Interview: 'We want you'

Cabinet secretary Yehezkel says PMO determined to make conversion for non-Jewish Russian-speakers easy.

conversion class 88 (photo credit: )
conversion class 88
(photo credit: )
From his powerful perch on the second floor of the Prime Minister's Office (PMO), cabinet secretary Ovad Yehezkel wants one clear message to go forth to the estimated 350,000 non-Jewish Russian-speaking immigrants living in Zion: "We want you as Jews." Not that they must be Jews to live here. On the contrary, Yehezkel makes clear that this large group - which immigrated under the Law of Return that grants citizenship to anyone with one Jewish grandparent - has all the right in the world to remain happy and content with full privileges and obligations in their newfound Israeli-ness. At the same time, he wants them to know that the country is opening its arms for them to become Jews. "I want all 350,000 to say to themselves, 'The state wants us to go through this process; the state is interested in my being a Jew; the state wants to make it easy for me; the state wants it to be done in a friendly manner,'" Yehezkel says in an interview he initiated to get this message across. "I am interested in creating a dynamic of change," he explains. "One thing that is clear is that for five years now we have not succeeded in converting, period. The number of converts each year is very small. There is a group of 350,000 people who need to be turned into Jews under Halacha." After years of committees and deliberations, in the beginning of 2004 the state Conversion Authority was established in the PMO to streamline the conversion process and make it more user-friendly. But after four years of operation, the number of conversions has remained static: at around 2,000 - less, it is estimated, than the annual birthrate of the 350,000 non-Jewish Russian immigrants in the country. Yehezkel says it is important for the state to make efforts to convert the members of this group, even though they can remain here as loyal citizens - paying taxes, receiving benefits and going into the army - regardless. But, he says, efforts should be made to convert them "because the state of Israel is the home of the Jewish people. They are coming here under the Law of Return, and they deserve... to be a full part of the Jewish people. We, because of bureaucratic problems, are preventing this from happening." There is another dimension, he adds: "In the struggle over this land, the addition of another 350,000 Jews is not something that should be taken lightly." While there is no connection between conversion and citizenship, Yehezkel says, "there is a connection between conversion and their Jewish identity with this country. As soon as their conversion is complete, and their children are Jewish, there is no doubt that this will significantly strengthen their ties to this country, to Judaism, and to tradition." Yehezkel's message comes just two weeks after the Jewish Agency, at its board of governors meeting, issued a call to the government to grant the revamped Conversion Authority greater independence from the PMO. "The agency has been trying for more than 10 years to change the conversion process in Israel, which is scandalous," explained Jewish Agency Chairman Ze'ev Bielski after that meeting. "The Jewish nation doesn't deserve a conversion process like this." Yehezkel says he, at Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's behest, is hell-bent on changing all that, and creating an efficient conversion process that will present a warm, happy, welcoming face to those who want to enter Judaism's gates: a keen, lean, blue-and- white conversion machine. He bristles, however, at the suggestion that what he is embarking on is an aggressive campaign to convert the Russian immigrants. "It's not a matter of being aggressive," Yehezkel says. "It is a process that will make the matter more friendly and positive. That is the direction." He says the goal is to create a situation in which non-Jews living here as citizens will say to themselves, "Maybe they really do want me; maybe something did change; maybe I am really important to them; maybe they want to make the process easier; maybe its worth it for me now to think about this." DESPITE THE number of non-Jews who immigrated from the former Soviet Union, the rabbinical courts dealing with conversion - both in the PMO and in the IDF - are not bursting with people clamoring to get in. That these are only converting an average of 2,000 a year is not because there are not enough courts, but rather because of a lack of applicants. The government added 22 rabbinical judges to the Conversion Authority last week, even though the existing judges are not overburdened. The lack of applicants, Yehezkel says, has to do with the way the whole process is perceived among the Russian-speaking community - negative, bureaucratic and unsympathetic. He says that part of the problem, up until now, has been that all the focus in the conversion process has been on developing the proper apparatus, which brought in its wake unending political and religious squabbles. The focus was on