-run conversion classes have an easier time being converted by the rabbinical courts. Ben-Dahan denied those assertions. Among those who studied at the institute was Yigal Klebansky, 34, who immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet republic of Georgia in 1999. Klebansky’s grandfather was Jewish, which allowed him to immigrate under Israel’s Law of Return, but Yigal is not Jewish according to halachah. Klebansky first approached an Orthodox center for conversion classes, but when they heard he was active in a Conservative synagogue they refused to accept him as a student, he said. Klebansky’s next stop was the joint institute, but he said he was informed by the rabbinate that to be converted he would need to bring a letter from the rabbi of an Orthodox synagogue testifying that he had been praying there regularly, and would have to register his daughters in a religious nursery school. He complied and ultimately was converted. He says he doesn’t mind praying at an Orthodox synagogue and giving his daughters the Jewish education he never had growing up, but he’s disappointed with the system. “It was somewhat frustrating,” Klebansky told JTA, but “they create a situation where you’re given no other choice.”

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