‘Think of non-Jewish immigrants from FSU as close kin’

By JONAH MANDEL
April 27, 2011 03:21

"If I had a cousin who... needed to convert – wouldn’t I do anything in my power to help her? They are all our cousins," Druckman tells conversion conference.

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Rabbi Haim Druckman

Rabbi Haim Druckman 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Try to imagine non-Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union as close kin, who should be helped to return to the Jewish people, said head of the State Conversion Authority Rabbi Haim Druckman on Tuesday at a conference honoring converts on the day of the Mimunah celebrations that took place in Ashkelon, organized by the World Federation of Moroccan Jewry.

“If I had a cousin who came from there,” Druckman said, “who needed to convert – wouldn’t I do anything in my power to help her? They are all our cousins,” he said of the FSU immigrants.

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Druckman’s statements came on the same day that Rabbi Abraham Sherman of the High Rabbinic Court was quoted on the Walla website as standing behind his ruling from 2008, when he said that Druckman’s conversions are not valid.

“Those who undergo conversions at the special rabbinic courts are Jews,” Druckman said. “Nobody can take that from them, regardless of who is trying to, and in whose name he is doing so,” he continued, referring to the fact the Sherman said he was acting in the name of senior Ashkenazi haredi halachic authority Rabbi Shalom Elyashiv.

“Conversion is a one-way road,” he added, noting that the IDF conversions were also according to Halacha and irrevocable.

Druckman noted three kinds of converts. The first type of convert is a person who grew up as a gentile, felt dissatisfied with their religion, and found answers in Judaism. A second type began two hundred years ago, when the gates of the ghettos in Europe opened and Jews gained freedoms.

That’s when assimilation and intermarriage began, and as a result non-Jews took to converting.

“The third type of convert is a phenomenon the Jewish people had never encountered previously. I am referring to conversions of FSU immigrants, who came from a place where their religion was brutally repressed, where great efforts were taken to remove any Judaism from their life. As a result, there was intermarriage – not out of a desire for assimilation, but because that was what reality dictated.

And now, their offspring are coming home. We must help all of them, and continue with what we consider one of the most important commandments of our generation, and God will help us,” he said.

The event’s organizers, led by head of the World Federation of Moroccan Jewry Sam Ben-Chitrit, declared this year’s theme “loving the convert” in support of those joining the Jewish people but also in protest against elements in the world of “extreme Orthodoxy” who do not accept all of the conversions conducted by Israel’s official rabbinic bodies.

Tuesday’s panel moderator, Rabbi Yisrael Rozen, who founded the State Conversion Authority in its current form 15 years ago, took a less militaristic approach and stressed the importance of encouraging converts and their adoptive families. “We can leave the arguments for different times which aren’t holidays,” he said.

It is most likely Ben- Chitrit’s attitude, which he expounded upon in an interview in Haaretz on Tuesday, that caused the last minute cancellation of honorary guest Rabbi Meir Israel Lau, chief rabbi of Tel-Aviv and former chief rabbi of Israel. In the interview Ben- Chitrit slammed the Shas party, which in his opinion was not active enough in promoting converts’ welfare, and also severely criticized the Ashkenazi-Haredi establishment for its attitude toward converts in Israel.

What stood out in both Rozen and Druckman’s addresses was their desire to spread the good word of conversions among Israelis who are not Jewish according to Halacha, one of the challenges facing those encouraging conversion.

Families “adopting” converts through their process were honored by the federation, and three converts told their personal stories to a small and receptive audience.

“The motivation to convert was never high,” Rozen said after the panel. “It’s not that they are afraid of converting – they simply do not need it,” he said of the FSU immigrants. “Israeli society has received them either way.” Asked whether the aspersions the Lithuanian haredi rabbinic leadership cast on the conversion processes in the State Conversion Authority and IDF could be a cause for a diminishment in the motivation to undergo the process, Rozen – an engineer by training – said that there were no data to confirm such a theory. He did point out, however, that the intermarriage rate in Israel was currently seven percent, and called the presence of non- Jews in Israeli society “a social land-mine, that needs to be removed. The haredi establishment should be grateful to us, conducting conversions, for clearing away these mines. An Israeli man can’t always know if his girlfriend is Jewish, and not even she is always sure,” he said.

While Rozen believes that there is much more potential to convert in Israel, Halacha forbids rabbis from conducting propaganda to the end of conversions.

“Social elements in Israel should market conversions,” he said.


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