(photo credit: AP [Illustrative photo])
Conversions of non-Jewish soldiers in the IDF have remained stagnant in recent years due in part to overly-stringent halachic standards on the part of some rabbinic judges, a high-ranking official said Sunday.
According to data obtained by The Jerusalem Post, the number of conversions performed under the auspices of the IDF's Nativ conversion program peaked in 2005 at 640. In 2006, the number fell to just 450 due to the Second Lebanon War; however, about 600 soldiers are expected to convert in 2007. Three-quarters of the converts are women. A total of 2,213 soldiers have converted since Nativ was established in 2002.
Every year, approximately 2,000 18-year-old Former Soviet Union immigrants who are not considered Jewish according to Orthodox standards enlist in the IDF.
According to Nehemia Sitron, director-general of the Joint Institute of Jewish Studies - the body responsible for the pedagogical aspect of Nativ - about 1,500 take part in the program. About 85 percent of the participants are non-Jews. At the end of the process, during which soldiers are exposed to Jewish and Zionist studies, about 650 convert.
Supporters of Nativ - which has an annual budget of $1.5 million from the Jewish Agency and NIS 11m. from the Immigration and Absorption Ministry, as well as extensive financial support from the IDF - had hoped to see a gradual rise in the number of converts from year to year. But that has not happened.
"Judges who were brought in from the civilian conversion courts to augment IDF chaplaincy judges have haredi sensibilities," the source, who is familiar with Nativ, told The Jerusalem Post, preferring to remain anonymous out of concern that the comments could hurt working relations. "Instead of focusing on the soldier's level of commitment to Judaism at the time he or she appears before the conversion panel, these judges are trying to second-guess potential converts to determine how long they will remain committed in the future."
However, a senior source in the Conversion Authority, which is responsible for civilian conversions, said in response that there were limits to the leniencies a responsible rabbinic judge could allow.
"The bottom line is that if you do not sincerely accept the yoke of Orthodox commandments, you are not considered a Jew," said the source. "And not many gentiles are willing to do that."
The IDF Spokesperson, meanwhile, said in response that "for the last three years, there have been no changes in the three-man rabbinic judge panels. These panels include two rabbinic judges from the IDF chaplaincy and one judge from civilian rabbinic courts. During these three years, we have received no complaints about excessive stringencies applied by the civilian judges."
The statement called the nearly 2,300 Nativ converts "a significant number on a national level" and added that "the IDF is receptive to prospective converts. The IDF does everything in its power to perform halachicly kosher conversions, within a supportive military framework."
In a related development, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert hosted Nativ's 2,000th convert in his succa on Sunday. Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit, IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, Jewish Agency Chairman Ze'ev Bielski and Joint Institute for Jewish Studies Chairman Prof. Binyamin Ish-Shalom were also on the guest list.
Rabbinic judges preside over the final stage of conversion to Judaism, during which a prospective convert declares his or her fidelity to the Jewish faith. The judge's role is to determine the sincerity of the convert and the level of commitment at the time of conversion.
There are a total of four three-man panels of judges in the Nativ program.
During the first years of the program, first established with the support of IDF OC Human Resources Maj.-Gen. Elazar Stern and former IDF chief rabbi Yisrael Weiss, the judges were taken from the army chaplaincy.
These judges were willing to apply more lenient halachic standards in an attempt to maximize the number of conversions.
In addition, the IDF environment is particularly conducive to the conversion process. Prospective candidates do not have to prove they eat kosher food or live near a synagogue, since both are provided by the IDF.
It is also easier to convert unmarried young people, as there are no issues of providing Jewish education for children or convincing the spouse to adhere to Jewish laws.
Finally, enlisted soldiers have the time to devote to the intensive two to three months of Jewish studies that precede the conversion, since soldiers are given leave from military duty to study in the Nativ program.
There are about 300,000 immigrants from the FSU who are not Jewish according to Orthodox standards. Most of these immigrants came to Israel under the Law of Return, which offers automatic citizenship to relatives and spouses of Jews who would have been persecuted under Nazi racial laws, but who are not technically Jewish because they do not have Jewish mothers.
These non-Jewish immigrants are considered a danger to Jewish unity for a large segment of secular Israeli society that accepts the Orthodox definition of who is or is not a Jew.
Mass conversion of non-Jewish FSU immigrants is seen by many Israelis as a solution to the problems of intermarriage and the difficulties involved in determining who is a Jew.
Some IDF judges identified with this goal and were willing to be lenient in their rulings without abandoning Jewish law.
However, said the first source, as Nativ grew, there was a need for more rabbinic judges. The program availed itself of judges from the Conversion Authority. However, these judges brought with them the stringencies of haredi rabbinic figures, who refused to compromise their halachic standards.
Haredi rabbis vehemently oppose adopting any leniencies to facilitate conversions. However, many religious Zionist rabbis believe it is possible within the bounds of Orthodoxy to find more lenient opinions that would enable courts to convert thousands of FSU immigrants who identify with secular Israeli culture, are patriotic and are willing to serve in the IDF.