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The influx of one million Russian-speaking immigrants in the 1990s was a blessing for Israel, albeit a mixed one. The mass immigration provided hundreds of thousands of Jews with a chance to reconnect to their heritage after 80 years of Soviet dictatorship.
Shuvu, a nationwide school system, whose enriched Jewish curriculum combined with superior secular studies has benefited well over 10,000 immigrant youths, and which is funded by the overseas haredi community to the tune of more than $10 million annually, is the most intensive effort at reconnecting young immigrants to Jewish tradition.
At the same time, the wave of immigration brought the country as many as 500,000 non-Jews, under the Law of Return and the Citizenship Law. When prime minister Ehud Barak went to greet the millionth new immigrant, few Jews could be found on the plane. Of 1,004 new immigrants from Chaburusk in 1999, only 38 were Jewish. Former Diaspora affairs minister Michael Melchior lamented that on visits to Israeli embassies in the FSU, all he found were "people... with no connection to Israel or the Jewish people." One family of eight had only a grandfather who was one-quarter Jewish, and 20 years dead to boot.
Government policy deliberately maximized the number of non-Jewish immigrants. US government funding of immigrant resettlement constituted one-fifth of the Jewish Agency's budget in the '90s and was pegged to the number of immigrants. Former absorption minister Yuli Edelstein described the Jewish Agency's policy as one "of turning over every stone in Vilna in search of a drop of Jewish blood."
Dov Kontorer of Vesti described Jewish Agency emissaries as having "fully internalized the ideology of creating a new Israeli nation, for which Slavs are preferable to haredim and Moroccans." Yuli Tamir, when she was absorption minister, praised the Jewish Agency policy of maximizing immigration for "maintaining the secular character of the state."
But even those eager to reshape Israeli society around the new immigrants eventually recognized an experiment gone awry. They had not foreseen neo-Nazi literature being sold in Russian-language bookstores, or Jewish immigrants complaining of arriving here and being confronted by the same anti-Semites who hounded them in the FSU.
HAVING CREATED a Frankenstein's monster, the state cast the rabbinate in the role of pooper-scoopers to clean up the mess. Unfortunately, there is no rabbinic fairy dust to make hundreds of thousands of non-Jews into Jews, nor are rabbis empowered to twist Halacha out of shape to create it. (We can ignore with impunity editorials penned by those who have never opened a volume of Talmud, yet do not blanch at instructing the greatest living talmudists how to read Maimonides.)
Every contemporary halachic authority of standing, including Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook and Rabbi Yosef Ber Soloveitchik, has viewed acceptance of the yoke of mitzvot as an indispensable requirement of conversion. A would-be convert need not know every Halacha, but he or she must be fully committed to the system of mitzvot.
That commitment involves more than merely mouthing a verbal formula. Where the would-be convert, for instance, is living with a non-religious or non-Jewish partner - even if that partner is "only a boyfriend or girlfriend" (in the quaint formulation of a recent "news" story) - the dayanim would have to be remarkably na ve to trust in a verbal commitment to keep mitzvot.
That hundreds of thousands of new immigrants would make the requisite commitment to mitzva observance was never in the cards. Life changes of that magnitude cannot be subjected to numerical targets or mass-produced. All the outreach organizations in Israel, employing hundreds, bring at most 2,000 native-born Jews, many from traditional backgrounds, to such a level of commitment per year.
How could anyone hope to achieve greater results with non-Jewish Russian immigrants raised in a totally atheistic society and totally ignorant of Judaism? Even more absurd was the expectation that this miracle would be effected by a Joint Conversion Institute, whose Reform and Conservative lecturers explicitly deny the binding nature of mitzvot.
Israeli society has made its own contribution to the small numbers of Russian immigrant converts. The immigrants have had little problem integrating without being converting. They have correctly noted that most Israelis are not mitzva observant, and little inclined to demand a greater commitment from the new immigrants than they themselves possess. (Those who would make their level of observance the standard for entrance into the Jewish people forget that they are descendants of generations of ancestors whose commitment to Halacha was complete.)
Far from the requirements for conversion being too strict, there are currently too many fictitious conversions. Rabbi Yisrael Rosen of the Conversion Authority - in which the dayanim are drawn from the national religious world - admits that a substantial number of converts do not observe even basic mitzvot shortly after conversion. Some experts put the figure above 90 percent.
Such non-observance of basic Halacha immediately after conversion undermines any claim of a sincere commitment to mitzva observance. How prescient has proven the warning of the first chief rabbi, Yitzhak Isaac Herzog, that far greater scrutiny of candidate's sincerity is required today, when converts no longer enter an overwhelmingly observant Jewish community and may have external incentives for converting.
Binyamin Ish-Shalom, head of the Joint Institute for Conversion, maintains that tens of thousands of non-Jews avoid conversion because they only want to be Jewish, not Orthodox. Conversion, however, is a religious commitment - a choice "to dwell under the wings of the Divine Presence." Israel can lay down any criteria it wants for citizenship - e.g. service in the IDF. But it has no right to conflate citizenship with being a Jew.