Conversion

It makes little sense for the secular Jewish Israeli majority to expect non-Jewish immigrants to convert to Judaism.

By
November 4, 2013 21:55
3 minute read.
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men.

Haredim lots of haredim 521. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

 
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The Ministerial Committee for Legislation approved a bill Sunday that, if ratified by the Knesset, is supposed to make it easier to convert to Judaism for over 300,000 non-Jewish immigrants from the Former Soviet Union.

The legislation, sponsored by MK Elazar Stern (Hatnua), would allow any chief rabbi of a city or of a regional council to establish a conversion court. Stern and others, who see conversion as a solution to the threat of intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews in Israel, hope that by creating more conversion courts and widening the group of rabbis who perform conversions, more non-Jewish immigrants from the FSU will opt to convert and fewer Jewish Israelis will end up marrying non-Jews.

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While Stern’s bill has the best of intentions, it is highly unlikely that the legislation will succeed in attaining its goals.

First, the ministerial committee, at the request of deputy minister of religious services Eli Ben-Dahan, passed the bill on condition that it would receive the backing of Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau and Chief Sephardi Rabbi Yizhak Yosef. And this is far from certain.

More fundamentally, even if the bill is passed as is, it will not result in a significant increase in the number of converts to Judaism.

Already, rabbis - particularly of the religious Zionist variety - have gone to great lengths to make the conversion process as welcoming and streamlined as possible.

Unfortunately, and perhaps understandably, the vast majority of non-Jewish immigrants from the FSU show little interest in converting.



And though Stern and others claim to the contrary, immigrants’ lack of interest in conversion is not due primarily to a failure on the part of certain streams within Orthodoxy to make the conversion process as user-friendly as possible.

Back in the 1990s the Neeman Commission led to the creation of the Joint Institute for Jewish Studies, headed by Prof. Benjamin Ish-Shalom and the State Conversion Authority, which was headed by Rabbi Haim Druckman.

In 2002, the Nativ program was created to provide interested non-Jewish soldiers with Jewish education and preparation for conversion and special conversion courts were established within the IDF. And Stern, as head of the IDFs personnel division, was instrumental in supporting Nativ and the special conversion courts.

Yet, results have consistently been disappointing. Only around 2,000 non-Jewish immigrants a year have chosen to convert, both in the IDF and in the State Conversion Authority combined. If anything, the numbers have been falling in recent years.

The simple fact is that most non-Jewish immigrants see no reason to convert to Judaism. Coming from an agnostic background, these immigrants integrate very easily into secular Israeli society. They learn Hebrew, celebrate the Jewish holidays like their secular Israeli neighbors and serve in the army – that ultimate Israeli act of patriotism.

And when it comes time to marry, these non-Jewish immigrants and their Jewish Israeli spouses simply take a short trip to Cypress or some other destination abroad, to legalize their love.

Admittedly, the debate over conversions arouses strong emotions touching as it does on questions of identity – not just for individuals but on a national level. Israel defines itself as the homeland of the Jewish people. Maintaining a Jewish majority is central to ensuring Israel’s Jewishness.

But who precisely should be included in that “Jewish” majority is a matter of dispute.

Secular Zionism has tended to emphasize the national aspects of Jewish peoplehood while downplaying or relegating to the Orthodox establishment control over the religious aspects of Israeli identity. As a result, it makes little sense for the secular Jewish Israeli majority to expect non-Jewish immigrants to convert to Judaism – particularly an Orthodox version of Judaism no matter how welcoming and user-friendly – as a condition for being considered fully integrated into Israeli society.

While many, perhaps most, Jewish Israelis would probably feel more comfortable marrying another Jew, many, perhaps most, are also willing to marry a non-Jewish immigrant, or the descendant of one, who served in the IDF, speaks fluent Hebrew, is well-versed in Israeli culture and is in all ways – except by an irrelevant Halachic definition – like any other Israeli.

No amount of tinkering with the conversion process will change this simple fact.


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