The Windhoek Hebrew Congregation synagogue in Namibia, with community leader Zvi Gorelick in the background..
(photo credit: ORI GOLAN)
The establishment of the Jewish state has created a fundamental crisis in how we define who is Jewish.
With the ingathering of exiles and the flourishing of the State of Israel, we stand before a dilemma in how to deal with the conversion process. The Law of Return enables anyone with one Jewish grandparent to attain citizenship, the most significant statement proclaiming Israel as a home for all Jews. Consequently, many people who make aliya to Israel do not have a Jewish mother, and are therefore not recognized by the religious authorities as Jews. This inconsistency between who is a considered a Jew according to Jewish law, and who is eligible for the Law of Return is part of the fundamental conflict between religion and state in Israel. It is our responsibility to attempt to resolve this conflict for the betterment of our state, and for the betterment of the global Jewish community.
For many years, the issues of conversion have been swept under the rug, treated with indifference by many of the organizations and authorities with the power to affect change. Many feel that the process for conversion is debilitating and even humiliating, yet few have made any effort to change this reality. It is the responsibility of the global Jewish community to ensure that individuals who want to join our nation are welcomed without unnecessary hardships and roadblocks in the process.
In this vacuum of mutual responsibility, the Jewish Agency has begun to step up to the challenge. Their new initiative to send rabbis abroad in order to complete conversions is a welcome step in the direction of streamlining a difficult process controlled by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. I would like to emphasize that the change in policy of the Jewish Agency does not represent a change in the actual process of conversion by Jewish law. Rather, the Jewish Agency seeks to make resources available to those around the world wishing to convert and potentially make aliya that may not have them at their disposal.
Natan Sharansky’s own personal story represents the ideal of the ingathering of the exiles. Currently the chairman of the Jewish Agency, Sharansky suffered persecution and imprisonment in the Soviet Union before immigrating to Israel with his wife. He then proceeded to dedicate his life to helping others in similar conditions immigrate and integrate into Israeli society. Sharansky spoke on the matter in last Thursday’s Jerusalem Post, saying that the purpose of sending these rabbis abroad is to help community rabbis that may have trouble getting together a local conversion court. He notes that the rabbis they will be sending abroad are rabbis whose conversions are already approved by the Israeli rabbinate. In other words, the Jewish Agency is not attempting to change the very face or process of Orthodox conversion, but to simply extend their reach and allow converts in other countries to complete their conversions in a way that would be accepted by the rabbinate if they choose to move to Israel.
Currently, the ultra-Orthodox Israeli rabbinate holds a complete monopoly on various issues of Jewish law such as marriage, divorce and of course, conversion.
In the state of Israel, the only conversions allowed are those done through the Orthodox rabbinical courts. In Jewish communities outside of Israel, however, Conservative, Reform and other rabbis also perform conversions. The Interior Ministry approves conversions for aliya from non-Orthodox rabbis, but often refer Orthodox conversions to the rabbinate. The rabbinate then has complete jurisdiction over Orthodox conversions everywhere in the world, and they have the discretion to reject a rabbi’s conversion for any reason they choose. The Jewish Agency is attempting to relieve this pressure on Orthodox rabbis abroad by providing rabbis that are approved by the rabbinate and can help facilitate conversions where there many not be a large enough number of local rabbis.
The move of the Jewish Agency is an important step in ending the exclusive monopoly of the Israeli rabbinate over religious life. These restrictions often turn people away from conversion and religious life, contributing to a community in Israel of people that are essentially in religious limbo; Jewish by heritage and by personal identity, but not by official law. We should celebrate ways that can ease the transition for people and show them that Judaism is welcoming of their heritage and wants to assist in their desire to become full official members of our nation. This is an issue of Klal Yisrael, of creating a better Jewish community that is unified and understanding of each other’s needs and situations.
We do ourselves no favors when we uphold obstacles and impediments that frustrate and confuse those wishing to join our faith.
I have worked continuously over the past few years to find compromises and solutions within the bounds of Jewish law to these issues of conversion.
I brought together a caucus regarding the subject to discuss innovative ways that we can address this problem. I have spoken at length of the story of Alin Levy, a story that truly touched my heart. Alin is a Ukrainian-born Israeli actress whose mother is Christian and father is Jewish. While in the midst of her conversion process, Alin was told by the Chief Rabbinate that her conversion would be suspended unless she gave up her acting career. It is these types of arbitrary requirements that are impeding a fair and accepting conversion process, and it is for these individuals that I have made it my priority to bring about change in our society.
I will continue to search for solutions to open the doors for converts. Many of the individuals in this situation are those whose grandparents and great grandparents were Jewish. They are those whose families were persecuted and forced to convert at the hands of the Nazis and the Communists. They are people who were forced to hide their religion, to be ashamed of their heritage, and to assimilate into the society around them. They see the amazing state that we have created where all types of Jews, from all different backgrounds and from all around the world can have a home where they are free to be themselves. It is our duty and obligation to welcome these people that wish to come back to their heritage and fully join the nation of the Jewish people.
This is not simply a problem of a small number of converts frustrated by a long and bureaucratic process. It is a crisis in Jewish unity. It is a barrier between the Jews of Israel and the Jewish communities in the rest of the world. If we cannot find ways to work together, and to mutually recognize the importance of each other’s contributions to Judaism, we will be fundamentally incapable of building and sustaining a strong, global Jewish nation.
For these reasons, I applaud the Jewish Agency for being the first organization to have the courage to speak up and change the status quo. While many others have sat on the sidelines, afraid to fight the monopoly of the rabbinate, the Jewish Agency is showing initiative by taking the first steps toward change.
While still working within the bounds of Jewish law, the Agency is displaying great creativity and ingenuity in searching for a compromise with the existing rabbinical system. I sincerely hope that they are able to fulfill their goals and help us begin to build a state where all Jews can feel at home.
The author is a member of Knesset for Yesh Atid who holds a doctorate from Bar- Ilan University. She chairs the Knesset’s lobby for religion and state issues.