Attacking Israel’s conversion crisis

All that stands between the thousands in religious limbo and their full Jewish status is bureaucratic delay.

By
November 3, 2014 06:57
Tallit

The newly-renamed Baruchs had a Jewish marriage in Carmel, near Hebron, the same day as their conversion to Judaism. (photo credit: ODED BEN MOSHE)

 
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By rabbinic law, Caitlin Brockett is a Jew.

What she lacks is a piece of paper to prove it. Born a Christian three hours by car from Auckland, New Zealand, Brockett knew she was meant to be Jewish practically the moment she touched down in Israel, despite having grown up in a place where Judaism does not exist.

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“It’s a really bizarre feeling when you’ve grown up in a place all your life, and you think that it’s your home, and you come to a completely new country where everything is hafuch (opposite), everything is completely different to everything you’ve ever known – and you feel more at home here than you’ve ever felt in your life,” she said.

Having successfully navigated a conversion process spanning three years, all that stands between the Brocketts – who now go by the surname Baruch – and full Jewish status is bureaucratic delay. Their certificates of conversion are expected to arrive any day. But until they do, the newly renamed Baruchs remain unable to work for pay in the State of Israel.

On Monday, years of legislative wrangling around the conversion issue culminated in a cabinet directive to shear some of the red tape entangling the lives of thousands of converts, but not before threatening to bring down the governing coalition.

The conversion conundrum naturally raises tensions and blood pressures: it is, after all, a literal battle over the souls of thousands of would-be Jews.

For months before it passed, the new regulation kept Knesset politics at a boil. The topic attracts keen interest from the Knesset’s haredi (ultra-Orthodox) factions (Shas and United Torah Judaism together hold 18 of the body’s 120 seats) but also galvanizes liberal politicians like MK Elazar Stern, the reform’s chief sponsor.

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Although Orthodox himself, Stern, from the center-left Hatnua party, has butted heads with the religious establishment in the past, both during a long military career and in his current Knesset stint.

Exactly how the new, more liberal conversion regime will work remains to be seen.

The chief rabbis have even threatened not to recognize conversion under a reformed system. But the bottom line is this: the government order passed on Monday breaks the Chief Rabbinate’s current monopoly on granting conversions. Whereas today only about 30 individuals appointed by the Chief Rabbinate are officially qualified to grant conversions, the new system will give elected municipal rabbis the power to set up conversion courts. Proponents say this shift will make all the difference in converts’ lives.

“To put it in broadest terms, if traditionally conversion was a personal journey that someone undertook under the context of a local community, conversion is now a bureaucratic journey,” said Rabbi Seth Farber, whose ITIM advocacy center has helped thousands of individuals interface with the Chief Rabbinate.

“In the old days, you would know the rabbis who converted you,” Farber said. Now, however, converts work with a rabbi from “some centralized authority; they don’t know who he is, they don’t know where he is, they don’t know what he is, et cetera.

They don’t know where they stand.”

Opponents of the change fire back that in “the old days” before 1995, when conversions were handled locally, conversion courts were lenient and corrupt – Chief Rabbis Yitzhak Yosef and David Lau argued as much to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday. Further, they said, allowing haphazard conversions to proceed under the less-than-ironclad authority of local rabbis would do an injustice to converts, whose conversions might not be universally recognized.

But perhaps the loudest note of dissension to the reforms come from haredim who claim liberalizing the conversion system will dilute the stream of converts, bringing into the Jewish fold individuals who are not properly Jewish. The conversion process is tough, they say, but appropriately so.

Brockett knows as well as anyone that conversion in Israel is not for the faint of heart. For much of the process, her family of six lived in a mobile home with no power. Unable to work, they subsisted on a shoestring budget. During the nine months of Jewish instruction required by the Chief Rabbinate, she and her family traveled three hours on “big, bulletproof buses” each way to and from their home in the settlements to study at the well-regarded Machon Meir yeshiva and its sister school for women in Jerusalem. The experience, she says, was a “huge schlep.” But nonetheless, Brockett says the way it is now, with conversions handled directly through the Chief Rabbinate, is the way it has to be.

“It would make conversions a lot easier, obviously, if you could go through your local rabbi,” she said. “But a lot more people could get through, and a lot of people who are not sincere could slip through the cracks and give conversion a bad name.

