A friend recently sent me a YouTube clip of actor Michael Douglas, son of Kirk Douglas, making his acceptance speech on receiving the 2015 Genesis Award here in Israel.
This prize is given in recognition of excellence in the recipient’s profession, and also to acknowledge them as “one who inspires others through their engagement and dedication to the Jewish community and/or for the State of Israel.”
It was a moving experience to listen to Michael Douglas, the son of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, and himself married to a non-Jewish woman, remind us that today the overall intermarriage rate in the United States is 58 percent – a number that rises to 71% in the non-Orthodox community.
In his opening sentence, he spoke of his personal sense of being a proud Jew even though he is not recognized as a Jew according to Halacha. He was, he said, his father’s son – a father who rejoiced in his bar mitzva at the age of 83. However, it was not only his father who had inspired his Jewish awakening, he said; it had also come from his son, whose close friends were Jewish and who one day came to his father and said, “I want a bar mitzva.”
Douglas reminded his audience of Abraham and Sarah, whose tent had four flaps that were always open – not only to see the outside world, but, more importantly, to be welcoming to all, especially the stranger.
As I watched this clear plea for us as Jews to be more open and welcoming to those who might want to join us but too often are subjected to rejection, I thought of what is happening right now in Israel. For while the concept of intermarriage is seen primarily as a problem of the Diaspora, it is a problem here, too, where there are some 350,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not considered halachically Jewish.
In recent weeks, there has been hope on the horizon as a group of senior religious Zionist rabbis have come together to establish a network of courts to convert primarily immigrants from the FSU – with an emphasis on the conversion of minors, since they are the future. The aim is to deal with some 100,000 youngsters.
This system will be an alternative to the Chief Rabbinate’s conversion department, which the current government has once again given sole jurisdiction.
The government decided in July to cancel the conversion reform law that the previous government had adopted just eight months earlier – a law that enabled municipal rabbis to carry out the conversion process (in addition to the Chief Rabbinate).
What is painfully clear is that we remain hostages to an electoral system that results in the formation of a coalition government whose components change from one election to the next, depriving us – the citizens – of any sense of continuity.
It is refreshing to witness a group of religious Zionist rabbis, headed by Rabbi Nahum Rabinowitz and including such eminent individuals as Efrat Chief Rabbi Shlomo Riskin and Tzohar rabbinical association chairman Rabbi David Stav, establishing a private, independent religious court to convert both adults and minors. For the thousands whose legal status in Israel is questionable because it has hitherto been virtually impossible for them to convert under the Chief Rabbinate’s regulations, there is an alternative available. These new courts will encourage rather than discourage conversion – which, it appears, has been the raison d’être of the Chief Rabbinate up until today.
A frightening statistic is that some 4,500 children are born each year to Israeli families whose Jewishness is not recognized. The large number of former Soviet citizens who have not converted and whose children and grandchildren will not be recognized as Jews will inevitably see Israelis facing the same challenges as their Diaspora Jewish counterparts – namely an increase in intermarriage.
It is interesting to note how Efraim Halevy, a former head of the Mossad, views the conversion crisis. He sees it as a security threat to Israel, because it threatens the Jewish majority in the one Jewish state, and he fears the ultimate result will be that the country’s Jewish character will change to the point that halachic Jews will be the minority.
The Jewish Agency, headed by ex-refusenik Natan Sharansky, fully supports the concept of the new conversion court. Sharansky stated recently that “we all wish to continue the process of ingathering the exiles from throughout the world in an era of lost identities and growing assimilation.” There are those who have come here, served in the army and had children who have served in the army, and yet they have not been recognized as Jews – perhaps because it was their father rather than their mother who was Jewish. Surely the time has come for us to find a way to encourage them to convert.
An additional deterrent for would-be converts is that some have been subjected to an examination of their mitzva adherence long after their conversion, and those found to have strayed could have their conversions rescinded.
How has world Jewry responded to this initiative by the Rabinowitz-led group of rabbis? Let us take a look at the reaction from the United States, where the majority of Jews belong to the Conservative and Reform movement.
The US Jewish leadership remains concerned about the non-recognition of Reform and Conservative conversions in Israel – an ambiguous situation to begin with, because while Reform and Conservative conversions abroad are recognized by the Interior Ministry for aliya purposes, these individuals are not recognized as Jews when they wish to marry in Israel. As a result, many are left with little choice but to travel to Cyprus for a civil marriage, an option that is unavailable here.
Another disturbing situation is that there are Orthodox conversions that take place in the United States that the Chief Rabbinate does not recognize. It was distressing to read in The Jerusalem Post just a couple of weeks ago that the Chief Rabbinate department dealing with recognition of Orthodox conversions abroad took over a year and a half in one case to acknowledge a request, and then refused to recognize the US conversion even with the written support of the Orthodox rabbi who performed it. This rabbi was not even given the courtesy of a response to his letter of validation.
It is stories like this one that beg the question of what is going on in the Chief Rabbinate’s office.
Today we are witnessing an unprecedented erosion of Jewish identity worldwide, culminating in an increase in marrying out. This is precisely the fear that has driven Rabinowitz’s group of rabbis to try and prevent a similar occurrence here in Israel, the one and only Jewish state. These rabbis are to be congratulated on their dynamic initiative. They recognize the importance of being inclusive rather than exclusive – the relevance of emulating Abraham’s and Sarah’s open tent, ready to welcome those who wish to join us. We can but hope that they will receive the support they deserve. Time is of the essence; it is today that will inevitably create our tomorrow. ■ The writer is co-chairperson of ESRA, and has been active in public affairs and status of women issues.