The announcement this week that a raft of mainstream national-religious rabbis plan to set up a new network of conversion courts generated headlines calling the proposed move a “rebellion” and a threat to the authority and integrity of the Chief Rabbinate.
Reaction to the initiative also highlighted the split that the move has already caused among the national-religious leadership, a significant portion of which opposes the move.
But beyond the media storm is the actual substantive issue of conversion in Israel. Why do the rabbis who hope to circumvent the Chief Rabbinate believe there is such a necessity to increase conversion rates among the non-Jewish segment of the immigrant community from the former Soviet Union? Why are they focusing on children, minors below the age of 12? What will happen if the new conversion courts are not set up?
Numbers are crucial to understanding the situation.
In Israel today there are 350,000 people who are either immigrants from the former Soviet Union, or their children, who are not
Jews according to Jewish law.
But under the state conversion system overseen by the chief rabbinate, just 24,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union have converted under its auspices since it was opened in 1995, and since the year 2000, the average conversion rate for the sector has been only 1,800 people a year.
Of the current non-Jewish immigrant population from the former Soviet Union of approximately 350,000, some 100,000 are under the age 18. It is believed that up to 60,000 of these are considered to be minors in Jewish law (under 12 for girls and under 13 for boys).
The central concern for those who set up the new conversion courts, Giur K’halacha, the name of the new network, is that those children will grow up as integrated Israelis who go to the army, study in schools and universities, and come to marry Jewish Israelis causing widespread interfaith marriages in the Jewish state.
According to Rabbi Seth Farber, director of the ITIM organization that was heavily involved in setting up Giur K’halacha, the issue is critical to the stability and viability of Israeli society, and converting those children at a quicker rate than under the chief rabbinate’s system is vital to solving the problem.
Although he acknowledges that society is already split into different sectors, he argues that even traditional and non-religious Israelis are concerned by the possible split into two groups of Jews; one Jewish according to halacha, and the other which is not Jewish despite being Zionist and culturally and historically connected to the Jewish people.
“The average Israeli is very uncomfortable with the bifurcation of society, that their children will marry people who are not Jewish according to Jewish law,” Farber says.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, another founder of Giur K’halacha, talks in more dire terms about the possibility that Zionist society could be separated along religious lines.
“Once we can’t marry each other we are no longer one people. That would be a tragedy,” he says.
Rabbi David Stav, chairman of the Tzohar rabbinical association and one of the main proponents behind Giur K’halacha, paints the issue in starker terms, suggesting that mass interfaith marriage would lead to a mass societal split which he compared to the division of the ancient Israelite kingdom into Judea in the south and the Kingdom of Israel in the north.
“In 10 to 15 years’ time we would have two nations here, one Jewish and one non-Jewish,” he argues in conversation with The Jerusalem Post
. “This would be a terrible danger. We have experience of what happens in such a situation. It would be the destruction of the Jewish state.”
Stav states that even now there are 5,000 marriages a year between Jewish and non-Jewish Israelis outside of Israel, since they cannot marry within the country. Every year another 4,500 children are added to the population of non-Jewish immigrants and their offspring from the former Soviet Union.
The central focus of Giur K’halacha is on the minors (according to Jewish law) from this community, since they are the ones who will soon be of marriageable age. Critically, Jewish law does not require for minors the more rigorous process of conversion used for adult converts.
Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency which has supported and cooperated with the rabbis who set up Giur L’halacha, added another danger to continuing the status quo.
“We are at a very interesting stage of history,” Sharansky tells the Post
. “On the one hand, everyone wants the ingathering of the exiles to increase – whether it is French Jews now or, we hope, an increase in aliya from the US. But we also have mass assimilation in the Diaspora and so this becomes a big challenge for the State of Israel if we want aliya to increase.”
He also notes that the Israel experience programs such as Birthright and Masa only require the participant to be eligible for the Right of Return – that is have one Jewish grandparent – and not be Jewish according to Jewish law, which stipulates that one’s mother must be Jewish.
In response to the sheer size of the challenge, Riskin said “We have to create an atmosphere in which we show that we want these people to convert, that we wish them to come fully into the Jewish fold and to be part of the knesset Yisrael [the assembly of the Jewish people].”
“I believe with all my heart that if we take this seriously, if we conduct a real campaign, if we reach out to allow those from the former Soviet Union and provide them with a meaningful Jewish experience and show them the beautiful aspect of Judaism, then we can succeed.”