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For Russian Emigres, Conversion Fuss May Be Much Ado About Nothing at All

June 3, 2002
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As Israel tries to resolve the controversy involving non-Orthodox conversions, it remains unclear whether the country’s largest pool of possible converts, Russian immigrants, is even interested.

In the last decade, nearly 1 million people from the former Soviet Union have immigrated to Israel. Approximately 300,000 are not considered Jewish according to halachah, or Jewish law.

But that doesn’t mean these “unofficial Jews” necessarily want to convert through the Reform or Conservative movements.

“The Russian olim, by and large, do not go through the conversion process for ideological, or even religious, reasons,” said Eli Kazhdan, executive director of Yisrael B’Aliyah, a pro-immigrant political party. “They do so for a practical purpose, so that they, and especially their children, become equals in Israeli society.”

As a result, when Russian immigrants decide to convert, they want to be sure that they will be accepted as Jews, and as equals, by all segments of Israeli society.

A Reform or Conservative conversion wouldn’t serve that purpose because such converts will be perceived as “Jews with an asterisk,” Kazhdan said.

As such, the vast majority of Russian immigrants would not opt for this choice, but would insist on going through a process accepted and sanctioned by Israel’s Orthodox Chief Rabbinate.

“Our Judaism in Russia isn’t ultra-Orthodox,” said Boris Margulis, a council member in Haifa, where there is a large number of Russian immigrants. “In fact, Reform or Conservative Judaism is probably more fitting for Russians.”

But if it won’t give them the rights they need, most Russians will end up going through an Orthodox conversion, he said.

“If the family’s Jewishness will be an obstacle in life, they’re going to do something about it,” Margulis added. “They don’t advertise the problem. They just find a solution and deal with it.”

More than 5,000 students, nearly all of them Russian, have studied at the Joint Conversion Institute with a panel including five Orthodox rabbis, one Conservative rabbi and one Reform rabbi. The institute was set up in 1999 in accordance with the recommendations of a government commission.

“We’re talking big numbers, without any advertising,” said professor Benjamin Ish-Shalom, director of the institute. “It’s clear the institute is offering a solution to a real need.”

The institute’s conversion process requires about 400 hours of study, or nine hours a week for about a year. The institute sponsors Russian-language classes around Israel.

Students come to learn, and then can decide whether to commit to converting.

There now are more than 200 alumni, and another 1,200 waiting to be converted.

However, according to a recent poll commissioned by the institute, many possible converts are looking for Jewish learning, and don’t turn to Israel’s rabbinate as their first option. More than 85 percent of the adults that come to learn at the institute only later decide whether they are interested in conversion.

“Our conversion is recognized, but Reform and Conservative isn’t,” Ish-Shalom said. “For most of the public interested in conversion, they want it because they want to be included in the Jewish people. They want to solve the whole problem, and that’s why the Reform and Conservative movements will continue supporting the institute.”

That’s true, said Rabbi Yehiel Greinman, conversion coordinator for the Conservative movement. Only a small number of Russian immigrants — about 100 so far — have made their way to the Conservative movement to convert.

But a recent, controversial High Court decision to register Reform and Conservative converts in the Interior Ministry has led to an increase in requests for information about Conservative conversions, Greinman said.

At the same time, some in the movement worry that by cooperating with the Joint Institute and nudging possible converts toward it, the movement is missing a chance to gain new adherents.

“The Conservative community hasn’t invested in” the Russian sector, Greinman said. “I’m worried. I think a historic opportunity might be lost.”

There’s a similar reaction in Israel’s Reform movement, known as the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism.

The Reform movement also cooperates with the Joint Conversion Institute. But some worry that the Joint Institute — with its liberal Orthodox outlook — doesn’t answer the needs of the mostly secular new Jews.

“I think many immigrants don’t want to be Orthodox Jews,” said Rabbi Meir Azari, chairman of the Reform council in Israel. “They just want to be Jews and recognized as such.”

Part of the problem is name recognition. Critics say the movement hasn’t done enough to encourage Russian participation in Reform congregations. As a result, the Russian immigrants only recognize the Reform movement through its political battles in the Knesset and High Court.

“We can increase the number of Russians learning with us by a factor of 10, it’s just a matter of investment,” said Azari. “In the long term, there’s a high potential for Reform, Russian Jews.”

Nevertheless, many Russians say their brethren would rather take the safe conversion route through the state-run rabbinate.

“I think if people know what the process is at the rabbinical court, they’d rather do an Orthodox conversion,” said Marina Kitrossky, the director of development at Machanaim, a learning center for Russian immigrants. “What matters to them is that Israeli society will accept them.”

Kitrossky and her colleagues established Machanaim in Russia in the early 1980s. Now Machanim teaches Jewish courses in Israel to Russian immigrants, and trains about 50 converts each year.

When the center was founded, there wasn’t a sense of how many Russian immigrants were not halachically Jewish. In Russia, children of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother often consider themselves Jewish, though the Israeli rabbinate — which conforms strictly to halacha — does not recognize them as Jews.

If the Russians have to commit to an Orthodox lifestyle in order to convert through the rabbinate, many will decide not to convert, Kitrossky says.

“Some people consider conversion, but decide not to because they feel Jewish” already, says Kitrossky, who sat on the government commission. “And they don’t want to change their life the way we’re asking them to.”

In 10 years of classes, Kitrossky hasn’t seen waves of students deciding to convert — and she doesn’t expect to see them going the Reform or Conservative route either.

“We talked about thousands coming to convert, and it’s not happening,” she said. “There is just a lack of interest.”

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