“Your people are my people and your God is my God,” Ruth the Moabite tells her mother-in-law, Naomi, in the Book of Ruth, an expression for which she is celebrated as a symbol of Jewish conversion.
This biblical account is recited every year on Shavuot, and the holiday will forever be associated with Ruth, her adoption of a new faith and her entry into the Jewish, or as it was then, Israelite, people.
Since last Shavuot, steps have been taken in the realm of conversion to deal with the serious threat to the integrity of the Jewish people posed by the more than 300,000 people who are Hebrew-speaking Israeli citizens well integrated into the country’s mainstream but not halachically Jewish.
Sociologists have warned of the damage to the country’s character if a significant number of citizens in the Jewish sector feel disconnected from, and do not share, the majority’s Jewish identity.
Jerusalem’s Alina Yakobov, 35, immigrated to Israel in 1999 when she was 18. Having grown up in Latvia during the era of Communist rule, she says she always felt Jewish, despite the lack of Jewish content in her life, and always felt connected to the Jewish people.
Her father was Jewish, as was her mother’s father. But since her mother was not Jewish, she is not considered Jewish by Orthodox interpretations of Jewish law which only recognizes matrilineal descent.
Nevertheless, Alina was able to come on aliya under the Law of Return which recognizes both patrilineal descent and marriage to a Jew as making one eligible for Israeli citizenship.
In Israel, Alina met her husband, who is halachically Jewish.
The couple married in a civil ceremony in Prague, since Israel does not permit civil marriage.
After giving birth to their first child, a boy, Yakobov twice tried to convert. Both times she was rejected by the state conversion court, which insisted that she convert her children at the same time, and transfer them to a state religious school.
Yakobov, who now has four children, sends them to the TALI network of schools, which caters to the religiously traditional community and provides a Jewish and secular education.
Requests to convert minors so that they may study in a religious school are commonly facilitated. But the TALI schools – affiliated with the Masorti (Conservative) Movement – are today no longer accepted by the State Conversion Authority as suitable for this purpose.
Yakobov and her husband decided they did not want transfer their children to another school. And so the conversion process through the state conversion system was stonewalled again.
Shortly thereafter, Yakobov stumbled across an advertisement on Facebook for Giyur Ka’halacha, an alternative non-state Orthodox conversion court established last year to deal with the growing concern over intermarriage between halachic Jews and those 300,000 Israelis not accepted as Jewish by the state’s rabbis.
The new court, a project of several organizations including ITIM, Tzohar, Beit Morasha and Ohr Torah Stone, has evinced fierce opposition from the rabbinical establishment.
Its conversions are not recognized by the Chief Rabbinate.
Giyur Ka’halacha’s backers insist however that its establishment was necessary given the burgeoning number of non-Jewish citizens originating from the former Soviet Union.
Rabbi Seth Farber, one of several people and organizations behind the independent conversion authority, said that because Yakobov had completed the State Conversion Authority’s study course and been seeking to convert for a considerable amount of time, her conversion should be streamlined.
Farber added that in accordance with Giyur Ka’halacha’s halachic position, her children could be expeditiously converted because they are minors.
“The conversion of children can be done very quickly because the component of accepting mitzvot is not relevant to minors,” he said. “What our rabbinical courts seek is a commitment on behalf of the family toward being part of the Jewish future. In the past the rabbinate recognized that parents who sent them to TALI schools are making a serious commitment to Jewish learning and practice. Unfortunately, the rejection of TALI schools and others like them is another example of the inflexible attitude of the rabbinate to this crisis. Giyur Ka’halacha is trying to rectify this situation given the demographic realities of 21st-century Israel.”
Since its establishment in the middle of 2015, Giyur Ka’halacha says it has received 1,500 queries expressing interest in conversion. Of these, it directed 180 toward the state conversion system, and itself converted approximately 200, a number it seeks to quadruple in the coming years.
There are of course detractors of the new conversion courts, including the Chief Rabbinate and the State Conversion Authority.
Rabbi Yisrael Weiss, a former IDF chief rabbi and a judge on the state conversion court, insists that he and the court’s other rabbinical judges are doing everything permitted by Halacha to resolve the looming demographic issue.
He argues however that the problem lies not with the character of the court but instead with a lack of will to convert on behalf of those who are not halachically Jewish.
“At the end of the day, people don’t want to come, because they are [already] citizens.
Because they have legitimacy within the state and their situation is fine, they’re not interested in becoming Jewish. People who really want to be Jewish will become Jewish. There are a lot of people who do not want to accept the responsibilities [of Judaism’s commandments].”
Weiss acknowledged however that he accepts the “halachic legitimacy” of Giyur Ka’halacha’s conversions.
Prof. Benny Ish-Shalom, president of Beit Morasha and another of Giyur Ka’halacha’s founders, rejected Weiss’s argument that few people truly wish to convert.
Ish-Shalom pointed out that only 40 to 50 percent of conversion candidates are eventually accepted into the covenant of Israel. He said thousands of potential converts have been abandoned by the state.
“We’re talking about people who genuinely want to be part of the Jewish nation, who make the effort, who fit the criteria, and who deserve to be converted,” he said.
The professor noted that he and others had sought for many years for the establishment of a state conversion court for children, saying that many immigrant families would be open to conversion for their children, and that the new court was a reaction to this inertia.
Said Farber, “The conversion of children represents the best solution for solving the conversion crisis in the long term. Unfortunately at present the rabbinate isn’t taking the long-term view of conversion in Israel. Because of that, Giyur Ka’halacha represents the only meaningful way to address the demographic crisis that Israel is facing.”