Comment: The Israel-Diaspora split

Israel's refusal to recognize non-Orthodox conversions is a hard sell abroad.

rabbi amar 298.88 AJ (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
rabbi amar 298.88 AJ
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Israel's refusal to recognize Reform and Conservative conversions performed here for the purpose of granting citizenship under the Law of Return is a hard-sell abroad. As the UJC's General Assembly gets under way in Los Angeles, the Jewish state's leaders are reminded once again that the vast majority of Diaspora Jews are not Orthodox.
  • Government wants more time on Reform conversion issue According to the 2002 National Jewish Population Survey, only 10 percent of Americans who call themselves Jews identify as Orthodox. Even if we accept Samuel Heilman's estimate in his book, Sliding to the Right: The Contest for the Future of American Jewish Orthodoxy, that the real figure is closer to 12%, as many American haredim do not respond to surveys and the Orthodox are over-represented in senior citizen facilities - another group that under-responds to surveys - Orthodoxy is a distinct minority among American Jews. About a third of US Jews define themselves as Reform and a quarter as Conservative. Deference to Diaspora Jewry has prevented passage of legislation that would anchor in law Orthodoxy's monopoly over conversions performed in Israel. The one attempt to do so in 1997, under Binyamin Netanyahu's government, was torpedoed by the aggressive lobbying of the Jewish Agency and other organizations with strong ties to the Diaspora. In 1989, the Supreme Court compelled the state to recognize Reform and Conservative conversions performed abroad, and to offer them citizenship under the Law of Return. In March 2005, the court ruled that Reform and Conservative converts who had studied in Israel and then undergone conversion ceremonies in the Diaspora (giyur kfitza, or "stopover" conversions) must also be included under the Law of Return. The last battle that remains is over Reform and Conservative conversions performed in Israel. The state's position rejecting these is well-nigh untenable in light of the precedents recognizing Reform and Conservative conversions performed abroad. How can conversion be geographically dependent? This dissonance is reminiscent of conversions purportedly performed by then-chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Shlomo Goren in the 1970s that were valid only as long as the convert remained in Israel. Inevitably, the state will be forced to recognize these overseas conversions. Of course, these converts will not be considered Jews for the purpose of marriage. But they will be given the same civil rights of any other Israeli, including the right to vote. Orthodox leaders are warning that as soon as Reform and Conservative conversions are recognized, thousands of foreign workers will be banging down the door to acquire Israeli citizenship via easy conversions. Reform and Conservative leaders say they are willing to accept state supervision to make sure all their converts are sincere. Just how this sincerity will be determined is unclear. Orthodox rabbinic courts do it by checking the prospective convert's practices. Does he keep kosher? Does he pray three times a day? Does she dress modestly? Does she know the laws of Shabbat? Obviously, prospective Orthodox converts can fake it, too. But it is probably more difficult than for Reform and Conservative converts. What has motivated the Conservative and Reform movements to battle so long and hard for the right to convert? The vast majority of potential converts living in Israel are full-fledged citizens, immigrants from the former Soviet Union who came under the Law of Return and, therefore, do not need to convert to become citizens. Converting to Reform or Conservative Judaism would not permit them to marry a Jew here, as the law gives Orthodoxy a monopoly over Jewish marriage. And it is doubtful the Reform and Conservative movements will be converting many foreign workers or tourists, for fear of a backlash from the Orthodox religious establishment. Israeli residents would be the primary group affected if non-Orthodox conversions performed here are recognized. For instance, non-Jews who married Israeli Jews have residency status, which means they can stay in the country as long as they stay married. But they cannot vote. Other potential non-Orthodox converts are people in Israel under "foreign expert" status. With no legislation governing conversions in Israel, the clash between Orthodox and non-Orthodox streams of Judaism was inevitable. The Neeman Committee, created in 1997 and headed by Orthodox former justice minister Yaakov Neeman, was the last attempt to reach an agreement between the sides. The result was the Joint Institute for the Study of Judaism, which employs educators from all three principal streams of Judaism. But the Chief Rabbinate never formally recognized the Neeman Committee or its recommendations because Orthodoxy can never recognize a gentile who embraces Reform or Conservative Judaism as a full-fledged Jew. The Rabbinate rejected the recommendations even though the committee offered the Rabbinate jurisdiction over the actual conversions - an interview with an Orthodox rabbinic court, immersion in a mikve (ritual bath) and circumcision for men. Nevertheless, the Joint Institute was established with help from the Jewish Agency. It employs some 150 teachers, including educators from the Conservative and Reform movements. Prospective converts trained at the institute are accepted by the State Conversion Authority, which is headed by Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, as potential converts. But all candidates must convince the Orthodox rabbinic courts that they intend to embrace Orthodoxy.