Conversion in Israel: The real story

Dispelling myths and highlighting the real issues of the conversion process in the State of Israel.

ISRAEL’S CHIEF Rabbinate Council, 1959. At its helm sit Ashkenazi chief Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog (center, at left) and Sephardi chief Rabbi Yitzhak Nissim (at right). (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
ISRAEL’S CHIEF Rabbinate Council, 1959. At its helm sit Ashkenazi chief Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog (center, at left) and Sephardi chief Rabbi Yitzhak Nissim (at right).
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
From time to time, the conversion issue surfaces in the media. It usually involves some dramatic story, linked to an isolated case, and then turns into a rabbinate-bashing fest with some suggestions of how to knock the system. Alternatively, it may try to alarm us to the rising amount of non-Jews in our midst (that the state took in willingly) and how the rabbinate does not understand that they need to solve this. Unfortunately, sensationalism never addresses the real issues of conversion in Israel, which fall on the wayside. People interviewed are usually those who have some political agenda and not the ones actually teaching conversion.
I have worked with potential converts for over 15 years. Originally, through my work with the Chaverim Jewish Identity Project in the early 2000’s, I met many student olim, mostly from the FSU, who requested assistance in getting through the then very bureaucratic thicket of conversion in Israel. In the past seven years, I have taught potential converts at the Tel Aviv International Synagogue in a program founded by my colleague, Rabbi Ariel Konstantyn, in which we have personally accompanied over 200 people to the Beit Din successfully. I have seen both the flaws in the system and the attempts to correct them. I know the strengths and weaknesses and am known personally to all the dayanim in the Tel Aviv district.
However, I do not work for the rabbinate and never have. I teach because I find the students’ stories inspiring and I feel that they are really there to study (something I do not always feel at the university). Teaching in English, our classes are quite diverse. A typical class has about 24 students from over 10 countries. Presently, we have students from the US, France, Belgium, Israel, the Philippines, Brazil, Germany, Sweden, Poland, the Caribbean, Norway and Moldova. The responsibility of teaching these young people is tremendous. We have to present to them the world of Judaism in its depth, grandeur and detail.
Why do people convert? Contrary to popular belief, marriage is not the main reason. Most come to the class either without a partner or already married. The reasons and stories are quite diverse. We had one woman from Germany who was married to a Jew in Germany and wanted to convert there, but he was against it. After he died, she came to Israel to convert and live here. We had another case where a fellow from Hungary married a Jewish woman from Israel. They had two kids and divorced. After this, he figured that if his kids are Jewish, he should convert to raise them properly. In another case, a woman from the Philippines was brought into a family in Haifa to be a caregiver for the ailing wife. After the wife passed away, the husband asked her to take care of his three kids and marry him. She agreed and demanded to convert despite his protests.
As in most of the conversions in Israel, most of our students have Jewish roots; what we refer to in Israel as “zera Yisrael” or what the state calls: “Eligible for the Law of Return.” All have great stories. A young man from China had a grandfather from Kaifeng – a city known to have had a Jewish community – who told him stories of the Jews that inspired him to convert. A woman from Argentina had a Jewish father but no proof of Jewish identity from her mother’s side, so she decided to convert. Two months after passing the Bet Din, her mother suddenly took sick and died. The next day, she got a call from the Jewish community in Buenos Aires saying that they have a spot for her mother in the Jewish cemetery since they had documents that she was a Jew. Even many of those who come without any apparent Jewish roots have stories in their families of Jewish roots, which they discover over the course of time. Some, of course, just want to embrace the Torah and the Jewish people.
THE WRITER (standing) speaks at a Holocaust Remembrance Day program at the Tel Avi International Synagogue. (Credit: RAPHAEL SHUCHAT)THE WRITER (standing) speaks at a Holocaust Remembrance Day program at the Tel Avi International Synagogue. (Credit: RAPHAEL SHUCHAT)
BEFORE GETTING to the real issues, I would like to disperse some of the myths.
Myth: Conversion in Israel is the hardest and most strict conversion in the Jewish world.
