Existence of Jewish people ‘in doubt’ due to low conversion rate, report finds

More than 50% of former Soviet Union conversion candidates drop out, according to Israel Democracy Institute report.

THE JERUSALEM conversion office of the Chief Rabbinate (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
THE JERUSALEM conversion office of the Chief Rabbinate
Over half of the conversion candidates from the former Soviet Union drop out before finishing the process, according to a report on the efficacy of the state conversion system.
The report, which the Israel Democracy Institute released Monday, illustrates what the authors have described as a “depressing” picture of conversion policy over the last two decades.
According to research by the IDI’s Dr. Netanel Fisher, some 80,000 people have converted to Judaism through the state conversion system since it was established in 1995. Of those, some 45,000 converts were from the Ethiopian sector – specifically the Falash Mura, who were required to undergo conversion upon entering Israel.
One of the particularly contentious conversion issues in the country relates to non-Jewish Israelis from the former Soviet Union, who number about 330,000 today.
Approximately 24,000 converts through the state system were from the FSU immigrant community – just 7 percent of the non-Jewish immigrants from that region.
Since 2000, that sector has had an average conversion rate of 1,800 people a year.
However, the IDI’s research also showed that the number of non-Jewish FSU immigrants embarking on the state conversion process was higher than the number of those successfully converting.
While those 24,000 completed the process, another 25,000 were accepted into and started the conversion course but eventually left.
Fisher attributed this high dropout rate to a lack of institutional support for conversion candidates throughout the process, along with various financial costs and logistical details such as long traveling distances to conversion classes for some candidates.
Some of the leading figures in the mainstream national-religious community seek to increase the conversion rates among non-Jewish FSU immigrants to prevent future interfaith marriages between them (or their children) and Jewish Israelis. To achieve that goal, these leaders have proposed liberalizing and decentralizing the state conversion system, within an Orthodox framework.
At the same time, more hardline national- religious leaders, along with the haredi rabbinic leadership, strongly oppose such measures. The haredi political parties have insisted, as part of their conditions for entering the coalition, that a recent measure the last Knesset approved to decentralize the conversion courts be repealed.
While about 25% of FSU immigrants express interest in converting, only 7% actually do so. According to Fisher, these statistics demonstrate the possibility of greatly increasing the number of those converting.
“Advancing the conversion of immigrants from the former Soviet Union has failed so far, because the national effort and the public discourse has focused on the politicization of the issue, while the path to success is really from the bottom upward,” he said. “That means... harnessing civil society into supporting converts, encouraging educational bodies to help open conversion classes, recruiting [conversion] candidates and elevating the issue on the list of priorities of communal leaders, who are not doing enough to change the situation.”
His findings indicated that although the national-religious sector views the issue as urgent, only 50 percent of that community is in favor of adopting a lenient approach within Jewish law toward converts from the former Soviet Union.
At the same time, he found, the vast majority of secular Israelis see the issue as important, want their children to find a Jewish partner, and support a lenient path to conversion for such people.
Fisher’s research also showed, however, that intermarriage between Jews and non-Jewish FSU immigrants currently accounts for 7%-8% of Israeli marriages every year. He said that the “guarantee of continued demographic existence of the Jewish people” could be in doubt if this trend is not addressed.
“The challenge of conversion in Israel is a challenge of historic proportions, and the way forward [entails] a variety of difficulties,” said Fisher. “The combination of a vision that can be implemented, appropriate leadership, allocation of resources, and recruiting civil society to the process could bring about a change that would guarantee the cohesion of Jewish society in Israel and the continued existence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.”