The holiday of Shavuot is intimately associated with the biblical story of Ruth the Moabite, a woman who married into the Jewish people and whose great-grandson, the Book of Ruth says, became King David, the symbol of Jewish national unity and sovereignty.
Ruth is seen as the very paradigm of the righteous convert and her story is read on Shavuot to parallel the biblical account of the acceptance of the Torah by the Jewish people at Mount Sinai.
At a time when the issue of conversion in modern day Israel has become riven by political and religious battles that go to the heart of how competing groups view the Jewish character and identity of the state, The Jerusalem Post discussed the issue with Rabbi Haim Druckman. The former head of the Israel Conversion Authority is an Israel Prize laureate, board member of the Association of Hesder Yeshivas, and one of the most respected and influential figures in the national- religious community.
In recent years, conversion in Israel has become especially contentious regarding non-Jewish Israeli citizens from the former Soviet Union (FSU) who number some 330,000 people today.
Druckman is an ardent advocate of the importance of what he says is the mission to fully reincorporate those who returned from the travails of Communist rule into the Jewish people. He described this goal as the State of Israel’s moral duty.
“These people have come home, they want to be part of the Jewish people once again, but because of the reality they lived in over there in which the regime tried to uproot every aspect of Judaism, they married non-Jews,” said the rabbi. “But now their children and grandchildren are here, and it is a mitzva to help them come back fully to the Jewish people.”
But despite this position, Druckman was only ever lukewarm in his support for proposals introduced during the last Knesset to allow municipal chief rabbis to establish their own conversion courts outside of the four existing national courts.
These measures were ultimately designed to reduce the possibility of future interfaith marriages between Jewish Israelis and non-Jewish citizens from the FSU, Druckman’s main goal, by allowing more liberally inclined rabbis to adopt a more lenient approach to conversion than is employed by the four national rabbinical courts for conversion.
The proposals were passed into law by government order, but an election was called before it could be implemented.
It appears dead and buried due to the Likud coalition agreement with United Torah Judaism that includes a clause to essentially eviscerate the law.
Druckman rejected criticism that the steering committee on which he sat had taken too long to approve the operational guidelines for the new court. He said that it had been Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who had failed to approve the regulations in his adopted capacity as justice minister after he had fired former minister Tzipi Livni and dissolved the Knesset.
“The Justice portfolio was held at the time by the prime minister, and he never approved the guidelines, so implementation was not possible.”
Although Druckman helped formulate the government order, he nevertheless did not express any regret during the interview that the law would not be implemented. He said that ways to advance the issue could be found without the reforms stipulated in the government order.
“We need to persuade more people to want to convert. For this we need a welcoming and embracing approach, and we also need an awareness campaign within this sector about the possibility of conversion,” said Druckman. “There are cities with high concentrations of immigrants from the former Soviet Union and there such campaigns can be effective.”
He advocates the conversion of halachic minors, girls under the age of 12 and boys under the age of 13, among this population, something that is far easier than with adults. One of the main goals of the soon-tobe- buried conversion law was to facilitate the conversion of minors, but Druckman argued that it such a policy could still be feasible under the existing system.
In addition, the rabbi said it is vital to increase the budget allocated for conversion schools and classes.
“We need to build more conversion schools, absolutely everywhere around the country in every place possible. This is a national not a sectoral issue, and it is of primary importance.”
In referencing “sectoral” interests, the rabbi acknowledged that the issue of conversion is of far greater concern in the national-religious sector than it is in other parts of the population, including the ultra-Orthodox community.
“I don’t think that the haredi community is sufficiently aware of the danger of interfaith marriages and assimilation that might result if nothing is done.
But moreover, those who came from the Soviet Union need help and assistance converting, because they are our brothers despite everything that happened to them.”
One solution is for Druckman entirely off the table. Given the slow rate of conversion among the non-Jewish community from the FSU, just 1,800 a year since 2000, the idea has been raised in some quarters of opening independent Orthodox, non-state conversion courts to deal with the issue.
Druckman vociferously rejects such an option, however, citing his ideological devotion to the idea of a single, legitimate body over religious issues.
“I am against the breaking of unity regarding religious issues in the State of Israel. This would be the destruction of religious life in Israel. If there is no Chief Rabbinate that is responsible for all religious issues in the State of Israel everything would fall apart,” he said. “Even if there are things that I would wish to be otherwise, there is national and Torah responsibility. We can’t throw out the baby with the bath water.”
Separately from the conversion issues, Druckman spoke about another concern close to his heart relating to one of Israel’s immigrant communities, that of the integration of Ethiopian Israelis more fully into society.
Relating to the recent anti-discrimination demonstrations by the Ethiopian community that captured the headlines in recent weeks, the rabbi held up a program in his Ohr Etzion Yeshiva as an example of how to increase integration of the various components of Israeli society.
“We need to do everything to absorb this aliya, so that the Ethiopian community will be an indivisible part of Israeli society. I can’t say that nothing has been done, but it appears that not enough was done,” said Druckman.
Ohr Etzion has a program for Ethiopian students, now in its 20th year, which allows participants to complete their high school diploma or improve their scores, and then join the five-year Hesder course that combines army service with yeshiva study.
The program takes in some 30 students every year, providing them with health care aid and general financial assistance as well as helping with the costs of those who marry while in the course.
The rabbi was nevertheless careful to express caution in ascribing blame to the state for the apparent grievances of the Ethiopian community, saying that like many immigrant groups integration can be a longer process than desired.
“We are living in this special generation of the ingathering of the exiles. People come with different mentalities and experiences, not just the Ethiopian community, but other communities as well, and achieving a cohesive society takes time.”
Returning to the themes of the upcoming Shavuot holiday, the rabbi said that the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people as described by the Bible was an “expression of the mission of the Jewish people in the world,” a mission that he said is ongoing.
“It is our task and duty to reveal the truth, the justice, the uprightness and the godliness in the world, and to fulfill that which the Prophet Isaiah declared that many nations will go up to the mountain of God and that ‘the Torah will go out from Zion and the word of God from Jerusalem,’” he said. “The Jewish people needs to lead to a situation that all humanity will have only true good, true happiness and true peace.”
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