the mechanism, not the people. "I don't intend to coerce them to be Jews, but to offer them to be Jews," he says. "I think that one of the main problems is that the government over the years gave importance to the conversion issue, but did not know how to market it. Conversion today is a difficult process, and those who do it come up against many problems, and find something that is not friendly." Now, he says, he wants the focus to be outward, to broadcast a message to the immigrants that this is something positive. We want to market the process using 21st-century tools, with the message a simple one: "We need you, and are here to help you and make it easy." "One of the central things I hope to do now is improve the dialogue with this group," Yehezkel says. "There are thing in the process that are not friendly. We need to improve the system. We are interested in making the conversion process easier, so that entering into the Jewish people according to Halacha will be a positive experience for them, not something problematic because of the bureaucracy." But make no mistake about it, Yehezkel stresses, the process for those who do convert will be 100 percent halachic. Why? - he is asked. "Because Halacha is the mechanism that preserved the existence of this people for 3,000 years. That is a code that is impervious to every threat. The state has no intention of annulling that code. Its intention is to preserve it, develop and sanctify it. That needs to be clear. This state is the place where a Jew will become a Jew according to Halacha." HERE IS where Yehezkel will find himself on shaky ground with the rabbinical establishment, because he says that once the convert enters Judaism through halachic doors, what he does once inside the edifice is entirely his own business. Most halachic authorities, however, require that a convert, to convert, understand and accept the mitzvot. "The process of conversion is in accordance with the Halacha; the process is Orthodox," Yehezkel says. "As soon as you enter the world of Judaism, the decision regarding your personal lifestyle in this state is completely up to you. Nobody is going to force you once you finish the conversion process to live an Orthodox way of life. There is no directive like that. There is no intention to create Orthodox Jews. Rather there is an intention to produce Jews in accordance with Halacha." Yehezkel tiptoes through the minefield of whether Reform and Conservative conversions should be accepted here by saying that these are theoretical questions that - if focused upon - would detract the government from its main goal: getting as many of the immigrants interested in a conversion process as possible. "Israel converts according to Halacha; that is a fact," he says. "The government deals with the conversion process, it doesn't deal with the individual's choice after he becomes a Jew according to Halacha. That is a private matter. Everything else now will divert us to the theoretical track; so I suggest staying away from that. I recommend dealing with creating practicalities that will improve the results, and focus on that." Rather than being annoyed by the Diaspora's interest in the issue, Yehezkel is actually buoyed by it, saying this shows the Diaspora wants Israel to be an "efficient state, one that accepts fully those who come to it, which makes it easier for its citizens, which worries about preserving its Jewish identity." "I am flattered that the Jews there look at us and see how we are fulfilling the Zionist vision," he says. "We need to return to talk in those terms. A state without a vision does not know where it is going. A state without values is a state that doesn't know how to run itself. We need to speak without shame, and pride about these things. For many years we didn't develop visions, values, faith. We became too individualistic. The time has come to return to these concepts." Reminded there are many on both sides of the political spectrum who would argue that the country has lost its vision and no longer has shared values, Yehezkel says that he hears that criticism and "continues onward." The country's vision, he says, is made up of many different elements, but "the central vision of Israel is a land of the Jews, democratic. A state for all the Jews wherever they are; a state meant to turn the lives of its citizen into a life of security, of happiness, of possibilities, a celebration of life, based on Jewish values and Jewish tradition." As to the role of the Diaspora, Yehezkel says it is critical for Israel and that "we could not make it without them." Indeed, he says the Diaspora plays a key role in bringing Israel's message to the world, in impacting on political processes that influence the relations of various countries with Israel, in helping Israel's economic situation and dealing - as a result of support and assistance - with various domestic social issues. At the same time, he says, the question of the Diaspora's role is "too Israeli." Instead, he says, as Israel celebrates its 60th year, it's time to stop asking what the Diaspora can do for Israel, but what Israel can do for the Diaspora.