TEL AVIV (JTA) — For years, army conversions were seen by many as a convenient solution for resolving at least part of the "Who is a Jew?" question that hangs like a cloud over the lives of tens of thousands of Israelis.
In the Israel Defense Forces, under the guidance of army rabbis, some 5,000 young soldiers in the last decade have undergone a conversion process seen as rigorous but welcoming. That process stands in contrast to the experiences described by many of those seeking civilian conversions run by the haredi Orthodox-dominated Chief Rabbinate.
Now the issue has come to a head with a decision by the Chief Rabbinate not to continue to stand behind IDF conversions until a panel of its rabbis can scrutinize the process.
Furthermore, the Chief Rabbinate broadened the panel’s task to re-examine Israel’s conversion process across the board. That has left thousands of converts, most of them immigrants from the former Soviet Union, wondering where they stand.
"I am all for high standards for conversion, and I’m also for clear standards for conversion once a person converts under the Chief Rabbinate, but it’s outrageous to throw into question their sincerity or their Jewishness," said Seth Farber, an American-born Orthodox rabbi who is the director of Itim-The Jewish Life Information Center, an organization that helps Jews navigate the bureaucracy of the Chief Rabbinate.
The Chief Rabbinate did not answer requests for a comment on the issue.
It was a lawsuit filed by Farber’s organization that inadvertently prompted the latest crisis in Israel’s conversion wars. In the case, currently being heard by the Supreme Court, Itim is suing the Chief Rabbinate and the rabbis of four cities who have refused to recognize army conversions.
During a hearing in September, the state attorney said there was a procedural problem with recognizing the conversions — a snag that elements in the haredi Orthodox community have seized upon to turn the battle into an ideological one, Farber and other more liberal Orthodox rabbis argue.
They point to the full-page ads in two haredi newspapers taken out by the rabbinic leadership of the large Lithuanian haredi community as an example of the pressure being put on Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, who oversees the issue of conversion, to withdraw his sanction of IDF conversions. The ads rail against what the rabbis call fictitious conversions and say that any conversions done without converts taking on the "yoke of mitzvahs" are to be considered invalid.
Israel Eichler, a former Knesset member from the haredi United Torah Judaism party and currently the editor of a religious newspaper, said he had no specific opinion on army conversions. But he suggested that if soldiers’ observance was in doubt, there could be a problem.
"A person who converts and does not fulfill the mitzvahs is not a Jew," he said.
Meanwhile, a bill has been submitted to the Knesset that, if passed, would cement the IDF conversions as valid according to halachah, or Jewish law.
But Rabbi Yakov Ruza, the rabbi of the Tel Aviv suburb of Bat Yam and a member of the rabbinical council — the equivalent of the Chief Rabbinate’s high court — said those who have converted in the past through the IDF should not be concerned that their conversions could be revoked.
Ruza was appointed as one of the rabbis on the new investigative panel but has stepped down, citing technical reasons.
Taking aim at critics of the Chief Rabbinate, however, he suggested that the whole episode is being overplayed.
"There are certain sources that are battling the Rabbinate to try to make it look like an extremist institution,” he said. “They take certain incidents and make them appear to be questioning the status quo, which they are not.”
An estimated 350,000 to 400,000 Israeli citizens are not Jewish according to Jewish law — immigrants or children of Russian-speaking immigrants who were granted citizenship under the Law of Return, which allows those with a Jewish grandparent to become Israeli even if they are not Jewish according to Jewish law.
Most of those who have converted through the army fit that category.
Among them is a young woman who preferred to be identified as Shira (not her real name). She immigrated to Israel alone 10 years ago as a teenager from a small town outside of Moscow. Her father is Jewish, her mother is not.
Shira always felt herself to be Jewish and knew one day she would formally convert, an opportunity she welcomed while serving in the Air Force.
"They do it so well in army. They focus on all the beautiful things in Judaism like human relations and values,” she said. “They know dealing with new immigrants. There’s no brainwashing but a focus on the important things, the right things.”
Shira is distraught at the idea that army conversions might be in peril.
"We are talking about young Zionists who have come to serve in the army," she said. "It’s not easy, but they want to serve the country and feel connected to who they are."
Rabbi Chaim Iram, who serves as director of conversion preparation for the Institute for Jewish Studies, the organization that coordinates IDF conversion courses, dismissed suspicions that army conversions are anything but legitimate.
"I invite anyone to come see our course, the materials we use, and the seriousness and devotion of our students, and then we can talk about criticism," he said. "According to any and all parameters — both knowledge and practice — we are doing top-level work.
"We need to tell all of our converts that they are Jews, period, that this is a procedural problem that cannot be made into a problem of principle. But yes, welcome to Israel. There is politics, yes. That is a problem."
Amar’s panel, which is in disarray with three of the five appointed rabbis quitting, has been given four months to make a recommendation on the conversions. Farber notes that is exactly when a freeze on discussion of a controversial conversion bill proposed by Knesset member David Rotem is set to expire.
Farber suggested that the Chief Rabbinate is preparing to use the panel as leverage to win approval for Rotem’s bill. The measure has many opponents, among them non-Orthodox Diaspora Jewish organizations that fear it would give too much power to the Orthodox-dominated Chief Rabbinate on conversion issues, formally shutting out the Conservative and Reform movements.
Gilad Kariv of the Israel Religious Action Center, the Reform movement’s lobbying arm, said it had been naive to think army conversions could be isolated from the overall atmosphere regarding conversions in Israel.
"We claimed for years that the wall between the army and civil society was a fake wall,” he said. “In the end, unless something is done to address the irrational, immoral and un-Jewish approach of the ultra-Orthodox establishment, it will have a serious and severe effect on the conversions in the army.”