The Triguboff Institute's Chairman Efraim Halevy and Director Shalom Norman.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Unless the State of Israel changes its policy on converting immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Ukraine to Judaism, the country could lose its Jewish majority in the coming decades, leaders of the Triguboff Institute have warned.
“One has to revert in one way or another – and I’m not going to say what exactly the form should be – to the approach that conversion is a national necessity for Israel without which Israel will not have a Jewish majority in this country in the foreseeable future,” said Efraim Halevy, the chairman of the institute and a former Mossad director, in an exclusive interview with The Jerusalem Post last week.
“We are talking about hundreds of thousands of people,” added the institute’s director, Shalom Norman.
“Within 20 years, if nothing is done, we will have over one million citizens in Israel who are not registered as Jews, who are not allowed to marry in Israel properly or get buried in Israel properly. I think this is a time bomb if we don’t do anything about it.”
The Triguboff Institute, established by Australian Jewish billionaire Harry Triguboff in Jerusalem in 2011, recently launched conversion classes for dozens of prospective immigrants in Russia and Ukraine. The project, called Maslul [Hebrew for path], aims to expedite the conversion of people in the process of making aliya who are not recognized by the rabbinate as Jewish under Halacha.
“A record number of over 15,000 olim [immigrants] a year have been arriving from Russia and Ukraine alone,” said Norman. “People don’t realize that 85 percent of these new olim below the age of 40 are not halachically Jews.”
The Maslul project is done in cooperation with the Jewish Agency for Israel and with the Nativ National Center for Identity and Conversion as well the Triguboff’s local partners, the Midrasha Zionit in Kiev and the Choral Synagogue headed by Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, president of the Conference of European Rabbis, in Moscow. The Chabad movement and its emissaries are, for the most part, supportive of the initiative.
The Triguboff Institute’s goal, says Norman, is to carry out most of the conversion process before the immigrants- to-be come to Israel.
Adopting the curriculum of the IDF’s Nativ program for conversion during national service, the olim are given the opportunity before their aliya to complete most of the 350 hours of study required by the Beit Din religious court in Israel.
“We are, for example, opening a new course in Dnipropetrovsk, the area which absorbs many of the Jewish refugees coming from the troubled area of the civil war in Ukraine,” he said.
“The whole idea is to use this framework of time in between the decision to make aliya and their aliya de facto to begin the conversion track while they have high adrenalin and before they encounter the issues of making a living or housing in Israel.”
Halevy conceded that the number of people who had taken been converted in the IDF via Nativ or taken conversion classes abroad before their aliya was so far minuscule, and the process needed to be widely expanded to make a difference.
“We have to admit that despite the fact that the conversion channels have been recognized, the numbers of people taking part in the conversion process launched in recent weeks are so far not significant enough to claim that we have actually dented the rabbinate’s policy today of discouraging conversion,” he said. “What we have to try to bring about is that the volume of these channels which is patently insufficient should swell in such a way that the people who are ultimately responsible for policy will feel it incumbent upon them to change their approach to conversion.”
Asked what his direct message to the powers-that-be was, Halevy said: “The message is that there is an effort here to try and bring about a friendly and inclusive policy of the conversion which was characteristic of the rabbinate in the days that followed the Holocaust in 1945, when the rabbinate realized that what was called for was not just a person-by-person approach, but a wide policy approach, which would otherwise have wrought havoc in the Jewish world and havoc for the survivors of the Holocaust.
“This process should be adopted concerning large communities, like the Jews of the former Soviet Union who were divorced from contact with the Jewish world for over 70 years in order, to bring them back into the fold.”
Asked if the process was becoming any easier, Norman said: “We are concerned about the nature of Israeli society in the 50 years to come. It’s not become easier to convert Jews from the former Soviet Union from a halachic point of view, but it’s become easier vis-à-vis legislation that has opened up new opportunities to create a free market in this respect.
“Very much like Tzohar ‘opened the market’ with the registration for marriages, the latest ruling of the Supreme Court has opened new horizons allowing people to be able to choose who they are being converted by.
In this respect, the power of the extremists in the halachic arena is getting weaker, and that is a good sign for the future.”
Both Halevy and Norman will be participating in the fifth annual Jerusalem Post Conference in New York on May 22.