JERUSALEM (JTA) – Issues of conversion have been covered on the front pages of Israeli newspapers on a frequent basis – and for good reason, since most sociologists accept that as many as 350,000 Israeli citizens living in Israel from the former Soviet Union are not Jewish.
These people made aliyah under the Law of Return that allows Israeli citizenship with one Jewish grandfather, even though traditional rabbinic law recognizes as Jewish only someone who has a Jewish mother or who has converted to Judaism.
This situation has created what some in Israel view as a ticking demographic time bomb. These Israelis live as Jews. They study side by side with their Jewish peers in Jewish schools and join Jewish youth groups. They serve in the army and are an integral part of Israel.
However, since personal status matters in Israel are handled by religious authorities, they cannot get married in their new home country and their offspring are not considered Jewish.
The consensus in Israel is that it would be wonderful for most of these people to convert to Judaism, thus becoming Jewish Israelis. But previous efforts to meet the conversion challenge have met with failure.
Long gone are the days when the Chief Rabbinate – the days of Rabbis Shlomo Goren and Ovadia Yosef – would provide the means for a reasonable path to join the Jewish people. With the increasing influence of the fervently Orthodox, or haredim, the process of conversion to Judaism is often long, arduous and humiliating. In the end, the doors remain closed to most who apply.
Not surprisingly, surveys show that few from the former Soviet Union have any interest in conversion. The process is unattractive, cumbersome, long and distasteful. The inability to marry in Israel aside, one can live just fine as a non-Jewish citizen.
So how do we get the masses to take an interest in becoming Jewish?
Israel should create an incentive system.
Pay to convert?
Such an approach would be immoral and illegal. But let us consider payment, or tax credits, for those who take the basic Judaism courses that can serve as preparation for conversion.
Why do a relatively high number of soldiers agree to convert? It’s because studying Judaism for three months while living on a kibbutz sure beats guard duty on the cold front lines along the Lebanon border. In other words, they have an incentive.
Thousands of dollars already are being spent to prepare each convert, if one takes the budget and divides it by the numbers who actually complete the process. So why not help the person who gives up 350 hours to study?
Israel subsidizes some 75 percent of the actual cost of study for university students. The government makes generous grants available to those who wish to learn in yeshivot. Why not make similar money available to non-Jewish Israelis who wish to study Judaism?
I believe we would see a huge increase in the numbers of people registering for these preparatory courses. Yes, they would still face the obstacle of an unfriendly rabbinic judicial system. But as thousands more Israeli citizens decide they want to convert, public pressure will mount for a serious restructuring of the system. In the meantime, their connection to Judaism and the Jewish people will be stronger.
Ultimately, however, if Israel fails to take creative and aggressive steps to address the issue, then it might continue to be a state of its citizens – but will no longer be a truly Jewish state.
Rabbi Andrew Sacks is the director of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel and director of the Masorti Bureau of Religious Affairs.