Fact: Those who make this statement compare Orthodox conversion in Israel to Conservative or Reform conversions in North America or Europe. However, if you compare Orthodox conversion in Israel to Orthodox conversions done in North America or Europe you discover something entirely different. It takes three years to complete the Orthodox RCA (Modern Orthodox ) conversion in the US and three to four years to complete Orthodox conversion with the COR in Toronto. In London, it takes three years, as it does with the Beit Din in Paris. Belgium and Ireland don’t accept potential converts, as with Spain and Holland. In Israel, by comparison, it takes 10 months of study to allow one to meet the Beit Din and, if well prepared, they can pass on the first time.
Myth: The dayanim are narrow-minded ultra-Orthodox rabbis totally detached from the reality of the convert.
Fact: Whatever you want to say about the rabbinate (and I have my own list of complaints), the conversion authority has its own Batei Din for conversion with its own dayanim. So while being affiliated with the rabbinate, the rabbis are not from there. Most of them are religious-Zionist and the others are what I call opened-minded haredim. Since the Beit Din for conversion is a separate entity, it is called the “special batei din for conversion.”
Myth: Converts are not serious and are just looking for an easy entrance into Israeli citizenship.
Fact: In order to convert in Israel, you must be an Israeli citizen or be accepted by the joint special committee of the rabbinate and Interior Ministry. Since the State of Israel has a law called the Right of Return that grants automatic citizenship for Jews, it was feared that this could be abused by migrants through fictitious conversions. Therefore, only those who are eligible to make aliyah through the Right of Return can convert in Israel. Any exception to this rule (set down by the Interior Ministry) must go through the special exceptions committee (Vaadat Charigim), which is a joint committee of the rabbinate and the Interior Ministry. The job of the lawyers of the ministry is to say “no” and the rabbinate rep is there to explain why “yes,” if it is a serious potential convert. I have coached many people through the Vaadat Charigim, which has really improved over the years despite a multitude of files (a few thousand per year). It once took a year and a half for them to allow a serious potential convert to be accepted for the program, today the average time is three to four months. However, it is good to have a coach.
Myth: Only Orthodox conversions are accepted in Israel.
Fact: Actually, it is more accurate to say that only government-authorized Batei Din are recognized. All other conversions done in Israel – whether Orthodox, Conservative or Reform – are not recognized by the state. In my opinion, this actually saves conversion from anarchy, which would be detrimental to the potential converts. We have had a number of students who went through Orthodox (whether Modern Orthodox or haredi) in Israel and abroad who had to go through the process a second time to be recognized by the state.
Myth: The rabbinate makes it difficult for those who went through Conservative or Reform conversions to convert in Israel.
Fact: Since the state recognizes all official conversions of the recognized denominations of Judaism done outside of Israel for the purpose of the Right of Return (what they refer to as “Jewish according to the Supreme Court”), these people can make aliyah one year after their conversion. Once they make aliyah, they can now easily join a state-run conversion program if they so choose.
Myth: The rabbinate asks very hard questions and expects too much from the converts.
Fact: The questions asked by the Beit Din are just to assess seriousness and whether the potential convert is keeping the mitzvot. We have had students who didn’t know the answers to simple questions (like “What is Hoshana Raba?”) and still passed because it was obvious that they intended to keep the mitzvot. In another case, the student explained to the Beit Din that he could not observe Shabbat fully since his job required him to work on Shabbat. The judge did not get alarmed, and told him to come back and see them again when he is able to keep Shabbat, which he did a year and a half later. In general, I have found that potential converts are not afraid of how high the bar is. They will jump over it. (In fact, lowering the bar harms the reputation of the true converts.) They just want to know that there is a beginning and an end to the process. They also want some assistance in knowing what to do and that their conversion will be universally accepted.
Myth: The dayanim are too tough.
Fact: People are people. My experience has been that most of the dayanim are quite friendly and interested in doing their job correctly with the right sensitivity. However, there are always a few who probably would have been better at a different job. In general, it’s not easy being a dayan. You have less than an hour to assess someone’s sincerity. That’s difficult. Therefore, they depend on the recommendations of the teachers, of the host family and the letters of recommendation they receive in addition to their own judgment. Obviously, veteran teachers will present a more convincing argument. We had a student who did not pass the Beit Din due to multiple questions by one of the dayanim, and I could see that the second dayan was not happy with this. At a follow-up meeting, the second dayan apologized for what had happened previously. There is menschlichkeit and good souls out there.
