Stop preaching to us about the IDF conversions

A recent article arguing against the expansion of the program of converting to Judaism during military service is bizarre and inexplicable.

By
February 18, 2011 16:22
Barbara Sofer

Barbara Sofer 58. (photo credit: Courtesy)

A columnist who has made public his delight that his own children would not serve in the IDF and that he’s comfortable being protected by other people’s children (like mine) pontificates about the alleged deficiencies of military conversion from a wobbly platform.

So it is that my fellow columnist Jonathan Rosenblum argues against expanding the successful program of converting to Judaism while doing military service (“Why army conversions are lacking,” January 7). Rosenblum begins by reminding us that among the immigrants who arrived at the urging of the Jewish Agency “were many who felt no connection to the Jewish people, but harbored extremely negative feelings.”

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How many alleged anti-Semites have crossed into the Promised Land together with the sacred Russian return to Zion is indeed an unanswered question, but we can assume that most men and women who are willing to serve in the low-perk position of IDF soldier are not among them. Military service is, after all, low-pay, uncomfortable and dangerous. And the IDF requires you to spend a lot of time in close quarters with Jews. The army isn’t a kiddush club, it’s a kiddush hashem club.

Further, the call for expansion of the successful military program, claims Rosenblum, rests on a mindless call for a “more lenient” program, which would lead to a “trivialization of Halacha and a slap to any rabbi who views himself as its guardian.”

“Imagine the Knesset passing a law to recognize completion of a short IDF medic’s course as sufficient to practice medicine, while requiring the health ministers and all government bodies to recognize such graduates as full-fledged doctors,” he says.

What a telling analogy. Medics are trained for four months and serve for three years under supervision in the IDF. Indeed medics cannot do computerized hip replacements or liver transplants, but they take on one the most admired and highrisk jobs in the IDF. They save lives. The physician course is more comprehensive. After six years of medical school, a year of internship, and four to seven years of specialization, two to four years of fellowships, most physicians who begin their studies after military service at 22 (the majority are officers) finish close to 40. A dedicated Jewish scholar who put in the same number of hours, (around 80 a week) for the same number of years (16 to 18) might be able to head a yeshiva or sit on a rabbinical court.

THE CONVERSION course aims at producing entry-level Jews young enough to bring up Jewish families, not hoary-headed yeshiva principals and rabbinical court judges.

The linchpin of Rosenblum’s argument is that “if one were to conceive of an environment to inspire commitment to mitzva observance, the IDF would be the last place.”

What, we have to wonder, would be his ideal venue to be exposed to traditional Jewish values? Would he host potential converts of army age at Shabbat tables where youngsters are brought up to disdain national service and internalize a feeling of superiority? They would sit side by side with healthy young men and women who won’t risk exposure to the outside world, let alone life and limb. Would not-yet-Jewish soldiers serving in Intelligence Unit 8200 identify with families who don’t care about their children learning mathematics, science and English so that they can contribute to increasing the ability of the Jewish state to reach economic strength and independence? Rosenblum argues that “even many soldiers from national religious homes, who have attended religious schools all their lives, leave observance in the army.”

While it’s certainly true that exposure to a world outside of our sheltered environments – universities, armies, working – have always presented challenges to maintaining religious practices, it is also true that there are many more religious role models in IDF leadership today. Doubling the number of religious soldiers, your children for example, would further increase exposure to religiously educated and committed Jews.

THE NOT-YET-JEWISH men and women in the IDF have already chosen to cast their lot with the Jewish people and are willing to risk nothing less than death to defend the Jewish state and its people.

I hail them. I thank them. Not one of us could live our lives for an hour in the State of Israel without their willingness to make this sacrifice. We owe them the opportunity to convert to Judaism in a manner that is engaging and inspiring.

Already committed to the Jewish people, they need to discover why it’s beneficial to spend the rest of their lives enjoying Jewish practice. Conversion is ultimately personal. What better time could there be for them to encounter the wisdom of the texts and inspiration of the traditions of Judaism? This isn’t a gut course in Jewish basket-weaving; the vaunted halachic expert Rabbi Ovadia Yosef has approved the conversion program offered during IDF service. Let us remember that the vast majority of Jews today are not religious not because they hate spirituality, but because they’re unfamiliar with Judaism’s beauty or are turned off by a negative example they have encountered in religious Jews they have known.

Rosenblum’s most galling statement is that “employing minimal standards for entry into the Jewish people conveys the message that being Jewish is something trivial, and makes our ancestors’ willingness to give their lives for their religion something bizarre and inexplicable. That is not a message we wish to send when trying to explain to our young why there is any reason to remain here in the face of threats all around.”

Bizarre and inexplicable, I’d say. Please do not call up my ancestors’ willingness to risk their lives for Judaism when ironically the very sector of the population to which you belong is totally unwilling to risk their lives, and yet you demand a monopoly on Jewish identity. And if you are having trouble explaining to your young why they should stay here and not retreat to Williamsburg, despite the Iranian threat and a revolution in Egypt, they might benefit from the selflessness ingrained in the men and women of the IDF, Jewish and not-yet-Jewish.

The writer lives in Jerusalem and focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America.

The views in her columns are her own.


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