Israel’s Conversion Bill May Change


The author of Israel’s controversial conversion bill has for the first time suggested a change in the bill in the wake of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s promise that any bill dealing with conversion “must ensure the unity of the Jewish people in its entirety.”

The bill’s author, Knesset Member David Rotem, told The Jewish Week that he too wants to preserve Jewish unity and is therefore willing to amend his bill in light of concerns raised by Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist leaders he met with here in April. He said he is offering to add a clause that would “say the law will be considering only conversions being done in Israel.”

“So American Jewry has nothing to worry about,” Rotem said. “Their conversions will be recognized and accepted.”

The leader of the Conservative movement in Israel, Yizhar Hess, said he was unaware of Rotem’s offer but quickly dismissed it.

“The suggestion is almost insulting to my view,” he said, explaining that it would be a step backwards for the Conservative and Reform movements in Israel whose conversions there have been upheld by Israel’s highest court.

“This is just semantics,” Hess said of the proposed change. “He [Rotem] saw after the prime minister’s statement that he did not get the support he thought he would [in the Knesset].”

Hess said that this week he and Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, are meeting in Jerusalem with key Knesset members to convey their concerns about the conversion bill.

But Rotem said he had the firm support of 50 Knesset members and that although he needed only 61 for the bill to become law, he is confident it will get more than that.

“The members of parliament understand the problems we are facing in Israel,” he said, referring to the estimated 300,000 to 500,000 immigrants primarily from the former Soviet Union who have expressed a desire to convert to Judaism. “They do understand that it’s a ticking bomb.”

Rotem stressed that these are the people for whom the bill was crafted because it is designed to speed up the conversion process. The bill would empower any rabbi who is or was on a district rabbinate in Israel — or was or is the chief rabbi of a city or town — to perform conversions for any Israeli, thus bypassing special conversion courts that had been established. The only way for the conversion to be voided would be if the rabbinical court that granted it found that fraud was involved. And rabbis who grant conversions would be empowered to also perform the marriages of converts.

“I think that they have a responsibility towards Israelis more than lobbying politicians,” Rotem said of Rabbi Schonfeld’s meetings with his fellow Knesset members. “So if it will come to a vote, I don’t think that many will be voting against.”

He said he had believed his proposed change in his bill would have resolved the concerns of the American Jewish leaders he met here and insisted that he was doing his “utmost not to make a break in the Jewish nation by the fact that I’m willing to deal only with conversions in Israel. I thought this would solve the problem.”

But Rabbi Schonfeld said that although there is no objection to local conversion courts, provisions that give the Chief Rabbinate responsibility for conversions and that affect the Law of Return must be removed. She said Tuesday that she had had a “very positive meeting” with Ron Dermer, the prime minister’s senior adviser, and asked him to convey to Netanyahu their desire to meet with him when he comes to the United States in the coming weeks.

“He said the prime minister is sympathetic to our concerns and assured us that the outcome of our discussions with [Jewish Agency head Natan] Sharansky will lead to a satisfactory outcome,” Rabbi Schonfeld said.

Sharansky was asked by Netanyahu to meet with the Jewish leaders to learn their concerns. He was later quoted as saying: “The government of Israel must balance its political concerns with the concerns of the Jewish people the world over. I am engaging in dialogue with all relevant parties at the request of the prime minister, fulfilling the Jewish Agency’s historic role as the nexus between world Jewish communities and the State of Israel.”

Rotem, who chairs the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, said he is under no time constraints on when to bring his bill to the floor for a vote. He said that although that might happen after the summer recess, which begins at the end of July, he was hopeful a vote might come in the coming weeks.

“I’m working on it,” he said. “I’m not sleeping.”

Rotem said he believes the main reason Reform and Conservative American Jewish leaders won’t accept his suggested change is that “they are trying to win points for their movements in Israel.”

“I have a problem with 400,000 people here, and the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel are converting something like 100 people in a year,” he fumed. “I thought that for the unity of the Jewish people and to solve this problem of 400,000 Israelis they would come to an agreement. But they are trying to get everything; when you negotiate, you can’t get everything.”

Although Rotem’s proposed change to his bill would not resolve the issue of non-Orthodox conversions in Israel, it might prevent the heartache that befell Jessica Fishman, 29, of St. Paul, Minn., whose mother converted to Judaism with a Reform rabbi before she married.

Fishman grew up attending a Conservative synagogue each Shabbat; her father was a member of the shul’s board of directors and her mother volunteered for Hadassah, lit candles each Shabbat and led the family in celebrating all the holidays, including building a sukkah.

As a teen, Fishman participated in a six-week Israel program with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and then spent a semester studying at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem during college. At 22, Fishman returned to Israel again for a nine-month volunteer program, Project Otzma. A year later, she made aliyah and enlisted in the Israel Defense Forces, in which she served for two years.

Two years ago while working in Tel Aviv, Fishman met a young man and fell in love.

“We were talking about marriage,” she said. “He always considered me Jewish but there would be a question about our kids; they wouldn’t be kosher enough [according to the Chief Rabbinate]. It was that fear that caused him to want me to convert so that we could be married [by an Orthodox rabbi in Israel].”

Fishman said she never accepted the Chief Rabbinate’s authority but that her boyfriend and his family did.

“When you grow up in Israel, that is all you know,” she explained. “He was born and raised in Israel and was not Orthodox. But you know in Israel the synagogue Israelis don’t go to is Orthodox. Plenty of people would be considered Conservative or Reform, but they consider themselves Orthodox because that’s all they know.”

Fishman said she told her boyfriend that after they were married she wanted to attend one of the 54 Masorti (Conservative) synagogues in Israel.

“He said there aren’t such things,” Fishman recalled.

Her Orthodox roommate had told her that she was “more Jewish than anyone” and could not understand why she would not convert.

Fishman said she was advised by some to go with her boyfriend to Greece to get married and that when they returned Israeli authorities would recognize their marriage.

“I had given my whole life to Israel — serving in the military and volunteering on Project Otzma and studying here,” Fishman said. “My identity was very much being a Jewish Zionist. Now all of a sudden, having done all this for my homeland, I was being told that I have more rights in another country than I do in Israel. It was a real blow.”

Reflecting on what happened just two months ago, Fishman said: “We were on the precipice of being engaged. I never got a ring; I got an ultimatum: If I wanted to marry him I had to convert. It took six months of arguments until we finally broke up. It’s sad that the Rabbinate destroyed our love.”

Fishman said what happened to her is emblematic of the problems this issue has caused over the years.

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