The Real Issues
Having dispelled with the myths, I want to mention some of the problems and make suggestions to fix them.
One: it’s really important that the teachers of conversion be experienced rabbis. The conversion authority, which has some really good people running it, underpays. Just to give you an idea: For the hours I teach in conversion classes, I would be paid four and a half times more for the same hours at the university. Since the pay is so low, seasoned rabbis do not want (or can’t afford) to “waste” their time for such little money. Therefore, young people or retired non-rabbis with goodwill teach. But this is not good enough. In addition, some of the young people teach multiple classes in order to get more pay, but in doing so, they are not spending enough time with each student. The result is that the national average of the conversion authority success rate at the Beit Din is less than 40%. Many of those who did not pass do not even try a second time. In comparison, when you have three seasoned rabbis teaching, as we do – myself, Rabbi Ariel Konstantyn and Rabbi Stewart Weiss, who kindly fills in whenever needed – the success rate is 95%. If the same money would be invested in better teachers, more students would pass.
Two: The conversion study requirement in Israel is actually too short. Years ago, it was three years. Today, due to government pressure, it is 10 months. The conversion authority pays for only nine and a half months. Teaching in this timeframe is like a race against time. In addition, the Beit Din requires that the potential converts experience the whole Jewish calendar year. If this is not done, they consequently will not pass. Therefore, they need to study for 12 months, which is what we try to do.
Three: Experiencing Shabbat is crucial to the conversion process, but since the conversion authority money is spread thin, they have no money for more than one Shabbat experience. The host families introduce the students to Shabbat, but the group experience with your peers who are in the same boat is very important. Therefore, we do group Shabbatons in Tel Aviv a few times each year for the classes. This should happen in all conversion classes.
Four: The teachers and dayanim should be carefully picked. Teaching conversion is not like teaching a regular class. A lot of experience and guidance is needed, as well as the right syllabus. Also, the dayanim need coaching in what questions to ask at the Beit Din. This could be compiled by the veteran dayanim.
Five: There are other issues as well, especially for converts who have no Jewish roots, in which the Interior Ministry is sometimes overly harsh with them. Issues like not being allowed to work, being incarcerated at the airport for the crime of “coming to Israel too often” (this seriously happened to our students on four separate occasions) must be resolved. These issues could be resolved if a proper meeting with the heads of the Interior Ministry could take place.
Six: The converts need to know that their conversion is authoritative and accepted. I would suggest setting up a conversion council to discuss the criteria of conversion in Israel where all trends in the Orthodox world are represented in order to create an accepted “modus vivendi.”
Seven: “You shall love the ger [convert].” (Deuteronomy 10:19). We need to learn to be accepting and loving, and at the same time hold fast to our criteria and demands. Those who do pass must be accepted as one of us since they are children of Abraham and Sarah.
Some of my former students wrote their own comments. Here are some excerpts:
Maayan (US): “In my final appearance before the Beit Din, having successfully passed the arduous process of conversion, I recited the Shema with tears pouring from my eyes. It was singlehandedly the most important, emotional and memorable moment of my entire life.”
Abigail (Russia): “Giyur [conversion] with the Tel Aviv Synagogue is an amazing journey, [which] brings you to your roots and lets you dive deeper into the history of the Jewish nation as a whole and find your place in it.
Elodie (France): “I spent one year studying with amazing rabbis… the final Beit Din... is like a final exam that will determine the rest of your life. When they called me by the Jewish name I had chosen, I was just in shock. Even today, I don’t completely realize that I am Jewish, a Jew literally born in Israel when immersing in the mikveh [ritual bath] (I’m about to cry writing this). Maybe because now, I’m a Jew surrounded by my people with Hashem following my steps.
L. (Germany): “I think this course is extremely valuable for everybody who wants to live in Israel… to understand the dynamics of the country especially if you didn’t grow up in a religious environment.”
Terese (Belize): “What I have learned over the course of these 20 years [after converting, and having all my three children make aliyah]… is that becoming a Jew does not happen in a moment. You may feel that when you have completed the course, passed the test and received the giyur certificate it’s over... but the truth is that becoming a Jew takes a lifetime.”