Having lived here for 18 years – the greater part of my life spent in the United Kingdom, where I was born – a question most frequently asked is: “What do you miss most about living in London?” The answer has remained static – our London-based children and grandchildren (who, fortunately, visit here often), and the synagogue where we prayed. The rabbi was charismatic, dynamic and in the business of outreach and inclusivism.
Yes, this was an Orthodox congregation.
Our rabbi attracted the yuppie generation of 20-30-year-olds who came from far and wide (certainly not within walking distance of the shul) to participate in the Friday night services and dinners for singles.
Aside from the yuppies, our rabbi attracted many young couples – some with babies and toddlers. There was no eruv in the vicinity and, therefore (according to Halacha), it was not accepted that parents arrive at an Orthodox shul with a buggy in tow. However, on Shabbat, a number of buggies were to be seen at the entrance.
One day, a congregant approached the rabbi and asked: “Rabbi, how come there are all these buggies stationed at the entrance of the shul?” The rabbi responded by saying: “When I arrive, I see no buggies, and when I leave, I do not see any.”
For the later part of my London shul attendance, I sat next to a young woman who was in the middle of converting to Judaism. She could not stress enough how helpful and inclusive the rabbi had been during this quite challenging period.
HOW VERY different is the situation here in Israel. These past months have been fraught with vociferous attempts and actions to exclude our fellow Jews and those who might wish to join us.
Those who originally came from the former Soviet Union (including their children and grandchildren) who were not Jewish according to Halacha might well have attempted to become Jewish had the system been more encouraging.
Instead, we have seen the Chief Rabbinate making it virtually impossible for them to do so.
On a positive note, it has been gratifying to see the emergence of what is being called Giyur K’halacha, a new court of rabbis offering an encouraging form of conversion (strictly according to Halacha). It is headed by Rabbi Nahum Rabinovitch and includes eminent rabbis such as Shlomo Riskin, Re’em Hacohen and David Stav, among others.
It was both exceedingly moving and disturbing to read in a recent edition of The Jerusalem Post Magazine of the experience of a young solider originating from Ukraine who stayed the course of the conversion demands, becoming Shabbat observant in the process. Yet when he appeared in front of the rabbinic panel for the final interview prior to obtaining the conversion certificate, the rabbis made him feel so insecure and uncomfortable that he was unable to act normally.
In the event, his conversion did not happen. He then gave up on his “Judaism” until he met Rabbi Shlomo Riskin.
What a difference – he was made to feel at ease and wanted. He passed the conversion test and is now an observant Jew.
Another hopeful sign is the recent decision by the High Court of Justice, which ruled that the state must recognize Orthodox conversions to Judaism conducted outside the purview of the Chief Rabbinate.
We can but wonder whether this whole question of not being Jewish according to Halacha is one of the reasons that 9,000 Ethiopians – originally part of the Falash Mura community forced to convert in the 19th century from Judaism to Christianity – have been left lingering in appalling conditions in camps at Addis Ababa and Gondar. Many wish to be reunited with families already in Israel.
The Israeli government announced in November 2015 that it was its intention to bring them home to Israel. However, a recent cabinet pronouncement stated that only some 500 sick and elderly would be accepted in 2016 – citing “budgetary difficulties.” The others would be left in the camps. MK David Amsalem (Likud) called this government policy “a shameful trade in human beings, as if they were potatoes.”
For sure, we can understand the frustration of the Ethiopian-Israeli community.
Its members have every right to demonstrate, as they have done these past weeks. They are anxious to welcome their loved ones and cannot understand why their aliya is rejected while that of others is welcomed with open arms.
What is even more disturbing is that there are Ethiopian-Israelis who have converted through the state conversion authority yet are being refused marriage registration by the Petah Tikva rabbinate.
One young woman, Shega Panta, who arrived here in 2004 when she was 13, completed the conversion process in 2006, which officially made her Jewish.
Yet she has been to hell and back in an attempt to register her marriage, due to take place this month. It was not enough for the Petah Tikva registrar to be presented with all the papers from the rabbinate in Jerusalem confirming her conversion – he wanted proof that she was “observing the commandments.”
According to the Religious Services Ministry, there is no legal reason to invalidate a conversion conducted some time ago, even if the convert no longer observes the Torah and commandments.
As Panta put it, “It is racism. Here [in Petah Tikva], Ethiopians are discriminated against because of the color of our skin, and it is prevalent in both the education system and the Chief Rabbinate.
Why should I register in Rishon Lezion, as has been suggested, where my boyfriend lives? Why in Rishon Lezion and Jerusalem am I recognized as Jewish, but not in Petah Tikva?” THE STATE is almost 68 years in existence, yet the only form of Judaism recognized is that of the Orthodox community. While there are Reform and Conservative synagogues and rabbis, marriages taking place under their auspices are not recognized. When Shas MK Yigal Gueta compares Reform Jewry to Haman and there is total opposition to an egalitarian section of the Western Wall where Reform and Conservative members, as well as the Women of the Wall, can pray, we have to ask ourselves where are we going.
The reality is that throughout the Diaspora, the rate of intermarriage is increasing at a frightening pace. In the United States, today home to the second largest number of Jews, intermarriage figures range from 60 to 70 percent. What we can safely say is that today, Israel is home to the largest number of Jews in the world. But what of tomorrow? Unless we find a way of becoming more inclusive, more welcoming and more accepting, we could reach a point when we will be faced with the same challenges of intermarriage that our brothers and sisters are experiencing today in the Diaspora.
History has proven that the manner in which we destroy ourselves is through internal strife, intolerance and hatred. It is the enmity within that is far more destructive than the enemy outside.
The time has come to reach out, to be inclusive – to become am ehad, one nation.
The writer is co-chairperson of ESRA, which promotes integration into Israeli society. She is also active in public affairs.