“It’s hard, but the only proper way to go through a conversion is through the [Chief] Rabbinate.”

Not everyone makes it through the conversion process. One Tel Aviv rabbi who prepares students for conversion estimates that the percentage of people who make it through the conversion process in Israel is in the upper 30s.

But the major group targeted by the government order is those who never start the process in the first place.

Some 350,000 people, or 4 percent of Israel’s population, live in religious limbo.

Many of them are entitled to Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return, which permits immigration for anyone with a single Jewish grandparent, while denied full religious rights by the Chief Rabbinate, which acknowledges as Jews only those who have a Jewish mother or who converted through the Chief Rabbinate.

Left out, then, are both immigrants under the Law of Return and natural-born Israeli citizens who often consider themselves to be Jewish and serve in the IDF, but whose mother was not a Jew. These people lack the rabbinate’s seal of approval and its attendant privileges, most notably Jewish marriage. They often have the jarring experience of finding out fairly late in life that a large sector of Israel’s government does not consider them Jewish at all.

Sara Ezra Torf-Fulton, who was adopted by Jewish parents and grew up Jewish in the United States, learned that she was not considered to be a Jew by the rabbinate when she applied for a marriage license with her Israeli-born fiancée. She said was “absolutely shocked and insulted” that Israel’s government considers her a non-Jew.

Offered an Orthodox conversion process that requires strict adherence to Jewish law, she declined, electing instead to get married in Cyprus. Rabbinate or no, Torf-Fulton considers herself a Jew. Moreover, a large segment of the Israeli population agrees with her: a September poll found that 26% of Jewish Israelis consider as Jewish anyone who defines themselves thus. Thirty percent say serving in the IDF, living in Israel and speaking Hebrew makes ones Jewish.

“I couldn’t bring myself to think that somehow I need to prove to somebody else how Jewish I was,” she said.

Would-be reformers see the new rule as a way to make amends with people like Torf-Fulton, who are either daunted by the Orthodox conversion process or insulted by the very thought of it (“To get slammed down by Israel really breaks your heart,” she said). Kafkaesque conversion rules, they argue, create bureaucratic sinkholes that unfairly bog down would-be converts.

What’s more, they exclude people who are rightfully Jewish from being formally accepted into the fold.

“[The reform] will be a very real and right foundation of a new effort for approaching this population and telling them, ‘You know friends, now you can come. We want to embrace you, we want to accept you,’” said Benjamin Ish-Shalom, who heads the Joint Conversion Institute and has long worked with Israel’s government to oversee and eventually to reform conversion.

Others are less accepting. As Ish-Shalom walked away from our interview at a Cinema City café near the Knesset, a haredi man pulled me aside to “hear the other side of the story.” Progressives like Ish-Shalom, he said, are working to overwhelm the haredi vote by bringing gentiles into the Jewish fold.

Farber calls this argument, that more liberal conversion laws will dilute the Jewish population, “a total smokescreen. It’s actually unconscionable.” It arbitrarily puts on a pedestal the rabbis currently approved by the chief rabbi to perform conversions, he said.

“Anybody who would take one look at who’s actually performing conversions today would acknowledge that most of them were political appointees,” he said.

“Most of them don’t have greater knowledge or access to halachic (Jewish legal) information than municipal rabbis. Everyone has suddenly sanctified these 33 rabbis without actually looking at what their credentials are.”

The dangers of such centralization are great, said Farber. His organization specializes in helping people who are navigating the state-religious bureaucracy with regards to their personal status: marriage, divorce, burial and conversion. Each year, 3,500 such people – about 10 a day – call ITIM’s hotline for help.

One individual undergoing conversion who sought ITIM’s help said she did so in order to put a buffer between herself and the rabbinate. She asked not to be named, saying she was afraid it would affect her status.

“[Conversion] is a very invasive process,” she said. “If you do it with an organization, it manages to stay a little more private.”

Nonetheless, she fears she won’t be able to meet the rabbinate’s demands – for instance, that the people around her maintain a kosher lifestyle.

“I cannot guarantee that all my life will be religious and kosher throughout my entire conversion,” she said. “As much goodwill as I can put in it, I can’t brainwash my roommates. I can’t change the lives of the people around me.”

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