When the Soviet regime opened the gates to Jewish emigration in the late 1980s, close to one million Russians came to Israel. According to Yair Sheleg of the Israel Democracy Institute, more than 25% of the those who arrived during the 1990s were not considered Jewish according to Jewish law, but were eligible for citizenship under the Law of Return, due to patrilineal Jewish descent or marriage to a Jew.
Between 1989 and 2006, more than 250,00 Russian Jews who were not Jewish according to Halacha were living in Israel as citizens. Conversion had become a serious issue affecting a large segment of the population. What would be the response of the Chief Rabbinate? In 1971, well before the Russian aliya began, Rabbi Isser Yehuda Unterman (1886-1976), the Ashkenazi chief rabbi at the time, who had been known for his strict rulings on conversion during his tenure as rabbi of Liverpool, England, wrote that the rabbinic establishment would need to be more lenient with the anticipated Russian aliya, due to the circumstances of their lives in the Soviet Union.
Rabbi Seth Farber, director of ITIM, explains that “since 1967, there had been a revival of interest among Soviet Jews and those of Jewish ancestry in their Jewish heritage and regarding Zionism. While, at the time, almost everyone who began learning Hebrew or clandestinely learning about Judaism was of matrilineal Jewish descent, those with a long vision of the future of the Jewish community understood that hundreds of thousands of those with Jewish ancestry were children of intermarriages.”
At the time, Rabbi Moshe Tzuriel, a noted scholar and teacher in the Sha’alvim Hesder Yeshiva, suggested that conversions be conducted for all new immigrants from Russia shortly after their arrival, even without any commitment to be observant. Waiting, he wrote, would cause many to delay converting and eventually many would just skip the process.
Later, Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun, one of the leading modern Zionist rabbis, called for mass conversions of the immigrants.
Neither approach was accepted by the rabbinic establishment.
In 1995, the Conversion Administration was established to facilitate conversion among the Russian immigrants. Rabbi Yisrael Rosen was appointed as its director and rabbinic courts for conversion were set up around the country. In 2004, the administration was transferred to the Prime Minister’s Office, and Rabbi Haim Druckman was appointed director, serving until 2012.
The Neeman Commission, established in 1998 and headed by Prof. Yaakov Neeman, recommended the creation of a Joint Institute for the Study of Judaism, which would consist of five Orthodox, one Reform and one Conservative representative. The institute would prepare potential converts, while the conversion would be done by the Chief Rabbinate.
While this initiative was never accepted, the institute was eventually established and created the Nativ program, which educates and prepares soldiers for conversion during their service.
These conversions are administered by special IDF rabbinic courts.
While both the special courts for conversion and the Nativ program streamlined and eased the process, most non-Jewish Russian immigrants chose not to convert within the system. It is estimated that there are approximately 400,000 Israelis of Russian descent who live their lives as full Israeli citizens, serve in the army, pay taxes, but have never converted to Judaism.
Dr. Susan Weiss, founder and director of the Center for Women’s Justice and an expert on numerous issues regarding the Chief Rabbinate, including conversion, says: “Twenty- eight years later most of the Israelis who came from Russia have undergone what Prof. Asher Cohen of Bar-Ilan University calls a ‘sociological conversion.’ They work with us. They play with us. They die with us.
“They are one of us, with or without the blessing of the State Conversion Authority, and many will marry our children or simply set up house with or without the imprimatur of the state or any religious authority.”
Dr. Netanel Fisher, a lecturer at Sha’arei Mishpat College and a researcher at the Open University and the Kohelet Policy Forum who specializes in religion and politics, is not sanguine.
“The demands of the current establishment for conversion are not going to lead to thousands of conversions each year.
It is too hard. There is no way that people will meet these demands… These basic demands are not suitable for mass conversion.
“From one perspective,” he adds, “conversion is a huge success.
We are talking about almost 100,000 conversions in the last two decades. People like Rabbi Rosen who say that there were no other periods in Jewish history when there were so many conversions are probably right.”
