Jessica doesn’t live here any more. Seven years ago, at the age of 23, she made aliya from America with every intention of staying. She knew exactly what she was doing – or so she thought. She’d grown up in a family very involved in a Conservative synagogue, attended a Jewish day school, came here with her parents at 14, returned for the summer two years later, again for a semester at Hebrew University and later for a year-long volunteer program. Only then was she ready to make the move she had nine years earlier told her parents she was going to make.
So Jessica packed her bags and moved to the Promised Land – without an inkling that the promise would eventually be broken. It would take a few more years to discover that. First, she would volunteer to serve two years in the army, earning the distinction of “Exemplary Soldier.”
Then, without any warning, she committed an offense this country couldn’t accept. She fell in love.
Actually, it wasn’t falling in love for which she would be declared a persona non grata in the Jewish state. It was deciding to get married. The Chief Rabbinate wouldn’t hear of it. Turns out Jessica isn’t Jewish – here. Before she was born, her mother had converted to Judaism in a process overseen by a Reform rabbi that included immersion in a mikve. Still, Jessica was informed she wasn’t Jewish because the Jewish spirit wasn’t in her mother’s womb when she was conceived.
Following months of humiliation and anguish, which brought her no closer to being accepted for who she was, Jessica – heartbroken and angry – made the wrenchingly painful decision to return to the States, the one place she knew she could do what was more important to her than anything else: live a fully Jewish life.
SO JESSICA doesn’t live here any more, but Dmitry does. “I was born in Moscow,” he says, “and moved here in 1990 with my non-Jewish wife. Our two children were born in Israel. My oldest was actually conceived the night we arrived,” he grins, blushing slightly.
Then the smile disappears and tears cloud his eyes. “We named him Yisrael. This country meant everything to us. But when he was killed during his army service, they wouldn’t bury him in a Jewish cemetery. He died protecting this country and he’s been buried as an outcast.”
His words are hushed, infused with grief and bitterness. “It’s ironic. Yisrael had even begun a conversion program, but there were so many demands... Never mind, what’s done is done.”
But it’s not done for everyone. “I’m still desperately trying to convert,” says Danielle, who moved here two years ago from Paris. My dad is Jewish and my mom isn’t but she’s always identified, ever since volunteering on kibbutz 25 years ago. She never bothered converting because she doesn’t believe in God but I was brought up Jewish, celebrating the holidays and active in a Zionist youth movement.
“When I decided to move here, I knew I wouldn’t be considered Jewish but I was okay with that. I wanted to learn more and I wanted to convert. For me it was important, making a conscious decision I was proud of. I thought everyone here would be proud of me too. But the state-sanctioned religious authorities wouldn’t even let me into a course. They wanted me to promise I’d keep all the commandments. I told them I didn’t know enough yet. They told me to come back when I knew what I wanted. I know what I want! So I tried again, this time bringing my Israeli fiancé along, thinking it might help, showing them I’m serious about raising a Jewish family. I didn’t know that falling in love with an Israeli who loves his Judaism but isn’t observant was only going to make things worse. The rabbi started suggesting I only wanted to convert so I could marry Ilan. He told me if I’m serious, I should go back to France and convert there. But I want to stay here and I want a halachic conversion. I could do it with the Masorti Movement – they’re really welcoming – but I still wouldn’t be able to marry Ilan, unless we married abroad. Then I’d just be passing my problems on to our kids.”
Ilan takes Danielle’s hand. “When this rabbi started suggesting maybe we didn’t even love each other, that’s when I got up and left,” he says. “Maybe I blew it, but I couldn’t handle it any more. This is my Jewish country every bit as much as it’s theirs. Maybe even more. I’ve fought in two wars already and do my reserve duty. Honestly, I try not to resent that they don’t do the army. Who am I to say if studying in yeshiva doesn’t contribute to our security? But there’s a limit. If I’m prepared to let them live their lives, they have to be prepared to let me live mine – and marry the woman I love.”
JACKIE AGREES. A counselor and an Orthodox woman genuinely sensitive and open to those who are not, she believes the rabbinical establishment has to be far more flexible. “There are rules,” she says, “and I’m not prepared to break them, but I believe there are creative ways to bend them. It’s shameful the way so many people are mistreated, and as part of the ‘observant community’ the shame is mine as well. Even more so on Shavuot when we read the Book of Ruth. We can’t go back to those times, but the beauty of her words, their innocence, their simplicity, must serve as an inspiration for all of us today. ‘Wherever you go, I shall go... Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there will I be buried.’
“Land, people, Torah. It’s all there. I wish I could say that what was good enough for the great-grandmother of King David is good enough for me. I can’t. But I never approach conversion without reminding myself that sincerity and intent cannot be measured only by the performance of mitzvot. It’s the neshama – the spiritual essence – that’s converting, and I’ve yet to meet anyone I’d be willing to entrust with final judgment of the soul.”
“I love what Jackie just said,” Gilad responds. “I just wish she could go a step further. Ruth is the quintessential convert. No genes. No blood. No mikve. If Jewishness was about biology, our tradition wouldn’t have sanctioned conversion altogether. But it has. And especially now that we’re back home, we can afford to be more inclusive than at any time in our history. Whether or not Israel remains Jewish will ultimately have nothing to do with how many Russian émigrés or how many children of ‘non-kosher’ converts we allow to become members of the tribe. In short, it has nothing to do with Jessica, Dmitry, Yisrael, Danielle, Ilan, Jackie or me. It has everything to do with the education we give their children, with whether we can convey Judaism as multifaceted, positive, spiritual and engaging.”
Jessica doesn’t live here anymore, I remind Gilad. It’s too late to talk
about her children. And Yisrael will never have any. But
metaphorically, of course, he is right. Jessica doesn’t live here any
more, but she has left her problems behind. And they are ours. In the
immortal words of Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
That would seem to make defeating him while simultaneously emerging
victorious a conundrum of Houdinistic proportions. Yet I have no doubt
that the uncharted path to such triumph begins with dialogue, and not
with the legislation on conversion currently before the Knesset.
Jessica is real. Her story appeared in Yediot
on April 30, in a piece by Smadar Shir. The other
characters in this commentary are not. But the dilemmas they evoke are,
and so are the hundreds of thousands here, and the millions more around
the world who are becoming increasingly disenfranchised from the Jewish
state as it leans increasingly toward a definition of “Jewish” that
would exclude them. We have enough problems today with those who would
delegitimize Israel altogether. We cannot afford to delegitimize those
who would passionately support us. Better that we begin conversing with
The writer is a member of the World
Zionist Organization and Jewish Agency Executives.
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