Nativ director Yonatan Meir is far more optimistic about the prospects for conversion. While Nativ is perhaps best-known for its work in converting soldiers during their army service, it is in fact the official state agency for conversion of all Israeli citizens, including civilians.
Meir became head of the agency less than two years ago. He is the son of French immigrants, studied at the Hesder Yeshiva in Ma’aleh Gilboa, and served in the IDF’s renowned 8200 Intelligence Unit. A graduate of the Hebrew University, he holds a bachelor’s degree in law and a master’s degree in business administration.
According to Meir, in the past Nativ usually attracted about 2,000 people annually for its conversion courses. As with all courses of study, not all would complete the course. Under Meir’s leadership and applying sophisticated data analysis, Nativ has managed to sign up five times as many people for conversion courses, the highest rate in the past 17 years.
In January of 2017 alone, he says, the sign-up rate for courses on conversion was six times greater than in January of 2016. Says Meir, “The experience that I received serving in the IDF intelligence unit was very relevant to the approach that we took this year in attracting people to our courses, in terms of information analysis and the integration of advanced technological systems. We used technology to gain insights into the reasons that drive people to convert.”
Says Meir, “Frequently people speak about the ‘Russians’ as a single group. They are a huge group, made up of all kinds of groups and sub-groups.”
He adds that Nativ also provides real-time, online “accompaniment” of all users employing customized software. Once a person signs up and joins the classes, he or she is followed through the entire process. If a difficulty comes up, says Meir, everything is in real-time and can be tracked and solved.
Meir says that his big data and hi-tech approach has for the first time made it possible to reach and attract a very large number of potential converts. “For the first time in history,” he says, “we see that it is possible to offer many the opportunity to join the state conversion process.
“We are flooded with thousands of people who want to convert via Nativ. Unless we receive more funding to handle the larger number of students, the entire process will collapse. I think it would be a mistake to miss this historic opportunity.”
While there are those who support conversions within the state system, there are others who have despaired of the system and seek to provide alternative solutions.Rabbi Chuck Davidson of Beit Shemesh is among the founding members of the rabbinic organization Ahavat Hager (Love of the Convert), whose member rabbis administer conversions around the world. Today, Davidson says, “we can solve a lot of problems [of Israelis of Russian descent who have not converted] by converting people who want to get married in a halachic ceremony.
The desire to marry halachicly in and of itself signals a sincere interest in being Jewish.”
Dima, 26, was born in Ukraine and moved to Israel in 1994 with his parents when he was three years old.
His father is Jewish, but his mother is not. Dima’s family lived a mostly secular life in Israel, but eventually his father became interested in Jewish mysticism and began to study Kabbala. Dima’s family began to live a more traditional Jewish life, observing Shabbat and holidays.
“I always considered myself Jewish,” he says. In the army, Dima learned about the Nativ program and began the conversion process. He passed the first examination by the rabbinic court, but went no further and did not return for the final examination.
“They were very strict in their requirements,” he says.
“They wanted me to be haredi.” Dima says that many of his friends who attended conversion classes lied to the judges and told them that they would remain fully observant, even though they never were planning to do so.
“I didn’t want all of this falsehood,” he says. Dima and his Jewish girlfriend were planning to get married and he was looking for someone to perform the ceremony.
The event organizer recommended that he contact Rabbi Davidson, who conducts weddings and conversions outside the framework of the rabbinate.
Davidson informed him that he would conduct the marriage if Dima still wished to convert. He did not have to relearn everything from the beginning, since he had studied in the Nativ program for some time, but he and Davidson reviewed what he had learned. Dima understood that the moment that he would convert, he would take upon himself the responsibilities of being a Jew.
He underwent the hatafat dam brit, the symbolic extraction of a drop of blood that is the ritual for one who had been circumcised previously, and he went to the mikve (ritual bath) in the presence of Davidson and two additional Orthodox rabbis, and emerged as a proud Jew.
Fisher, referring to Orthodox conversions that are performed outside the Chief Rabbinate, says, “It’s a miracle that people go there – they don’t gain anything. They don’t get citizenship; the only thing is that they want to convert. I am amazed that there are people who want this.”